Recent New Age-challenging releases from Yamaneko and Deadboy under the moniker JV Lightbody has FACT’s John Twells asking, If all music can be so easily tuned out in this multi-screen era, what purpose does music that’s actually intend to be “ambient” actually serve?
How often do you actually get to sit down and actively pay attention to music without doing anything else? No phone, no laptop, no television – nothing. In many ways, the purpose of much contemporary music is as the modern world’s background noise; it loosely accompanies the work day, a long drive, video gaming, life admin, cooking or whatever else might occupy your time. With cheap bluetooth speakers, portable streaming devices and “smart” home technology, we can beam music from our pockets and offer tailored ambience to almost any situation. Brian Eno, the pioneering producer who is often credited with coining the term “ambient music”, described the genre as “actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener.” But if all music can be so easily tuned out, what purpose does music that’s actually intended to be “ambient” actually serve?
Early in the genre’s development, ambient music was discernible from the 1960s-birthed New Age movement largely due to its vague academic leanings and having Eno as a credible figurehead. Where New Age was associated with such critically-reviled pursuits as crystal-healing and candle-collecting, ambient music was influenced by avant-garde composer Steve Reich and championed a guy who was spotted palling around with David Bowie. But the line between the two genres was always a little blurry. Unfathomably popular 1990s New Age compilation Pure Moods featured tracks from Eno and The Orb alongside spineless dreck like Kenny G. and theme music from Ryuichi Sakamoto and Angelo Badalamenti; and artists like Steve Roach and Hiroshi Yoshimura have often navigated a wide range of territory successfully, allowing their New Age ideas to exhibit ambient qualities and their ambience to encourage meditation and relaxation.
The distinction between the two sounds has been even more difficult to discern as tropes lifted from both genres have become meme-ified over time. Load up a video game, watch a movie or binge on your favorite Netflix show and you’ll hear no doubt hear textured drones and tape-warped instrumentation used to represent reminiscence and ennui or New Age washes and distant bells used to signify rehabilitation or relief. There’s a damn good reason why so many modern video games utilize ambient themes when a player saves their progress: safety has a sound and it’s something we’ve been well-trained by culture to identify.
Two records were released this month that wisp in and out of both genres: Inner Work, Allen Wooton aka Deadboy’s debut album as JV Lightbody and Joe Moynihan’s third Yamaneko album, Spa Commissions. Both artists have a reputation for championing New Age and ambient music, Wooton with his and India Jordan’s New Atlantis label and club night and Moynihan with his run of records and influential mixes under a variety of monikers, yet neither of these new albums completely function as either ambient or New Age music. They’re packed full of familiar, often nostalgic motifs and themes, but this often makes them hard to ignore. There’s a reason why Eno was so incessant with his use of the piano: at the time it was a ubiquitous instrument, making it simple for almost anyone to tune out.
Inner Work is a confident selection of vignettes that’s billed as a distillation of the sounds that birthed New Atlantis. Each track also takes its name from the I Ching, the ancient Chinese text that famously influenced American minimalist John Cage. But while the album utilizes many familiar ambient and New Age sounds, from the warm, billowing pads of ‘The Great Bowl (Sacred Vessel)’ to the Sino plucks and jerky percussion of ‘East Progress’, it often sounds closer to video game music. Not the simple-but-effective chip tunes of the 8-bit era or the neon-blasted funk of the 16-bit zone, but the higher resolution sounds of the PS1, PS2 and Xbox era, when composers were freed from their cartridge prison. This isn’t a casual influence for Wooton and it’s certainly not accidental – on ‘Limitation (Due Measure)’ he timestretches familiar World of Warcraft samples. “I need to target something first,” and, “It’s still recharging,” echo out in a robotic monotone as glassy tones hum underneath offering a sly wink to any hardcore gamers that might be listening.
By contrast, Spa Commissions is far more utilitarian. Moynihan began putting the album together after he was commissioned to make the music for a European spa, hence the title, but it soon blossomed into a larger project. Fittingly then, it bears all the aesthetic hallmarks of a New Age disc intended to accompany the sweet smell of incense and a stranger’s hands pushing into your tired joints. There are flutes, bells, whimsical synthesizers and rather cheesy canned string hits – it does what it says on the tin, with a little bit of Clannad thrown in for good measure. And yet again, the sounds are often so familiar that they can’t be completely relegated to background; the pervasive pang of nostalgia leaves questions tough to spit from the tip of the tongue.
Both albums tap into our preconceptions of New Age and ambient music while building a world of hazy memories and vivid cultural references. Moynihan’s amusingly-titled ‘Crystal Palace Dolphin’ kicks off with pan flutes that may as well have been sampled from a Home Shopping Network CD set, but quickly develops into something that more closely resembles David Sylvian or Vangelis. Too obviously composed to be ambient, it’s perfectly formed instrumental pop with New Age window dressing. ‘Return (The Turning Point)’ on Inner Work meanwhile sounds like James Ferraro remixing the iconic Resident Evil 4 save theme and triggers similar emotional responses of peace and dread.
Just as vaporwave tapped the influence of Muzak and other maligned genres to form a surrealist challenge of culture, competition and consumerism, this new wave of New Age and ambient music weaves its threads of influence into a new form completely. What we’re left with is not unlike a patchwork quilt – a warm-hearted cocoon of memories and experiences that can offer comfort to similarly-inclined listeners. Despite never being truly ambient and not always functioning as New Age, both albums are healing in their own way. Triggered memories and experiences can sometimes provide relief from 2017’s hypervigilant anxiety, you just have to pay attention to not only what you’re listening to, but how you’re feeling, too.
John Twells is FACT’s managing editor. Find him on Twitter.