Return to the chill-out room: when did ambient music last have it so good?

Vladislav Delay, Kyle Bobby Dunn, Bing & Ruth and timely reissues from the likes of Brian Eno and other early pioneers – ambient music hasn’t felt this in vogue for years. Joe Muggs examines the trend and rounds up some of 2014’s crucial ambient records, asking the big question: is it time for the return of the chill-out room? 


Ambient music dissolves so much. Obviously if you do enough drugs, it can dissolve absolutely everything, including space and time – hence the total amazingness of those few true chill-out rooms of the 1990s, which managed to turn pits of grubby depravity into intergalactic portals where one could, if one wanted, drift on hyperspatial currents of sound for sweet eternities. But even outside that hallowed context, at its best it still has powerful solvent properties. It dissolves your learned listening habits, the impatience and sense of needy anticipation that comes with quick-skip “click culture”, even your normal physical and emotional response to the music. It dissolves the relationship between past and present, between rhythm and melody, between tension and relaxation, between musical right and wrong.

Obviously it’s hard to find a context more suited for listening to textural music of vast duration than the prone and, um, well-primed aspect of ’90s wreck-heads. Which meant that as the rave dream dissipated, so did the opportunities to play and get completely immersed in electronic and experimental music that wasn’t tied to the benevolent tyranny of the beat. They were there, but they became a bit more specialist: post-rock, folktronica, post-classical, neo-Balearica, the noise scene, distant corners of trance and industrial, gallery installations and hippie cafes at festivals each had their own versions of abstracted space music.

Even the “eyes down”, “meditate on the bass weight” ethos of early DMZ-era dubstep was touching on a similar urge for deep immersion in sound that comes in undulating washes, albeit tied to a more standard DJ/beats framework. There were plenty of space-out moments in techno and minimal too, most notably with Villalobos – it’s no coincidence that he and Max Loderbauer sought out the catalogue of distinctly ambient new age/jazz label ECM to remix. Meanwhile great ambient music as such was still being made going into the 2000s – seek out the transdimensional ludicrousness of Italian alpha-hippies Tau Ceti and the late Oöphoi, for example – but it definitely felt marginalised and atomised, with “chill-out” becoming a dirty word suited only to compilations of Moby and Groove Armada offcuts to be impulse-bought by stressed shoppers at the supermarket checkout.

It does seem, though, just maybe, that the meandering currents of culture have converged back towards appreciation of generalised sedentary psychedelic music, with or without the crates of class As that went with it in the rave days. Partly it’s to do with cycles: the ’90s revivalism that has people digging for old house, techno and jungle has created a context where the excesses of the chill-out room no longer seem that silly. The fact that both noise scene musicians and crate digger culture have increasingly alighted on new age music over the past few years has helped. Plenty of the Tumblr-wave nano-genres bringing together bedroom musicians internationally have been little more than a succession of silly names for trippy chill-out music. And the ’90s stuff itself has had plenty of attention: witness the humungous 8CD box set put together to commemorate the life of the late Pete Namlook last year.

Certainly my personal experience has been that I can get bookings to play beatless sets more and more easily (*SPAM*: Londoners, come and see me at the Ace Hotel Shoreditch on Tuesday, October 21). There are more festivals like Unsound and the LCMF which blur the boundaries between avant-garde, academic worlds and more pleasure-centred scenes; at Sónar you can witness things like a large auditorium full of people lying flat on the floor to appreciate the sound of Bee Mask; and something is in the air regarding increased interest in ultra-detailed, ultra-immersive soundsystems: see Despacio, the Bowers & Wilkins dome, the Sonos Studio, Spiritland, and above all the mind-frying 4D Sound system.

On top of that, a lot of people are making great new ambient music. FACT-friendly people, too. Take Function & Vatican Shadow: with their deep Downwards and Blackest Ever Black connections, you’d expect their team-up to be laden with ragged distortion and over-amped tape hiss of some sort, surely? But no, Games Have Rules is the full 360° brain-movie ambient shebang. It’s dark, definitely, but it’s luxury darkness, it’s decadent hallucinogens in a penthouse flat in William Gibson’s Sprawl darkness. It’s beautiful like guns or sharks can be: sleek and precision engineered, cool like the grave, not arty or hippie, but still despite it all aiming for the pleasure centres. It’s a really good album.

Or there’s Sasu Ripatti – Vladislav Delay – with his best album in god knows how long. Apparently Visa was made in a brief fit of annoyed creativity after failing to get the titular certification for a US trip, and it certainly sounds like it was made quickly, in glorious contrast to a lot of Ripatti’s often over-polished stuff. Kicking off boldly with a 22-minute-track (none more ambient!), it’s very much in the turn-of-the-millennium Clicks & Cuts style of whirrs and glitches (in particular it sounds like the sorely under-rated Electric Birds), humming and thrumming like a part-formed artificial intelligence trying to work out whether it exists and if so why. It’s full of very musical phrases eroded and randomised, and can get kind of sublime in its elision of chaos and control at points. He should get annoyed more often.

Neel – best known so far as half of Voices From The Lake with Donato Dozzy – goes for an altogether more thoroughly psychedelic approach on Phobos. I mean, FFS, it’s named after a moon of Mars and the tracks are called things like ‘Crater Chain Observations’, ‘The Gravity of Limtoc’ and ‘The Secret Revealed’: you know this one is going to be worth a headphone voyage, right? God knows there must be some serious LSD manufacturers in Italy, because this is in the same properly space-voyaging tradition as Oöphoi and Tau Ceti: radiophonic zaps and swoops and humming atmospheres stretched out and blown up so it feels like you’re floating through the middle of the synaptic corridors of organic entities a thousand miles long that hang in the darkest interstellar spaces, while hyper-dimensional entities probe you with their fractal tendrils.

Voyaging that far out can get a little bit chilly and vertiginous, though – but you can always rely on Tokyo label Mule Musiq to warm you up and give you something on a bit more of a human scale, and they’ve got two dreamy ambient excursions coming in rapid succession. Sebastian Mullaert & Eitan Reiter’s Reflections of Nothingness is the only album in this round-up with any significant beats, being shot through with veins of slowed-down acid house and kosmische arpeggiator and primitive drum machine action. It’s well worth the full immersion experience for the second half, which gradually deconstructs the acid gloop of ‘Ash Layla’ in stages, getting lighter and spacier, track by track, until you’re floating among cirrus clouds feeling well spiritual come the closer ‘Faith’.

Even more spiritual still is Lawrence’s A Day in the Life, also on Mule Musiq. It loses chill-out room points by having very short songs, but actually these are beautiful, perfectly-constructed miniatures. Tell you what, to be patronisingly orientalist, as they’re on a Japanese label, I’ll call them audio haiku. But they really are very, very lovely, the little twinkles and sparkles, wafts of breathy synth, runs of bass and chirrups of pure tone reminiscent of prime time Susumu Yokota in their ability to be clean and pretty without ever seeming facile: they’re unerringly able to conjure simple pleasures like clean sheets, the smell of cut grass, soft breezes and hilltops, but not in a shampoo advert way, more like a sublime visions way. It’s nice, but not in the pejorative sense that “nice” is so often used; it’s PROFOUNDLY nice.

Someone who has no truck with transcendental niceness is Kyle Bobby Dunn. The Québécois composer’s orchestral drones are actually pretty pleasant listening on the surface, but as the title of And The Infinite Sadness of Kyle Bobby Dunn suggests, there’s a tang to them, a bitter humour and self-absorbed depth that gives them a different sort of intensity. Montreal clearly breeds this sort of thing, as we’re definitely into the kind of spaces that Godspeed You! Black Emperor got into at their most strung-out. His sleevenotes make reference to foot fetishism, ripe cheese and heavy drinking of dark beer, and certainly there’s a hint here of the dark ecstasies of getting drunk to the point of total dissociation from one’s problems – and indeed reality – in the endless currents of never-quite-resolving chords. It is a woozy and gloriously depressive zone, a zone, as one track title puts it, ‘Where Circles Never Become Circles’. It pretty much all sounds the same, but that’s completely fine: once you’re in the zone you’re in it, and it’s fun to wallow in.

There’s more orchestral droning in Bing & Ruth’s Tomorrow was the Golden Age. The Brooklyn collective around composer David Moore fits more or less dead in-between Dunn and Lawrence, being much more elaborate and prettified than Dunn’s monomaniacal tones, much more hinting towards life as being full of beauty rather than something to be endured. There’s a lot of Charlemagne Palestine-style eternally-rippling piano, a lot of breathy clarinet, a lot of gently churning rivers of bowed bass running underneath things, and a lot of games with tape hiss and crackle to add to the textures. It’s very varied throughout the nine tracks, but basically really very gorgeous indeed. One to stick on after a really, really good night and have flying dreams to.

RVNG Intl. have also delivered a nice one-two. As well as the Bing & Ruth, they’ve dug up something very interesting for their Archival Series. An Evolutionary Music (Original Recordings 1972-1979) by Ariel Kalma (who they describe as a “multiversal artist”) is, frankly, a revelation. Given references to ‘Ecstasy Musical Mind Yoga’, ‘Sunset Inside’, ‘Yogini Breath’ and so forth, you might think that this is just another blissed-out new age kook. And there is plenty of that in here: the 20 minutes of ‘Yogini Breath’ will give you all the zero gravity sinewave glissandi and overtone-singing angelic voices welcoming you through the gates of enlightenment you could ever wish for. But Parisian-born Kalma is a very hardcore musician, having studied with the electro-acoustic gods of the Group de Recherches Musicales, jammed with Don Cherry and Richard Pinhas and hung with the Arica collective, whose creative philosophies directly inspired Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. So yeah: not just some vapidly-beaming hippy, and his music has a lot more to offer than an aural Radox bath. This stuff really is magic, and the collection manages to float alongside the very best of Terry Riley, Cluster, White Noise and a whole lot more, as well as coming uncannily close to the unique world of Arthur Russell in the utterly delightful ‘Sister Echo’.

Two more trips back to the roots of ambient round things off. First, John Hassell and Brian Eno’s 1980 album Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics is being reissued, and as they say, if you don’t know, get to know. This stuff is, to my ears at least, significantly more interesting than Eno’s solo ambient excursions, which are all very well if you like things suited to tasteful minimalist living, but don’t teem with life and interest and weirdness like Hassell’s compositions do. Equip yourself with this, the Ariel Kalma and Lawrence albums and a bag of good weed, and you’ll certainly (well, maybe) transform your life into a groovy, spiritually nourishing boho adventure overnight.

But for the moments when you do want things a bit more tasteful and austere, you could do a lot worse than draw for pianist Philip Corner playing Satie Slowly, which does very much what it says on the tin. Even if you have never heard of Erik Satie you’ll know the first of his ‘Trois Gymnopédies’, which appears on countless adverts, cheapo chill-out CDs and as generally ubiquitous muzak, and it’s kind of appropriate as Satie was a brilliantly subversive joker and occultist, smuggling deep weirdness into culture under the guise of the purely decorative. Corner brings out all the weirdness by, yes, playing Satie’s pieces very slowly indeed. Sometimes they feel like chords just hanging in the air, with little to no logic connecting one to the next, but like the best ambient music, the magic is cumulative, and after a few minutes of this your mind starts to wander into some odd places. No, it’s not all fractals and hyper-dimensional space travel, but that’s the wonder of music when standard structures are dissolved: it can pretty much be anything you want.


Listening list:

– Function & Vatican Shadow – Games Have Rules (Hospital Productions, 2014)
– Vladislav Delay – Visa (Ripatti, 2104)
– Neel – Phobos (Spectrum Spools, 2014)
– Sebastian Mullaert & Eitan Reiter – Reflections of Nothingness (Mule Musiq, 2014)
– Lawrence – A Day in the Life (Mule Musiq, 2014)
– Kyle Bobby Dunn – And The Infinite Sadness… (Students of Decay, 2014)
– Bing & Ruth – Tomorrow Was The Golden Age (RVNG Intl, 2014)
– Ariel Kalma – An Evolutionary Music (Original Recordings 1972-1979) (RVNG Intl, 2014)
– Jon Hassell and Brian Eno – Fourth World Vol 1: Possible Musics (Glitterbeat, 1980; 2014)
– Philip Corner – Satie Slowly (Unseen Worlds, 2014)

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