Stylus OCTOBER 1, 2004 - by Matthew Weiner


Part 5: An Ending: Ambient, Pop And Eno After The Ambient Series

"I like having ideas but I'm not particularly keen on flogging them to death."

With On Land quickly (and somewhat obviously) regarded as the highlight of the Ambient Series, Eno saw little reason to continue it as such. In the years immediately following, though, he would release a steady stream of Ambient records before dipping his toe delicately back into pop with 1990's Wrong Way Up. In that time he would release: 1983's Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks and Music For Films, Vol. 2 (released as part of the Working Backwards 1983-1973 box), 1984's The Pearl, 1985's Thursday Afternoon, and Music For Films, Vol.3.

It was easy to see why Eno had called the series to an end. Where each series record proper had staked out utterly new ground musically, compositionally and stylistically, much of his subsequent output was less concerned with innovation than it was refinement. The Pearl, in particular, proved a significant improvement over his previous collaboration with Harold Budd, Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror. Apollo conjured the appropriate level of drift in Ambient, though it was perhaps a touch too melodic in the wake of the hyper-alien worlds of On Land. And the two Music For Films records were, like the first volume, Ambient-ish, if perhaps a touch too teleological (and again, melodic) to be considered the real McCoy. In any event, there's a sense with Eno that film music doesn't quite qualify as Ambient per se, dependent as it is on its sister medium to grasp fully.

In many respects, the sixty-one minute Thursday Afternoon rolled the entire Ambient Series into one. As Mark Richardson pointed out, he returned (and not for the last time) to the tape-loop process music that spawned Discreet Music and Music For Airports. The soundworlds of Plateaux and Radiance are conjured with the track's aimless piano chords, synth pads, organ swells, and relentlessly pleasant G-major pedal. Yet with bits of white noise weaving in and out of the mix and Eno's constant manipulation of the piano in the stereo soundfield, there is little doubt that he could have made Thursday Afternoon prior to On Land.

Eno had said everything about his musical heritage on Music For Airports and his personal heritage with On Land, with the intervening records providing something of a gateway between the two. With the series, he created a template for others - what Paul Morley called a platform upon which fantastic lies can grow. For the time being, however, such lies would be of the white variety - that is to say, pleasant but not all that extraordinary.

Dance, Drugs and the 'Godfather' of Ambient

Leave it to the club-goers to bring a good idea to the masses. In the late 1980's, Paul Oakenfold recruited former Killing Joke roadie Alex Patterson to DJ at his London club, Heaven. There, the one-time A&R man for Eno's EG label quickly made his reputation in the club's chill-out room, layering the likes of Eno and early Tangerine Dream records with samples of other songs and NASA recordings - all underpinned by thick and soft beats. It was a mind-numbingly simple formula, but for Dr. Alex Patterson, as he came to call himself, it was all about providing a soothing agent to ravers slowly coming down off their ecstasy-induced highs. Spawning a partnership with KLF/Justified Ancients of MuMu star, Jimy Cauty as The Orb, Patterson would fashion what the press release for their debut billed as ambient house for the E Generation.

And like that, the ultra-modern genre was off and running - for about five years. Bringing along prog rock refuge, Steve Hillage, and the dub-wise Jah Wobble, The Orb's Blue Room represented the apex of ambient house in 1992. And for all its musical and aesthetic crudeness, Eno himself must have approved: at forty minutes, the song was the longest track in British chart history to enter the Top Ten. Further, it spawned a legendary avant-garde Top of the Pops performance where Patterson and Hillage played 3D chess while video footage of dolphins and an edit of the track was projected in the background. Alas, two years and umpteen The Orb collaborators later, Patterson's innovations had run their course, ending in a haze of marijuana smoke and discarded instructional records. But they had certainly made a mark.

One person who was keeping an eye on Patterson was former Eno collaborator and super-producer, Bill Laswell. Like Eno, he had started his own label in the 80's, Celluloid, on which he recorded Fourth World-inspired super-jams that fused everything from early hip hop, electro and world music to jazz, funk and spoken word. An attractive idea on paper, the reality was that most of Laswell's experiments were disastrous exercises in bad taste. To make matters worse, Celluloid lay in ashes.

Not that Laswell cared. With a Rolodex that read like a who's who of critical favorites - P-Funk alumnus, Middle Eastern violinists, reggae rhythmitists, classic rock heroes, and heavy metal showstoppers - the producer Simon Reynolds would later call leftfield music's most assiduous networker had a new idea in mind. Forming the newly- (and pointedly-) christened Axiom Records in 1990, he seized on the recent innovations of ambient house, believing it the ideal broth into which he could stir his fusion experiments.

In truth, Axiom was every bit the train wreck his already-dated Celluloid work had been. The compilation Axiom Ambient (1994) showed in the starkest of terms the fallacy of Laswell's conception, its liner notes an almost laughable excursion into new age exotic fetishism. Eno had understood that one of the keys to making Ambient as interesting as it was ignorable was maintaining a sense of unresolved tension - be it in the harmony (Discreet Music, Thursday Afternoon), the arrangement (On Land's virtual environments, the subtle instrumental touches on Plateaux), or sometimes even the melody (Apollo's quivering and brilliant exercise in varispeed, Stars). For Laswell, Ambient was no more complicated than in smothering utterly disparate musics in reverbs and dropping a beat and a bassline under it.

Laswell wasn't the only one taken in by ambient house's promise of tearing down decades-old stylistic and cultural boundaries. Legions of ambient house acts burst onto the scene in the early '90s: Ultramarine, The Future Sound Of London, System 7 - even Paul McCartney got into the act with his collaboration with The Orb-sideman Youth on his Fireman project. Slowly the genre began to mutate into a sort of armchair techno produced by the likes of Aphex Twin, Seefeel and Boards of Canada, where the music itself was that much more sophisticated - its rhythms programmed and textures more detailed and refined.

And electronica exploded. Germany's Oval churned out records that consisted of samples made from skipping CD's. Artists such as Christian Fennesz created dense tapestries of electronic texture that could go on infinitely. The German Kompakt and French Perlon labels released record after record of the newly-minted microhouse genre, where variation is created in the subtle sonic mutation of oft-repeated samples. The former even had a so-called Pop Ambient series. Based appropriately in Cologne, the label featured artists like Olaf Dettinger and Ulf Lohmann creating prickly and uncomfortable ambient pieces that evoke not uplifting themes and solace, but dread.

Electronica artists were exploring the most intricate components of sound itself - and influencing others higher up in the pop food chain - David Sylvian, Björk and countless others. By crossing over into the college market, electronica firmly established what Ambient had posited two decades earlier - that music didn't need to develop along traditional lines to be engaging. The idea was out at last, the theory proven.

Ironic then, that the man who started it all - possibly the ultimate painter in sound - has displayed an almost comical aversion to texture in his own music in recent years. Perhaps not coincidentally, Eno has fostered a rekindled interest in the compositional process. On records such as 1997's seemingly listless The Drop, he returns to the irregular looping system that produced Music For Airports, but this time looping not the melody but the rhythms. The result was what Ian MacDonald deemed thunderingly boring, virtually devoid of harmonic life and, perhaps more importantly, missing his water-colourist sensitivity to atmosphere, landscape and mood. But perhaps it was merely his way of responding to those who had found his earlier music so texturally fascinating while ignoring the other lessons of Ambient entirely.

But one supposes that Eno would have it no other way. Far from being protective of the genre that he single-handedly created with the Ambient series, Eno always knew and was excited about the possibilities that existed for future investigation: I was always very confident this is one of the ways music would go, said Eno in 1995. Of course, he was right. We're just busy catching up.