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Music

Luke Schneider's 'Altar of Harmony' Hews Close to Ambient Tradition

Photo: Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

Luke Schneider's Altar of Harmony often sounds eerily close to the Robert Fripp guitar of No Pussyfooting, only he trades in the old six-string for pedal steel.

Altar of Harmony
Luke Schneider

Third Man

15 May 2020

It's challenging to produce ambient music that doesn't drink from the font of Brian Eno. His essential invention of the genre means that he was able to grab the low hanging fruit by being in on the ground floor, to torture two metaphors. Even so, it's remarkable that even his minor excursions could be the basis for the entire careers of other artists. One of the most interesting is the work of Richard Pinhas and his band Heldon, who took the basic premise of Eno's collaborations with Robert Fripp and elaborated on it for decades.

So it is with Luke Schneider's Altar of Harmony, which often sounds eerily close to the Fripp guitar of No Pussyfooting, and a fortiori, the work of Heldon, though with most of the rough edges sanded off. This sanding off also removes some of the 'grain' that was found in 1970s ambient and its use of analogue media, for good or ill. Nevertheless, the very nature of ambient music is its essential sameness. That is to say, if you can listen to the 21-minute drone of Fripp and Eno's "The Heavenly Music Corporation", then you might welcome variations upon it, as is the case with much of this material.

But as when critics slyly referred to the likes of Arvo Pärt (to whom this record also owes a debt) as "holy minimalism", the potential of this music for transcendence easily becomes a kind mawkish piousness. Eno explored this avenue on Music for Airports, but not in a manner as on the nose as one finds on Altar of Harmony, with its Latin titles and celestial shtick. It's an interesting idea that it's quite difficult to produce bad ambient music. For some, this point comes when it crosses into New Age or elevator music territory, but it's easy for this to become a No True Scotsman argument, in which bad ambient isn't ambient at all.

Perhaps it's best to consider Eno's definition of ambient, by which "it must be as ignorable as it is interesting". So whether this record is 'good' ambient might hinge on whether its attempt to invoke sacred music draws attention to itself too much, or whether such aspirations are ignorable in that this is nothing new. Both of these criteria go hand in hand, in that it's not a surprising record in any real way, but that if you've heard this sort of thing before, then you might more easily submerge yourself in it.

So it's hard to even give a record like this a numerical score. If you measure its merit based on what it aspires to do and whether it succeeds at this, then it's very good. If you measure it based on whether it's as ignorable as it is interesting and the nexus between these two qualities, then it's pretty average. If you're a fan of this type of thing you won't find much novelty, but if that's not a big deal, then you'll probably like it, and if you're not familiar with this kind of music, then this record is as good as any a place to begin. That said, if on listening, it inspires you to light a joss stick and think about stuff, then that's your business.

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