My Life With the Tape Hiss Cult

[1 December 2010]

By Jason Cook

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.

That First Step Outside That First Apartment in the Big City

The noughties brought much through Selected Ambient Works 85-92’s old veins. Autechre and Richard Devine made stark glitch music. Kid 606 played scratched CDs along with other artists for Millie Plateuax’s awesome Clicks & Cuts series. Ableton Live, Acid, Fruity Loops, and college kids flooded the channels with pirate-had bedroom producer music that, to some part, sounded great. Take in case, I argue, a student of Selected Ambient Works: Diagram of Suburban Chaos. The alias of William Collin Snavely, Diagram’s debut Status Negatives emerged as a sort-of opposite, taking more from Aphex Twin’s less rhythmic Selected Ambient Works follow-up, Selected Ambient Works Volume II. In this, I intend to say that Diagram’s music is polar, built of the gentle or terse moments that came with SAW II alongside the spaciousness that was SAW, with a melodiousness much darker. Heavily repeated on Status Negatives are the abstract percussive clusters that shaped Autechre on Tri Repetae and beyond, but Status Negatives is its own and should be honored as such. Andy Greenwald of Spin listed the album in a More Artists You Need To Know About feature and wrote:

“Alone in his bedroom with the curtains tightly drawn, San Diego’s William Colin Snavely quietly and obsessively soundtracks the push/pull heartache of suburban decay. Influenced by videogames, Faith No More, and dead-end factory jobs, Snavely blends the instrumental audio abstractions of Aphex Twin with a welcome splash of old-fashioned American melodrama. The result is a robot album that desperately wants to be human.”

It’s a concisely fitting summary. Here’s to widening its audience.

Moving forward, we find dubstep monster Burial uncovered and charting many Album Of The Year lists with both his self-titled 2006 debut and its 2007 successor Untrue. Both releases redefined perceptions, inciting initial speculation of the artist’s true identity. Burial’s important for this walk we’ve had. His debut has a revolutionary sound. It isn’t distinctly ambient, but it has ambience, and it isn’t the builder of a new genre, but it is milestone. Like SAW, its compositions have downbeat moments of intentional hiss and crackle that rise, not entirely part of the music, with an alien onus, building beneath the kick drums a significant emotional element. Elsewhere on both Burial albums are other inhuman sounds: endless rain, manipulated voices, things you would expect to hear during a near death experience. However, it’s the intent, the instant transport that links Burial and Untrue to SAW and other albums whose purpose was never first to chart or shake asses but to take on some level of introspection.

So if SAW was a youthful endeavor, introducing us to ambience and Status Negatives arose as a moment of angst after big beat, after a collision with the world, an overstated emergence from the underground, then Burial was that first step outside that first apartment in the big city. After sometime unchecked by authority came existential dread, here in the form of Consequence’s Live For Never. An album as spacious as all that are mentioned here, Live For Never was released in late 2009 and put some of Burial’s mood into drum & bass. Live For Never is a dark decedent of this odd path I’ve drawn, an opposite of what was released in the first half of the ‘90s, when drum & bass was still mostly jungle. It’s close to Photek’s early work around the time that the π soundtrack was released. The artist’s bass steppers play under thin, sometimes single-note pads emotive enough to pass for excerpts from SAW II.

As this line progresses, it comes clear that there’s something smart in this music. It’s tangential and through the links we follow, from a genre’s beginning to its inevitable mutation, there’s always something telling to be heard, to be learned. The half-lauded emergence of drag and witch-house is just this. Though no artists have truly broken ground within the sub-genre, some have shown its beginning in hip-hop and ‘80s 4AD records, and one, likely, will release something memorable before the genre dies out.

From glitch, we were given Oval and Matmos. Now we have Flying Lotus and Fennesz. Hell, try and count all of the software plug-ins that seek to emulate the Amen-mashery that glitch and IDM artists invented. The whole of contemporary electronic music, excluding all of those originators you don’t think of and I can’t list entirely: Paul Lansky; Wendy Carlos; Herbie Hancock; Frankie Knuckles; 808 State; ad nauseam, can be traced this way, vaguely and through little links that appear in the mind of someone who has a mind like a library, a DJ, or an obsessive compulsive like myself.

The path I’ve presented here is not necessarily the most correct, it’s more a line I’ve drawn in my head, and there are many trees to be thought up and drawn. There are plenty of artists I could have included but the point is that we all have our own subjective moments in music listening when single qualities stand out and stick. Hearing Selected Ambient Works the first time, it was a wonder to think that people bought an album that sounded so echoey and noisy, especially in the early days of the compact disc.

The subsequent things I’ve listed stray far from SAW but retain, for me, a similarly spacious aesthetic. These small pieces are things we tend to look for afterward, even in other forms. They are stamps on our worlds, emotive elements that seem applicable to experiences no matter how removed. So my life with the tape hiss cult continues.

Jason Cook is a writer from Cleveland, Ohio. After a slew of existential crises, he adventured throughout New England and became a Master of Fine Arts in fiction. He's now reviewing music for PopMatters, The Quietus, and Resident Advisor, and writing/editing Call of Cthulhu books for Chaosium.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/133638-my-life-with-the-tape-hiss-cult/