[20 December 2006]
With any luck, this will close the door on the hype of FM3’s wonderful little Buddha Machine.
When it appeared, the Buddha Machine was a strange little curiosity, a little box that played drones for a potentially infinite amount of time, giving its listener the option to make his or her experience as long or as quick, as shallow or as deep as the listening situation called for. The drones were generally pleasing ones, the sorts of things you could play in the office, or in the house, or in the yard, without getting yelled at by co-workers, or family members, or neighbors. And then Brian Eno found out about it, which shouldn’t have been a big deal because of course this is the sort of thing Brian Eno would like! Even so, his endorsement seemed to legitimize the little box, and suddenly the New York Times finds the thing and helps to sell upwards of 10,000 of these little music boxes. This, of course, led to the spinoff albums: Robert Henke created an entire album of song-length interpretations of Buddha Machine loops, which probably would have been enough extra Buddha Machine-related media by itself. Yet now, we also have this little curiosity called Jukebox Buddha, a compilation of no less than 15 different artists giving their respective takes on the fascinating device.
This sounds like an interesting idea in theory—with loops as spacious and unobtrusive as FM3’s, it stands to reason that one could use them as backdrops for pretty much any kind of music. As such, I’m willing to acknowledge that my expectations for Jukebox Buddha might be unfairly lofty. I’ll also grant that it makes sense that an audience that would love the Buddha Machine enough to partake in one of its spinoffs will probably be a fan of ambient music in general. Even allowing for all this, however, the lack of scope of Jukebox Buddha is striking; almost every track here is an ambient, slow, droning piece, each in the style of its respective artist, perhaps, but still amazingly, disappointingly consistent from track to track.
Perhaps even worse for the rest of the artists, the most effective bit of ambience here is from none other than Robert Henke! “Layer 02” is an excerpt from his own full-length album of Buddha Machine interpretations (itself called Layering Buddha), and by sticking so close to the original FM3 drone, simply texturing it and finessing it into something more than a hum in a box, he creates a moving, deeply affecting piece of ambience that would be welcome to continue well past its comparatively short five-minute runtime.
sunnO))) does an impressive job as well, with a pleasingly bass-heavy ten minutes of drone (not least because it’s one of the only pieces given adequate time to fully develop), and the trio of Jelinek/Pekler/Leichtmann scores creativity points (though, unfortunately, not much else) with their short Buddha Machine infomercial, but that’s about it as far as high spots go.
The rest of the artists try to flirt with beats, add static to the ambience, and even remove almost any discernable traces of the original FM3 drones from their own works. It’s obvious that each artist here is intent on providing his or her own take on the drones, but there doesn’t seem to be a commitment to trying to do justice to the source material, nor is there any sort of effort to take the work all that far beyond the source material. Blixa Bargeld, one of the biggest names to be found on the disc, has a one-minute contribution called “Little Yellow” that mostly consists of a noisy birdcall with the distant presence of one of the Buddha Machine drones. That’s it! It’s over! Again, it’s neat in theory, but pointless in practice. Alog’s “A Dragon Lies Listening” starts out by taking an original approach, augmenting the drones with some vocal sounds and actually creating some decent dissonance, but the voices simply don’t last long enough to get interesting before they muck it up with some glitchy pseudo-beats. Even Adrien Sherwood and Doug Wimbish’s dub-flavored take on the Machine is a turgid mess, an unexpected failure for the respected producer and bassist.
So goes the rest of Jukebox Buddha. An ambient release without direction can be one of the most difficult (and not in a good way) types of albums to listen to, and the common thread of the Buddha Machine is simply not enough to provide that direction. As such, Jukebox Buddha is largely aimless and very much disposable. My suggestion? Buy a few more Machines and play them at the same time, generating your own dynamic ambience—At least that will bring something new to each listening experience.