City Paper is not for tourists
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a rewarding experience to sit between the speakers and listen to this album,” Electric Company maestro Brad Laner says of his A Pert Cyclic Omen in this month’s Guitar Player magazine. “I always enjoy it more when I’m doing something else, which is not usually how I feel about music.” If detractors of ambient need any more ammunition for their criticisms, there it is—one of its own performers admitting that his work is little more than mood music. Generally, rock ‘n’ roll is something to be concentrated upon: There are personalities and hooks and egos to hold one’s attention. Innumerable album sleeves instruct listeners to play the tunes “LOUD,” while the liner notes to Kyuss’ outstanding Sky Valley go even further, commanding fans to “Listen without distraction.”
Ambient’s different. It has its roots in the ethereal puffery of Tangerine Dream and has been visited by danciness (Moby) and new age spaciness (The Future Sound of London), but as a rule it’s not exactly gripping. However, a sinister new strain of ambient has recently emerged: Dubbed “isolationism” by one of its progenitors (Kevin Martin of Ice and Techno Animal), this subgenre frequently employs more drums, guitars, and angst than typical ambient work. Still, the stuff is hardly as aggressive as, say, the Sex Pistols. So, presented with two (arguably) representative isolationist discs to review, I take Laner at his word and listen to Omen as well as British duo Scorn’s Ellipsis while attending to two long overdue tasks: cleaning my bedroom and washing my truck.
The bedroom is quite a mess. Fortunately, the Scorn CD is a both a walloping 79 minutes long (I’ll need the time) and rather motivational (I’ll need that as well). Loaded with groovy hiphop rhythms tempered by mournful keyboards, penetrating bass, and various industrial clanks, Ellipsis would be danceable were it not for its sullen atmosphere. Nevertheless, it’s assuredly more structured than routine ambient arrangements, no doubt because drummer M.J. Harris and bassist Nicholas James Bullen are both veterans of the very un-ambient grindcore outfit Napalm Death. But while the duo’s metalhead background gives Ellipsis its engaging framework, much of the disc’s flavor is provided by Scorn’s pals in the isolationism movement.
That’s because Ellipsis, as the name indicates, isn’t quite a proper album. Instead, it consists of celebrity remixes of older Scorn songs—most drawn from Scorn’s previous CD Evanescence. While collaboration between ambient musicians is commonplace, the remixing and re-releasing of an entire album does seem a bit much. However, it works just fine: Evanescence was a worthy effort, but the sprawling, tidal strains of Ellipsis are even better, if only because the breadth of contributors increases the disc’s appeal.
Despite the variety of personalities on Ellipsis, the disc is at its best when Harris and Bullen’s free-flowing rhythms are left intact: Meat Beat Manifesto’s remix of “Silver Rain Fell” retains the original’s hiphop drumming andpunchy bass, but increases the tune’s depth with over-amped buzzing and grim, discordant chimes, while Coil’s take on “Dreamspace” churns more quietly, and more disturbingly, than the original. Predictably, ambient guru Bill Laswell’s overlong, overquiet version of “Night Ash Black” falls a bit flat, but by and large the guest artists improve noticeably on Scorn’s material. And lest Scorn itself be marginalized, Harris and Bullen handle two of the remixes themselves, greatly improving on the lounge-act creepiness of “Exodus,” while imposing a more sleepy eccentricity on “Light Trap.”
Because so much of Ellipsis claims a likable pulsing groove, it does indeed perform well as white noise for any given onerous task. I remove piles of trash and fold nearly four weeks of laundry effortlessly amid Scorn’s brooding presence, and my abode is spotless by the time the disc winds down. But Ellipsis is not exactly bracing accompaniment for, say, biking, or driving, or even listening. Scorn produces background music, a dark-mirror reflection of Muzak, ideally crafted for society’s angst- ridden worker drones.
At least Scorn’s ambient ventures are effective, whereas the monotonous tones of Laner’s Electric Company barely got me through washing my Bronco II.
A Pert Cyclic Omen is a good deal more traditionally ambient than Ellipsis, and thus intrinsically less distinctive. Strangely, Laner shies away from the “ambient” label, only grudgingly acquiescing to “ambient punk” in the Guitar Player interview. But if Laner’s guitar-based structures are dirtier than most ambient music, the random-noise aesthetic is still there: Many tracks float about directionlessly, as do “P.A. Intercom Cycle” and “Elm Crypt Ocean,” in which Laner cycles loops of sampled guitar through atmospheres of buzzing feedback. Occasionally, Omen does offer a more isolationist sense of rhythm—bouncy snares trill under the humming “Polymeric Accent,” while celestial beats careen from speaker to speaker on “Come Circa Plenty.” Nonetheless, Laner’s doubtlessly painstaking studio work on Omen still resembles random noise. On the plus side, though, the aimless tones nicely complement both my sloshing wash water and a neighbor’s heaving WeedWacker.
Admittedly, for genres as commercially doomed as ambient and isolationism, critical acceptance is hardly the point. The creation of ambient, more so than most music, is a vehicle for the musician’s gratification, and enthusiasts picked up along the way are incidental. So if such musicians, unconcerned with monetary success, find a niche for their work as background music, they can hardly gripe. And hey, I’ve got an immaculate room and a sparkling truck, so who’s complaining?