The ex-Cocteau Twin and the ambient pioneer team up again. In the '80s, they had a name for this: New Age.
Both After the Night Falls and Before the Day Breaks are lush and beautiful, and that's no surprise. As guitarist with Cocteau Twins and producer of bands like Lush, Chapterhouse, and Felt, Robin Guthrie is largely responsible for creating a sound that became a template for many moody "alternative" bands throughout the 1980s and '90s. The whole "shoegazer" scene and its current acolytes, and most any band signed to 4AD Records throughout the '90s, are direct descendents of Guthrie's flange-heavy, increasingly pretty guitar playing and gauzy production. As an early collaborator with Brian Eno, composer and pianist Harold Budd is recognized as a formulator of modern-day ambient music.
It seems only natural that these two forces would collide, and indeed they did -- first on 1986's The Moon and the Melodies. On that album, Guthrie's fellow Cocteau Twins Simon Raymonde and Liz Fraser also took part. The result was half a Cocteau Twins album complete with trademark heavy-handed drum machine and, crucially, Fraser's fluttering, wordless vocals -- and Budd's glassy electric piano winding through the songs. The other half was relatively formless, meandering instrumentals that put the piano and guitar textures to the fore. It was nice to listen to and a novel concept, but rightly regarded by most Cocteau Twins fans as rather insubstantial.
Now, after collaborating on the soundtrack for 2005's Mysterious Skin, Guthrie and Budd have paired up once more. And, this time, look out -- they've got a concept. After Night Falls and Before the Day Breaks are "counterparts", with each song from one album having a corresponding song on the other. The idea, according to Guthrie and Budd, is to "[experiment] in the dualities of music and emotion." And, if you compare tracklists, you'll see: "How Distant Your Heart" is paired with "How Close Your Soul"; you have "Avenue of Shapes"/"A Formless Path", "I Returned Her Glance"/"And Then I Turned Away". It's tough to recall song titles this pretentious since Pink Floyd circa 1969. While you could argue in favor of Guthrie and Budd's romanticism and that, anyway, they've earned the right, the fact remains that pairing up the titles is much more amusing an endeavor than listening to the songs themselves.
Again, this is gorgeous music, not far removed from the instrumentals on The Moon and the Melodies. Guthrie is clearly the primary musician, his cavernous strokes and thoughtful arpeggios establishing the framework for Budd (now in his seventies) to embellish. The music is palatial and eloquent; you don't so much listen to it as bathe in it. So what's the problem, then?
The problem is that After the Night Falls and Before the Day Breaks are completely redundant, both within themselves and within the general scheme of modern "atmospheric" music. Through two albums, 18 songs, and almost an hour and a half, the tones and textures Guthrie and Budd generate remain the same. The glacial guitars and twinkling piano waft in and waft out, and on and on. Liz Fraser's vocals provided all the dynamics and twists and turns Cocteau Twins needed; the music was more the grandiose canvas on which the songs were painted. Take her (and Raymonde's bass, and that drum machine) away, and there's not much left but sound floating in a vacuum. Very pretty sound, true, but sound that's been readily available for years.
That's right -- hate to say it, but this is as close to New Age music as anything in the 21st Century can get. And the glassy, electronic tones of Budd's piano only add to that impression. Except for his Debussy-like introduction to "A Formless Path", there's very little to distinguish one song from another. It doesn't help that Guthrie seems to be working with a few trusty, melancholy chords that he reshuffles for each composition. Or it does help; this is perfect music for falling asleep to or making out to -- if you can get to the making out part before you fall asleep, that is.
The final track on Before the Day Breaks, "Turn On the Moon", actually employs a drum machine in reaching a crashing, dynamic climax. It sounds just like a Cocteau Twins song, which only makes you realize what you're missing. Twenty years ago, this kind of project could get by on mystique and the fact that the music was genuinely fresh. But now, asking buyers to fork over for two full-length albums is a final spell-breaking act of hubris. Why not put together a double-disc package? Wouldn't that only enhance the "duality" theme?
If you're of a certain age, there's a certain comfort in letting Guthrie's swelling guitars wrap around you like a wet blanket. That's all the more reason to dig out your copy of Heaven or Las Vegas and leave well enough alone.