Fantastic Voyage - a personal take
The proliferation of sanitized chill-out zones in the clubs of 1994 stands as both a testament to and indictment of Ambient's current resurrection. The New Age ideals, Eastern mysticism and mood-enhancing explorations of Ash Ra Tempel, Terry Riley, Cluster et al, are now being eagerly recycled by Silicon age hippies on the quest for eternal highs. Sadly, though, this selective revisionism negates.
Leading conceptualist Eno's original aim was to build up a "small but versatile catalogue of environmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres". In selectively pursuing this retro-revivalism, ambient is now advocating the circumnavigation of humanity's darker impulses, as it steadily mutates into the undimensional muzak Eno sought to counter. It's ironic that one of New Ambient's culprits, The Future Sound Of London, seem aware of the pitfalls when stating that "explorations into the great unknowns are discredited, only relevant in the most escapist sense for a world which cannot cope with the complexity, chaos and strangeness of here and now", yet encourage the neutrality of sound.
From Eno's nomadic yearnings, through Jon Hassell's ethnography and fast forwarding to The Orb's extra-terrestrial missions within blanched out representations of pastoral colonies, overt transience has been maintained. Yet Ambient's historical obsession with the outer as inner metaphor is now becoming imbalanced, as the cliches of birdsong, whale calls or running water rob the imagination, in its attempt to localize Utopian dreams.
Dropping inwards instead of reaching out, this compilation's furtive music sounds as paranoic as it does panoramic, and is in direct contrast to its mellow relative. Where New Ambient seeks to avoid discomfort, this Isolationist strain uses the studio as a monastic retreat to encourage self-confrontation. "My music becomes fully connected to my retirement from external life", concurs isolated German composer Thomas Köner. With censorship and surveillance conspiring to control behaviour patterns, it's no surprise that Virtual Reality is providing hope for the future. Yet the abuse of freedom as demonstrated by other examples of the human/machine interface haven't been encouraging, with growth in covert monitoring, phone tapping, computer hacking and viral planting. With the thought police listening in, it falls upon this ambiguous music to provide insular soundtrack to a world publically exposed, explored and exploited.
Not an immaculate conception, nor an autonomous genre, the contents of this music can summon the paralyzing stillness of Morton Feldman's minimalism, the spectres haunting Nurse With Wound's "Soliloquy For Lilith" or even recall the disorientation of picking up the introductory transmissions generated by Carl Craig or Derrick May during Detroit's Acid Reign. "Ambient 4 - Isolationism" verifies Ambient's unacknowledged implosions whilst providing the legacy with its latest editions. Sharing the same micro-dynamic as Ambient, but avoiding its familiarity, Isolationist music unsettles by its lack of recognizable landmarks. It thankfully questions more than it answers, as it forms an antidote to our pre-programmed surroundings.
With improv specialist David Toop and sound sculptor Max Eastley recently releasing their second recording together in as many decades (to critical acclaim in both the rock and dance spheres), the Aphex Twin charting with a recording that owes more to contemporary classical composer Ligeti than it does to Kraftwerk, Napalm Death's thrash metal escapees co-ordinating a dubbed-out invasion of the dancefloor under the guise of Scorn - it becomes apparent that technology's rapid advances are the Utopian/Dystopian key to the Isolationist strain. The sampler's increased ability to accommodate the wishes of the mind, the comparatively low price high quality of home studio gear and the alchemical possibility offered via the time-defying cut and paste ups of hard disk editing (rendering Miles' legendary producer and Eno-hero Teo Macero's efforts prehistoric); or alternatively the CD's capacity for duration and spatial awareness; these factors ensure the foremost musical advancement to affect ambient since the original studio-as-instrument ethic was championed by the likes of Lee Perry and King Tubby (the result of that first wave was the triggering of ambient's leading space-heads - Czukay, Eno, Plank... - into dubbing out the stiffness of Stockhausen, just as music concrete's environmental amplification had been enlisted by dub to increase its depth).
This compilation highlights the studio as virtual environment and the tension created through technology's equal billing (with the compact disc itself now acting as ambient catalyst for all sound to be drawn into its scratch 'n' crackle-free arena). Now the music and listening environment merge into an increasingly uneasy co-existence, thus infiltrating popular consciousness whilst declaring war on the song's tyrannical methodology; this convenient coalition may be succeeding where previous musical subversives did not, by ensuring their revolt knows when to remain silent.
Witnessing Rock's loudest and/or most extreme represented within by Final (Godflesh), Nijiumu (Fushitsusha), Ice (God), Null/Plotkin (Zeni Geva/OLD) or Main (Loop) as they switch from a scream to a whisper, indicates that the meditative search through silence is spreading. Here they join pop dissidents Rudy Tambala of AR Kane (Sufi), former Talk Talk players Lee Harris and Paul Webb ('O'rang) and comparative newcomers Disco Inferno in charting inner space.
Maybe it's indicative of todays social breakdowns that 75% of the contributors to this compilation appear in either solo or duo configurations. The prevalence of urban dwellers is also intriguing, given the unexpected currency of noise. It's not the Wagnerian bombast of Public Enemy or the distorted sprawl of those other brightly lit stars Sonic Youth; it's a more insidious route to the listener, as stray signals from the city are melted down. Far off drones emulate seamless traffic, distant sirens flit past as mechanical chatter appears in and out of earshot. By resuscitating The Slits' maxim that "silence is a rhythm too", these self-contained alien soundtracks pile on the tension in a manner similar to Throbbing Gristle providing the fear for Jarman's short headtrips, Popul Vuh glazing over Herzog's internal dialogues, even Jerry Goldsmith's Varèse-inspired paeon to alienation, "Planet Of The Apes".
Isolationist's asocial music is providing a suitable ambience for those people placing their faith in solipsism. Echoing the sentiments inferred in the title of Damien Hirst's 'Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding'.