Ambient music presents an interesting set of challenges for both the listener and musician. It’s a hard genre to do well, and the bar is set fairly high for any producer wishing to make a name for himself in such a diaphanous field. For one thing, ambient music is really easy to create. The only real requirement for ambient is that it must be, well, quiet — but even that is misleading, as ambient music can certainly be played loud. So is it an attitude? An approach to rhythm more in tune with classical composition than the contemporary dance music with which it shares its ostensible origins? One thing is for sure: there’s not a lot of rhythm in ambient music, or at least not rhythm in the terms that dance music aficionados are most familiar. While it is true that ambient music can have beats (see any middle-period Future Sound of London Record), the beats aren’t the point of ambient music, and perhaps that is the point.
While rhythm and the goal of dancing have animated the vast majority of electronic music for at least the last two decades, the idea of creating electronic music without beats is a well-established notion. Electronic music began, after all, as an offshoot of experimental composition techniques among the avant garde, and it was only by an accident of history that the techniques pioneered by artists such as Kraftwerk and Wendy Williams became inextricably welded to the dance template we all recognize today. Early ambient music, however, developed largely independent of dance, with artists such as Tangerine Dream and Vangelis presenting an alternate framework for electronic composition, one that hewed closer to the music’s classical origins but retained little in the way of an experimental edge. Herein lies the rub: at some crucial point in the history of the music, ambient became closely identified with what has become known as “New Age”: a pastoral, mildly futuristic and unrelentingly banal genre that is synonymous with pasteurized, hippie-dippy nonsense. In order to create what we now regard as modern ambient music, early dance producers had to infuse the ambient template with something more interesting than merely sweeping synthesizers and windchime sounds. This has remained a pressing concern since the days of Aphex Twin and the Orb, on through to the present.
Which brings us to Kaito’s Hundred Million Love Years. The Kompakt label has successfully placed itself at the forefront of the modern dance world through a rigorous application of minimal production techniques to a pleasing techno template — providing the aesthetic thrill of classic minimalism without, perhaps, as much of the forbidding intellectualism projected by the likes of Richie Hawtin. They’ve also developed a sideline in the ambient world, a surprisingly natural branching out from the minimalism of their dance music. The Pop Ambient series has emerged as a yearly counterpoint to their critically lauded Total compilations, presenting a cross-section of the very best ambient music to be found anywhere on the planet. It is telling, given the generally high level of Kompakt’s output, that their Pop Ambient series is still quite patchy, intriguing in many places and mindlessly dull in others. It’s a testament to just how difficult the genre is. Hundred Million Love Years comes with the added onus of being the instrumental accompaniment to Kaito’s most recent dance album, Hundred Million Light Years — a fact that should inspire more than a few raised eyebrows among those paying attention.
Sure enough, separated from the beats that give these tracks their backbone, the end result is unsurprisingly flabby, essentially invertebrate. There are ways to pull off this kind of extremely mellow ambient with success: I remain a fan of Moby’s ambient work, in particularly his End of Everything album, recorded under the Voodoo Child alias. That album is almost as minimal as could possibly be conceived — just synthesizer tones and very slowly changing triads. It works because it’s such a simple idea that in execution it’s practically raw; and the music itself is so unflappable in its melancholy that it practically demands the listener’s attention. Kaito, however, is nowhere near as sure-footed a composer as Moby. There are moods and emotions here, but they are subdued, covered in layers of arpeggiated keyboard patterns that create the illusion of drama while instead conveying an unsettling emotional vapidity. The effect, while feinting in the rough direction of emotional investment, falls far short. Examine a track like the evocativelly-titled “Holding A Baby”. As might be expected from the title, it is a minor-key composition that attempts to conjure suitably numinous emotions. The bulk of the track, as with much of the album, is filled with little fractal patterns of synthesizer burbles, the overall effect of which is to create an imposing melodic static that renders the majority of tracks little more than, well, background noise.
A track like “The Universe” points to the album’s essential vacancy. There’s something interesting about the patterns in the noise, here, the expert way in which the waves of noise are constructed and calibrated to create a pleasing effect… but something is missing. That something is beats, the impetus of which would presumably create the emotional context, without which the tracks that compose Hundred Million Love Years are merely competent exercises in ambient instrumentation. One of the reasons why it is so difficult to create compelling ambient music is that it is inherently difficult to create drama with a willfully circumscribed toolbox. A great composer can create drama with anything he happens to have lying around, but Kaito flounders because, as minimal as these tracks are, something is obviously missing. Without the drama endowed by the rhythm section, the end result is just pleasing background noise, essentially a soothing New Age album released under the aegis of a cutting-edge techno label.