When we think of electronic music, and this case ambient music, we can follow a thought trail that leads like a Wikipedia article from Brian Eno to Steve Reich to a new age-y sort of complex music where through the brain fog we remember that there once was Erik Satie and La Mont Young and modernist composers like John Cage who came before Eno, and whose significance is often shadowed by him, and this then leads us far from that new age frame of canvas and poles to, predictably I say, the wonder that is Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (SAW), which isn’t entirely ambient but ambient techno. Never mind all the inventive or important artists and albums that lie in the gaps. Let’s start where ambient music made its derivations, and let’s skip to Selected Ambient Works 85-92.
Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is enjoyable, languid. Perfect at times. Much of its heart is in its melodiousness and the gluey reverb that binds together all of its parts under cassette hiss, rumble and tone. SAW is unique enough to forerun ambient techno as a whole. Its influence since 1993 has been extensive, existing in the same beautiful halls as Autechre’s Incunabula and Speedy J’s Ginger. These albums are preempted by ambient house, the KLF’s Chill Out and The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. Warp Records’ use of the artists, sans KLF and others, is the culminate Artificial Intelligence compilation and album series that built the bed upon which ambient techno has since slumbered and been left somewhat undisturbed.
Back then, other labels took aim at the ambient umbrella, including Waveform’s lesser known A.D. series that used mostly ambient dub music to access the same bedroom listener attracted to Warp’s releases. Gracing this collection are familiar names: Banco de Gaia; A Positive Life; Higher Intelligence Agency; Biosphere, Human Mesh Dance, and via remix, Coldcut. Lesser known compilation Chill Out! followed suit, expanding the ambient umbrella beyond house, dub, and techno influence to include interesting wild card tracks from Meat Beat Manifesto, Moby, and, quoting Chill Out (no exclamation point this time), the KLF.
Quite notable on the compilation is Young American Primitive’s “Sunrise”, a simple trance-y inclusion that should be, on its own, sought by genre fans. Too venerable to have existed on any of these comps, the music from SAW has carried the torch, sounding never as dated as its cohorts and appearing consistently on top lists from Rolling Stone, NME, and others. It’s SAW’s distinctive youthfulness that’s kept it going, I suppose, and it’s that sound—ambient derivation in the heavy reverb and expressive compression—that carries on, intentionally or not, into the works of others.
This factor is ambient techno’s great contribution to my path of ambient-inflected albums. I like a lot of space in my music. Sometimes, gimmicky or not, I like to hear it with a little hint of the noisefloor. In that category, I also include Incunabula. The appearance of “Kapol Intro” in 1998’s soundtrack to π is a thing of legend.
The soundtrack ties closely to the path I’m drawing, relating via its artists and their progression through the ‘90s and onward toward the snare-thwack sound of Fatboy Slim, the Prodigy, and the Crystal Method who, concurrently, mingled on the pop charts when electronic music became electronica and electronica became in. Yes, there was Hackers; MTV’s Amp—there were myriad other strings to this theory, but forget that now and stay the course.
On π Clint Mansell emerged, having previously riffed on The Prodigy’s “Their Law”, and treated us to three original pieces, all essentially big beat. Amid the noise Orbital; Aphex Twin; David Holmes, and Roni Size lent heavy, very American-sounding pieces. GusGus’s “Anthem” channeled Selected Ambient Works 85-92, using the sounds of progressive house at that time. Spacetime Continuum, a quiet ambient mainstay whose 1994 Sea Biscuit should not be missed, lent a track from that album and explored the introspection that Autechre brought with “Kalpol”. It’s good fun and it rides the back of this timeline, springing from early Orb to Aphex and Warp’s ‘90s dominance to Massive Attack’s “Angel”, part of aging trip-hop kingmaker Mezzanine, which has given much to the mainstream and television and movie soundtracks.
Skip ahead some more and electronic music is not electronica. That’s a bad word, and techno is never, under any circumstances, equal to electronic music as whole. Or, if you’re still behind: IDM, the moniker of music that sped and skittered long before Thom Yorke took his laptop to Radiohead practice, is a curse word that conjures ire from scene headliners.
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