Old avant-gardists die hard, or something like that. The statement is at least true of Harold Budd, the pioneering American pianist/keyboardist. Budd, who turned 73 this year, made his name in the 1980s, collaborating on various projects with Brian Eno, Jon Hassell, XTC’s Andy Partridge, and Hector Zazou. Along with Eno, he is credited as one of the progenitors of modern ambient music. In a decidedly old school stunt, Budd ostensibly retired several years ago, only to turn up with a pair of collaborations with former Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie. And Candylion marks his second album with Gavin Wright, a session guitarist who once played with the American pop act Cock Robin.
An odd pairing, it may seem. But Budd and Wright clearly share the same musical sensibility. Namely, the type of ambient music that may have been considered avant-garde 25 years ago, but is now quite dated. Budd, in typical fashion, lays down ripples of piano atop soft, plush synthesizer pads. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like he’s updated his gear since the late 1980s, during the heyday of the Windam Hill and Private Music labels. The sleight, too-smooth digital synth sounds on display here are now inextricably linked with the New Age music these labels issued in droves. Wright’s electric guitar work evokes similar associations. His sustained tones and slide and E-bow work are at times evocative, but always measured and clean. His work with Budd has been compared to Robert Fripp, but it’s tough to imagine Fripp doing anything so inoffensively tasteful.
At best, a more accurate reference point for Candylion would be David Gilmour-era Pink Floyd. You know how those last two Floyd studio albums each opened with a lazy, mood-setting, synth’n'guitar instrumental? That’s the basic idea behind at least some of the dozen tracks here. At least Gilmour and company managed to create a gradual rise in tension, however contrived. Budd and Wright, however, are often content to just let their compositions hang in the air.
Occasionally, this approach yields substantial results. Tracks like “Eaux d’artifice” and “She Slipped Through the Door” feature some ghostly, flanged droning from Wright, to the point where his guitar seems to merge with Budd’s synthesizer. Budd, for his part, holds back on the gloss in favor of a little more texture. The more Budd occupies the background space in the mix, the more successful Candylion is. On the title track, he gets a lot of mileage out of a simple two-note pulse and some phasing sounds, as Wright solos into the ether. For “The Bells”, the most striking thing here, Wright coaxes Eastern-influenced whale songs out of his guitar, while Budd merely provides the titular ringing noise. The more those soft, preset synth pads come into play, though, the closer Budd and Wright get to airport muzak, the kind they sometimes play in the plane as you’re boarding. It’s so deliberately serene as to be off-putting.
Certainly, Budd in particular has earned the right to forego a necessity to remain on the cutting edge. And both men are clearly, impressively in control of their instruments and their art. There’s not a bit of impatience on Candylion, nor is there a forced note. A substantial fan base, already familiar with Budd’s work and sound, will not be disappointed here. But none of that really takes away from the impression this is music whose prime time has come and gone.