John Foxx left his band Ultravox in the late-’70s so that he could pursue a more artistically-inclined solo career.
Composer Harold Budd once said that “Art without risk is pointless.”
Foxx and Budd collaborated on a pair of albums, both of which are being reissued on Foxx’s Metamatic label:double album Translucence/Drift Music was originally released in 2003. Nighthawks, a three-way collaboration with the late composer Ruben Garcia, was released in 2011, which was a very busy year for Budd, who was supposed to have retired in 2005. And when you combine all three CDs, 37 tracks, 142 minutes together, the shuffle function would prove to be just as effective as listening to the music in its “proper” order. Despite Nighthawks having a denser sound by just a matter of degrees, any song can take the place of any other song and the legions of ambient/electronic faithful will still find it all very lovely and provocative. Those who never cared for this genre in the first place will not be persuaded by these packages. As much as I’ve enjoyed Harold Budd’s music in the recent past and as much as I admire John Foxx for walking away from a groundbreaking synth-pop band that was just on the cusp of achieving wider fame, Translucence/Drift Music and Nighthawks just aren’t that risky.
If these albums were to have been released during the early hours of the minimal ambient music movement, they probably would have created some noticeable ripples. But these were recorded in the 21st century after Foxx, Budd, and Garcia had already cracked the mould in their respective fields of expertise. The formula of piano and exaggerated reverb is the template for each track and I suppose I can only speak for myself when I say that it doesn’t ever “get old”. Homogeneous? It’s more difficult to argue against that. Perhaps Translucence/Drift Music‘s greatest risk was giving people a 100-minute ambient album in the year 2003. Dude, where’s the hedonism in that?
Like all music that is assembled out of subtlety, you have to lean in close from time to time. For instance, “Stepping Sideways” and “Spoken Roses” have that two-chord resolve that reminds me of “The Names of Those Never Here”, a high-point from Bordeaux. “A Change in the Weather” throws in more chromatics and discord than is usually allowed in ambient music, which is a welcome — *cough* — change in the weather. “Now That I’ve Forgotten You” is softly punctured by a reverberating noise not unlike the V’ger’s musical cues in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There is a quiet gust of wind in “The City Stops for Snow”, painting a picture of urban stillness. The bulk of Nighthawks is populated with tiny overtones coming out to play over top the many sustains and echoes.
The reissues of Translucence/Drift Music and Nighthawks are an occasion where it pays to be an aficionado of minimalist ambient electronic music. Newcomers to the genre won’t be able to tell these 37 songs apart. Those who know their Budd as well as people know their Beatles will delight in them, even though they probably already have both albums. As far as everyone else is concerned, these three CDs can either be an exercise in careful listening or a chance to take a long mental sabbatical. After all, deep meditation is a small price to pay for music this calm.