Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A Brief History of Ambient Vols 1-4

1993, 1993, 1994, and 1994 in that order.

Landfill Indie, it's a brilliant phrase, concise and evocative. Coined by Andrew Harrison of The Word in order to describe a glut of bands from the mid-2000s who seemed to have grown up with mid-1990s Britpop. The children of Super Furry Animals, Teenage Fanclub, The Bluetones. They performed the soundtrack of the happy years, the boom time. A period in which your parents planned to sell their house and use the money to buy another house that they would rent out, and a house in Spain so that they could retire.

I've spent the last few minutes trying to come up with a pithy summary of the period - "Pierce Brosnan was James Bond, and Tony Blair was Prime Minister" - except that Pierce Brosnan had ceased to be James Bond by the height of the happy time. Was there a defining characteristic of Britain in the mid to late 2000s? Did Britain even exist any more? A country of supposedly nationalistic Daily Mail readers who nonetheless planned to jump ship to Spain at the first chance they had; a country where the government was pathetically grateful to Russians for keeping the capital city's property prices afloat.

Let us travel back to the early 1990s, skipping past landfill television talent competition shows and landfill boybands and landfill Britpop, and just before landfill drum and bass, but stopping before we reach landfill acid house or indeed landfill indie (of the C96 variety). The economy was just beginning to recover from a brief recession, but the crashing prices of music technology and the sudden rise of DJ culture created a boom in electronic music. Bomb the Bass demonstrated that chart success was within reach of anybody with an Atari ST, a knock-off copy of Cubase, some decks and an Akai - not cheap, but within reach if you really wanted it - breathe in and bags of talent as well, although if you had no talent there were formulas you could copy, patterns you could crib. As dance music mutated at a staggering pace there was room on the edges for something more esoteric, something that pushed the boundaries of what might be considered dance music, or indeed music. Or for that matter embroidery. Booms always seem bad in retrospect, but the influx of money creates an environment where the unusual can reach the masses, if only briefly.

And so in that little gap between The Shamen and Suede there was landfill ambient, an unlikely popular movement. A New Prog that appealed to young and old alike, and attracted the same audience as Old Prog. The curious; the brave; the eclectic; stoner hippies. It was dance music for people who were fed up with dancing and wanted to be bored instead. I say this without meaning to sound cruel. There is a world of difference between The Pigeon Detectives* and System 7. And it's really not the fault of the bands. Once a new trend emerges the record labels leap on it and go on a spending spree, and after the tide recedes there is flotsam on the beach, and a small group of youngish people who had a record out a few years ago, and now they're working for an insurance company and sometimes they DJ. I've always felt sorry for the b-list, the c-list of these landfill movements. They don't earn nearly enough to retire - they probably end up out of pocket - and then they have the rest of their lives to think about how they fulfilled their dream, but it was all wrong and nothing came of it.

* A guitar band from the mid-2000s. Here's a graph that shows how well their albums did - if you're old enough to remember Britpop it's a familiar-looking curve (viz The Bluetones, Echobelly, Cast):

Rewind forward to the fourth paragraph, in which I get to the point. I've started to absorb the style of Brief History's liner notes, because I'm an unusually receptive person. Circa 1992 the stars aligned and The Orb's U F Orb reached number one in the UK album charts. Unlike the US, which has dozens of different charts, the UK traditionally has just one album chart - with a separate one for compilations - and it is a major achievement if you can top it. This was the chart that The Orb topped. The same chart that The Beatles had topped thirty years earlier. In 1992 it was the chart of Simply Red and Annie Lennox.

The Orb's first LP, Meet The Orb, had sold well, and it seemed as if The Kids wanted music that they could dance to very slowly, or not at all. Like ballet, but with samples. Except that you can dance to ballet, 'cause it's ballet. Landfill ambient was never as huge as landfill indie. Global Communication's 76:14 sold in modest quantities, and - surprisingly - William Orbit failed to chart with any of his Strange Cargo albums ("Water from a Vine Leaf" reached #59). Nonetheless a bunch of artists who would otherwise have sold a few thousand records over a period of several years were suddenly on the front of Billboard magazine, viz:

The magazine suggests that ambient was popular because modern youth was suffering from stress. In 1994 Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Vol II and Eat Static's Implant reached number 11, Future Sound of London got to number 6 with Lifeforms, and The Orb again hit the top ten with the (frankly dreadful) Pomme Fritz, their very own Magical Mystery Tour.

But in the same year Massive Attack reached number four with Protection, and a year later Goldie reached number seven with Timeless, which both pointed to the direction that ambient would take. They were soundtracks of an urban environment, combining the reflection of ambient with a grit and humanity often absent from the genre. For most listeners in the UK - in Hay-on-Wye and Cromer and Berwick-on-Tweed - it was an urban environment that seemed like the far side of the moon, and I suspect that even in Tower Hamlets and Brixton the environment of Timeless was just as much a fantasy. But it felt real and alive and contemporary in a way that Lifeforms did not.

Protection pointed towards a post-ambient future, of trip-hop and downtempo that would quickly displace pure ambient, but therein lies the problem of writing about "ambient". The term is almost meaningless. By the 1990s it had been formalised into a modern revival of space-rock, and had become more of an ingredient than a main course. It latched on to downtempo breakbeat and begat trip-hop; it attached itself to dance music and produced trance; it swallowed indie rock and spat out all those bands that Pitchfork likes. And it's wrong to write about ambient music purely in the context of chart success. It was as much a culture of festivals and smoke-filled student bedsits and bulletin board systems.

I've got this far without really defining ambient. History records that modern ambient was devised by Brian Eno in the 1970s, but that's poppycock. The father of modern ambient is Irv Teibel, whose 1969 record Environments was a computer-enhanced recording of seashore noises intended to be used as a soothing background sound. "The music of the future isn't music", that was his slogan. His next record, Environments 2 (1970), was a sixty-minute recording of computer-generated bell noises that predated Brian Eno's Neroli by two decades. Roxy Music's first album came out two years later and Brian Eno didn't release Discreet Music until 1975, by which time case closed.

Ambient was originally intended as music to complement an environment, a kind of aural perpetuum mobile with more edge and more taste than New Age. The form hardened and mutated until by the 1990s it was shorthand for a kind of dubby, amorphous, sample-based electronic thing that sounded nice or sometimes terrifying but never crass. In the hands of The Orb and Future Sound of London it became a collage of samples and effects; the Aphex Twin and Global Crossing emphasised evolving textures. The parallels with Prog were obvious, although on a musical level it was hard to see the influence. The Orb may have had a stuffed sheep flying over a power station on the cover of Live '93 but the album's music had nothing in common with Animals. A few ambient musicians flirted with classical, but it was the modern classical of Philip Glass and Gavin Bryars rather than the traditional classical of Mussorgsky. The top ambient acts had nothing to do with the twiddly-diddly jazz of Hatfield & The North or the lumpy-pumpy bombast of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Mike Oldfield, perhaps, but then only in terms of structure.

Ambient existed before and after the early-1990s, of course, but it never had the same popular appeal outside that period. The kids were fickle and moved on, and so did I. But I still have the CDs, and the best of the ambient boom has held up. I prefer Lifeforms now than I did when it was new. At the time it seemed pompous and self-indulgent whereas The Orb never took themselves too seriously. 76:14 is almost a great lost masterpiece of the period, although it's not exactly obscure. Still, in some cases landfill ambient has aged heartbreakingly well, in the sense that there was something there that people turned their back on. It's odd to talk of substance when the genre prized amorphousness, but there is a substance to Lifeforms, a combination of accessibility and complexity achieved with equipment that nowadays seems very limited and clumsy. There is nothing quite like it in the charts today, the mainstream is no longer exposed to this kind of music, which bodes ill for the future.


Which brings me to the subject of this article. Virgin Records' Brief History of Ambient series. Four double-CD compilations of ambient tracks, initially drawn from Virgin's broad but dusty vaults, and then briefly from further afield. The four compilations kicked off a loosely-linked series of records that encompassed some more compilations and a couple of original albums. The series came across as a more accessible, less daunting modern heir of Brian Eno's Obscure series, but with an emphasis on electronic music rather than modern classical. The first and last of the Brief History albums are the best, the middle two could be raided to produce one good album. Cheerio!

(long pause)

The problem is that for the first three albums the compilers were restricted to artists who were distributed by Virgin Records, and in fact the liner notes of Volume Two apologise for this. A Brief History of Ambient Volume 1: 152 Minutes 33 Seconds, to give it its full name, has a short essay by Virgin Records' Simon Hopkins that does a good job of hyping up the ambient boom, but it suffers badly from overselling the goods. After talking about the works of Eric Satie, Terry Riley, and John Cage - after whose "Four Minutes Thirty-Three Seconds" the album draws half of its title - the record itself delves no further into the past than an excerpt from Tangerine Dream's Phaedra (1974) and of course it has nothing from Warp Records' Artificial Intelligence series, for example. Curiously, despite being mentioned twice in the essay, Sven Vath doesn't appear on any of the compilations. Who was Sven Vath? I have no idea.

BOXOUT: Lighting a Candle
Re-reading this article I probably sound harsher than I feel. I'm fond of the Brief History series because I listened to it at an impressionable age, but it's no Nuggets. Still, they say you should light a candle instead of cursing the dark, so imagine that it's 1993 and I have an unlimited budget to produce a two-disc "brief history of ambient" record. What would it be like?

I want to entertain and surprise the listener, illustrate the breadth and amorphousness of the ambient label, fill the listener with dreams (most important), and also sell records and have some fun. I would be tempted to put stuff that would surprise a mainstream listener on disc one and put all the pop hits on disc two - The Orb, FSOL, System 7, something from Bowie's Berlin Period, plus Brian Eno and Robert Fripp etc, and I would end it with John Cage's 4:33 as a means of demonstrating that ambient music is all around us. Thus a double-LP - it has to be an LP - that is interesting and can also have a FEATURING THE ORB sticker on the front.

You can compile disc two. This is what I came up with for disc one:

00:00 Thunderstorm, Zambia
02:43 John Taverner: Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas (excerpt)
06:38 Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel (excerpt)
09:53 Erik Satie: Gnossienne No.1
13:14 Babatunde Olatunji: Oya (excerpt)
18:42 Camille Saint-Saëns: L'Assassinat du duc de Guise: Third Movement (excerpt)
20:50 Wendy Carlos: Winter (excerpt)
25:54 Hamza El Din: The Water Wheel (excerpt)
27:59 Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach: Knee Play 5
33:28 Frank Sinatra: In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning
36:24 Sydney Baynes: Destiny (excerpt)
38:12 Joe Meek: Glob Waterfall (excerpt)
39:42 Miles Davis: Moon Dreams


On the positive side the compilers had access to Brian Eno, The Future Sound of London, Tangerine Dream, Harold Budd, and a clutch old old Krautrock bands. This was shortly before Julian Cope's Krautrocksampler made people take notice of Krautrock again, and I remember first discovering Faust and Ash Ra Tempel from Brief History rather than Cope's book. But on the other hand the compilers didn't have access to anything from before 1972 - which rules out the real pioneers of ambient sound and most of the artists I chose for my own compilation above - and none of Tangerine Dream's pre-Virgin records such as Zeit or Alpha Centauri, or anything by the Aphex Twin or The Orb, although they managed to circumvent this by including an Orb remix of a track by Virgin Records' The Grid on volume two.

In this respect A Brief etc is simply not fit for purpose as a history of ambient, because it's really just a label sampler. As a historical document it's vastly inferior to OHM: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music, a fantastic three-CD compilation that came out in 2000 and filled in a lot of the gaps in my musical education. But as a mixed collection of interesting music that the average listener would probably not have found in the local record shop it's a lot more successful, and I remember listening to it all the time in 1993. Judging by Youtube's comments it's remembered fondly as a gateway drug to greater things. It segues from the obvious (Brian Eno's "An Ending", Tangerine Dream's "Phaedra") to surprising gems such as an obscure and excellent dub remix of Killing Joke's "Requiem" by Thrash. William Orbit's "Monkey King" is surprisingly tasteful, and the lovely "Home" by David Sylvain ends disc one on a happy note. Disc two tends to the New Age, which is unfortunate, and I remember playing disc one far more often. There's a surprising dearth of dub, too, which popped up more often on the later volumes.

Brief itself was released as a twin-CD set with all of the tracks mixed together. It was never released on vinyl. The liner notes for Volume 4 try to justify this on account of CD's "capacity for duration and spatial awareness", but c'mon. This is stoner spliff music for bedroom DJs. It begs for vinyl, they just didn't have the budget for it. Some of the tracks on Brief are edited, and although the mixing is neatly done you are probably better off using the track listing to create a Youtube playlist than listening to the actual album nowadays.

I have no idea how well it sold. I remember first hearing about it in an early issue of Future Music, and it seems to be fondly-remembered amongst people of a certain age. Nuggets and the Pebbles compilations famously helped to revive interest in garage punk at a time when the average kid would have found it almost impossible to get hold of good old records; Metal for Muthas and the NME's C96 tape had a similar part to play in the UK in the 1980s. But within a few years of the Brief History albums the average kid had the internet, which could download essentially every song ever recorded for free - whilst at the same time making it much easier to order obscure records from far afield* - and so I surmise that the series' influence could never have matched that of its ancestors. Furthermore the general free rave / acid house idiom from which the series sprang was quickly obliterated by Britpop, which eschewed dope and cider in favour of lager and fighting and cocaine.

* I remember the first record I ordered, rather than simply bought from a shop. It was Kraftwerk's The Man Machine, but I didn't order it online; I ordered it from the counter of my local Our Price. In the past, you had to order things from the people behind the counter. Imagine that! The first album I ordered online came from a place called PastelBlue, which is so old it predates the internet archive. It changed its name to Cheap or What! CDs in 1997 or so and no longer exists. The record was Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass. It was 1995, and I remember thinking that CDs made sense in an online context, because they could fit through the letterbox and they were all the same. "Why", I thought to myself, "ten years from now HMV will dominate the internet, it just has to write an internet front-end for its shop ordering system and then close all of its shops and lay off most of the staff = profit".

What became of the artists? The Future Sound of London went on to even greater commercial heights after the Brief albums. Their high water mark was 1997, when they came tantalisingly close to Chemical Brothers-esque mainstream success. The back catalogues of the Krautrock acts that appear on the early discs were given a boost by Krautrocksampler, although only Faust reformed and reestablished their career. Robert Fripp, David Sylvian, Jah Wobble all remained within the ruts which they will inhabit until they die.

Along with The Designer's Republic, Mr Riphead - real name Mark - was one of the key record inlay artists of the electronic 1990s, my generation's Barney Bubbles. Electronic artists of the period prided themselves on facelessness, but human beings are visual animals, and Riphead provided FSOL's fans with something to look at.

Brian Eno casts a huge shadow over the series. He appears more often than any other artist, both solo and as part of an ensemble, and is the figure most often credited with devising modern ambient music, or at least giving it a name and bringing it to the attention of a mainstream audience. As far as I know he had no formal association with the series, and he doesn't write any of the inlay essays. Eno had been a presence in the music scene since the 1970s, but although his work in both the ambient and rock fields was very influential he didn't really become a mainstream figure until around the time of Brief History. Nowadays he remains Britain's most visible and recognisable modern electronic ambient boffin, and one of the few record producers that most people could name, but he is more famous for his collaborations and past works than the albums he releases today, which tend to get grudgingly positive reviews in the music press although no-one buys them.

His early ambient releases, Discreet Music (1975) and Music for Airports (1978) were originally intended as site-specific aural sculptures, which raises the issue of site-specificality. They preceded the Sony Walkman, which transformed the way that people listened to music. The impact of the Walkman on ambient music deserves a separate essay of its own. It allowed people to shut off the natural ambient sonic environment wherever they went, and replace it with an environment of their own choice - while simultaneously the distinctive tick-a-tick-a sound of Walkman headphones altered the ambient environment for anyone nearby. Histories of the Walkman tend to have a common anecdote, in which the storyteller puts the headphones on for the first time and is suddenly made aware of a disconnection between the world outside and a new, interior world of the self. On a personal level I did not realise that I was a human being until I first heard the music of Duran Duran through a set of Walkman headphones; it suddenly struck me that I was a spirit floating in space, surrounded by empty blackness, and as a consequence I am forever grateful to Now That's What I Call Music volume whatever for opening my mind.

The Walkman isolated us in worlds of our own creation. Was the 1980s a decade of disconnection? I wasn't there, I can't tell. The isolation of the Walkman age was replaced in the 1990s and 2000s by the connection of the mobile phone, but the ease of modern telecommunications has devalued social contact, to a point where interaction no longer has any weight. People Tweet from their parents' funerals, they post links on their Facebook wall as a means of impressing strangers they will never meet. But perhaps it was ever thus. Vanity and shallowness are not unique to the modern age. Let's talk about Virgin's Brief History of Ambient records again, before they go cold.

Mike Oldfield doesn't appear at all anywhere on the records in any shape or form. Oldfield's Tubular Bells was famously Virgin's first LP and also a monster hit, and along with follow-up albums Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn it was a big influence on the late-80s ambient rave scene. But Oldfield grew to hate Virgin's indifference to his career and in 1992 he signed with Warners, and immediately released the popular Tubular Bells II, so I surmise either that he was persona non grata at Virgin or that he had forbidden the label from using any of his music.

If I had written this article in 2000 I would probably now talk about Moby, whose 1999 album Play was a huge hit for Virgin's V2 records. It was one of the best-selling albums in the UK at the turn of the millennium. Any of the tracks on Moby's 1993 album Ambient would have fit into the Brief History records, but of course he wasn't on Virgin in 1993. I mention Play because it feels almost like the last final fling of the mainstream ambient pop genre. It was a target of scorn for its overuse in television commercials, but has there been anything like it since 2000, or at least anything like it that also sold millions of records?

Volume 2 was subtitled Imaginary Landscapes. It was essentially a watered-down continuation of the first record. It had many of the same names, including David Sylvian, Tangerine Dream, Robert Fripp, and Brian Eno, who appears no less than six times. Admittedly two of the Eno tracks are from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Music for Airports, landmarks in their respective fields that should have been included on the first album. Disc two flirts with the mainstream, with tracks from The Verve (in their early psychedelic guise: boring) and a rare solo number by U2's The Edge, which is surprisingly good.

The only real hidden gem is "Arrival" by Voyager, and it's obvious that the compilers were starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel. Bassomatic's "Attack of the 50 Foot Drum Demon" isn't ambient at all, it's a dull lightweight dance track. To the untrained ear a lot of the music on the Brief History albums sound as if the artist was feeding random samples through an effects box; Klaus Shulze's "Nachtmusik Schattenhaft" appears to be just this, but crucially it's boring rather than mesmerising. It sounds amateurish and unfinished. As I write these words I'm listening to my copy of Global Communications' 76:14, which pounds "Nachtmusik Schattenhaft" into the dust.

The Grid appear for the second time, with a song remixed by The Orb, presumably so that the compilers could get The Orb onto the record. Volume Two was released a few months before The Grid had their one big hit with "Swamp Thing", so I assume the compilers must have sincerely liked them. Nobody remembers The Grid or "Swamp Thing" today.

Volume 3: The Music of Changes is essentially more of the same so it should really have been called Volume 3: The Music of Staying the Same because it didn't change do you see. It has Brian Eno five times instead of six, Robert Fripp four times, FSOL twice, David Sylvian four times. FSOL's Cascade is an excellent summary of the band's art during the Lifeforms era and along with the Wobble / Czukay / Liebezeit track "Mystery RPS" it dominates the second disc. 3 feels less barrel-scrapey than 2, if only because it's consistently listenable and doesn't have Bassomatic. In my opinion the compilers should have simple folded the best of 2 and 3 together and called it a day, but presumably the series sold well enough to justify extending it to four albums, which is a good thing because the fourth album was a cracker.

Ambient 4: Isolationism is the odd one out. The compilers were allowed to licence tracks from other labels, although they seem to have been restricted to exclusives, and so the record has 23 songs not available elsewhere. As a consequence the record was quite valuable on the used market for a time - if only for Aphex Twin's "Aphex Airlines", which is basically a throwaway novelty - although of course it's now available on the internet for nothing. The overall tone is much darker than the first three albums and as a coherent whole it's the most effective of the bunch. It has a theme, a thesis. The liner essay was written by a chap called Kevin Martin, a well-connected figure on the periphery of modern music. Martin appeared on Volume 2 under the alias God. His side projects Ice and Techno Animal appear on Isolationism, which suggests either that the compilers found it hard to fill the albums with original music or that Kevin Martin was a bit forward in promoting himself.

There's something quite melancholic about Ambient 4. Twenty years ago the likes of Jim O'Rourke and Thomas Köner - no less than three of the artists on the album have umlauts in their names, four if you count the sideways umlauts of :zoviet*france: - seemed to be on the cutting edge of something, the vanguard of something, some great underground movement of unsmiling young men who wore sunglasses indoors and participated in Berlin-based arts festivals.

A great something that never arrived, because twenty years later what did they amount to? What became of them? Nothing, for the most part. Their music did not change the world and was not the future, and unlike the shrewder, more commercially-minded, and generally better Aphex Twin they didn't even sell a few tracks to film soundtracks and advertisers. Disco Inferno ran out of money; the other artists seem to have struggled into the early 2000s before giving up. You have to wonder about the economics of working as a cutting edge underground electronic musician, having to earn £700 a month to pay the rent plus a few hundred pounds to pay for your hobby; presumably all of these people had day jobs that eventually took up most of their time. Paul Schütze's 1995 album Apart is lovely, bleak, but what did it lead to? If it led to just more underground artists begatting each other, what was the point?

It was the holier-than-thou attitude that I hated at the time. The indoors-sunglasses attitude; the fact that these people were essentially posers. Perhaps Schütze and his contemporaries realised that they needed to sell themselves with an image and an attitude, because human beings are visual animals, but in my opinion they went about it the wrong way. They ghettoised themselves. They wedged themselves into a niche. The nailed themselves to the past.

What's the album like, though? As a coherent listening experience it works generally well, with a lengthy build-up to the dubby "Dredger", followed by a come-down to the bleak, funereal "Self Strangulation". Unfortunately Paul Schütze's "Hallucinations" is uncharacteristically dreadful - it sounds like the music that plays in a quiz show when there is a countdown - but the record then picks up with a dubby track from Scorn. I find it hard to listen to Disco Inferno without thinking about the band's sad fate. Non-musicians generally assume that bands magicalise money out of thin air, or that they're happy to be poor, or they all club together to help out, but the reality is that musicians have to pay rent and hire vans just like everybody else, and even bands with a record deal can be poor; and they still have to pay the rent. I mention this twice because it's of fundamental importance. £700 a month, fuck you, pay me. That reality is always there, and musicians are for the most part bitches who love it when their competition fails.

And even if the rent is within reach, what then? If the band tours, who pays for the hotel bills? The record label doesn't. Who pays for travel, and for equipment hire? And if the end result is £50 profit a week to share between four people, what happens when you grow old? Disco Inferno released three excellent albums of experimental pop music that could easily have been used in television adverts; they are the kind of band that might have collaborated with Damon Albarn or written the soundtrack for a lottery-funded arts experience or some kind of New Labour New Media initiative. There was potential for them to make a living wage, and they're one of the few acts on Isolationism that could potentially have turned into a straightforward rock band. But their equipment was stolen while they were on tour, and they never managed to recover from the financial blow, and then they retired, defeated.

Side one of Isolationism ends with "Once Again I Cast Myself into the Flames of Atonement" by a band called Nijiumu. It sounds like a parody of horror film music, with clanking chains and howling cries of torment. I'll quote from George Starostin's review of Current 93's second album:
    "Put two fingers in a horizontal position, make a hideous face, and say "BOOO!" to a child sitting a couple of feet away. He'll be scared shitless, the little wimp. Now do that one more time. And again, and again, and again. Keep going, old man, as if you were an old scratched record. Eventually, the kid will either start laughing at ya or, more probable, he'll just get bored and go on eating his cereals or whatever."

That's the impression I get from "Once Again I Cast Myself Etc". It's just silly. I'm still listening to 76:14 and although it wasn't intended as a dark ambient record, it has a coldness to it at times that makes "Once Again Etc" seem as scary and cheap as a Jess Franco film.

Disc two opens with Aphex Twin's "Aphex Airlines", which must by a homage to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. In a neat piece of sequencing the second track begins with abrupt quiet, so the overall effect is of being released from torture. There is more dub and then "Little Sister" by Talk Talk offshoot O'Rang, which isn't dark at all. It sounds like a more upbeat version of Talk Talk's extraordinary later albums. It's one of the few tracks on Isolationism that makes me feel sad that the band never went anywhere. O'Rang released two albums that are by all accounts excellent, but it wasn't enough. Talk Talk had rotten luck in the UK charts, where they were dwarfed by even The Smiths, and it seems that there was a curse on them and all the people who sailed with them.

From that point onwards the album turns into drone music. I'm not sure how to critically evaluate drone music, but it complemented my mood and I was not averse to it. The final track, by Thomas Köner, sounds like the traces of an atmosphere being pumped through gigantic fans on the exterior of an enormous industrial complex on the surface of a metal moon. It smells like soot and processed air, like a waystation on a train line to the end of the universe. It's a shame that Isolationism was the last in the series; just as the compilers were getting into a groove, they stopped.

Postscript: Moods
The Brief History series wasn't Virgin's only ambient compilation series. In 1991 the company released Moods: A Contemporary Soundtrack, a collection of what would then have been called Easy Listening tracks. I think of it as folk ambient, in the sense that it had all the characteristics of an ambient record - background music designed to accompany a living room, or the interior of a car whilst commuting to work - but it was naff, so it didn't count. Moods was advertised on TV and was aimed at a general mainstream audience. The track listing included Enigma's "Sadeness", Jan Hammer's "Crockett's Theme", and songs from Vangelis and Kenny G etc. Covers of the same pieces of music often appeared in Synthesiser Spectacular-esque compilation albums, but here they were presented in their original versions, because Virgin had a bigger budget (in fact the compilers seem to have had a bigger budget than the people who put together the Brief History records, because Enya (for example) was on Virgin's arch-rival Warners).

Moods can be used to illustrate the ranking system that existed in the world of ambient music. At the naffest level there was Elton John's "Song for Guy" and anything by Enya; at a slightly higher level there was the quasi-ambient, quasi-world music, quasi weak techno of Enigma, Deep Forest, and Transglobal Underground, who were still naff, and higher than them - by quite a jump - there was The Orb, Future Sound of London, Aphex Twin in that order, with Aphex Twin at the top. The irony is that only levels one and two were really used as an ambient accompaniment for something else; as an unconscious background music that people put on while they were doing the ironing or reading the newspaper. FSOL wanted you to listen intently to their music with headphones, and in that sense they weren't really ambient at all. You'll note that for my own compilation I have chosen artists who belong in the highest rank, or who exist above it, because I have superior taste. I always had the impression that ambient musicians felt themselves inferior to jazz composers such as Miles Davis and modern classical musicians such as Gavin Bryars, but that is again a whole new essay. Perhaps it was simply because they were younger.

By the time of Brief History the Moods series had mutated into Pure Moods, which was slightly edgier, in the sense that Chris De Burgh is a slightly edgier Barry Manilow. But then again "Copacabana" is basically The Sopranos but with a melancholy postscript, and "A Spaceman Came Travelling" implies that Christians can call down artillery strikes from space on their enemies, so who is edgier? Volume one had Jan Hammer and Kenny G again, but it also had Brian Eno ("Another Green World", which was also used as the theme to the TV arts show Arena), plus Ryuichi Sakamoto and The Orb. Later volumes included Sheila Chandra, who also appeared on the first Brief History record, plus Massive Attack and the Afro-Celt Soul System. Although Pure Moods bought pleasure to many people I am of the opinion that it was a failure on an artistic level. Recontextualising The Orb and Brian Eno as easy listening acts does not elevate easy listening, it diminishes The Orb and Brian Eno, and after reading Wikipedia's surprisingly detailed summary of the Pure Moods series I'm left with a new-found appreciation for the Brief History albums. It must have been tempting to include a few tracks by Enigma, who were on the Virgin label, but the compilers resisted. They had a certain amount of class.


And that is that for the Brief History records. Virgin continued to use the AMBT catalogue number for a loosely-linked series of ambient albums, most of which were compilations, although there were original records from Paul Schütze and Techno Animal amongst a few others. Later entries tied in with David Toop's Ocean of Sound multimedia project, and Toop seems to have played a major role in compiling the post-Brief History instalments.

The series came to an end in 1997, the year of Radiohead's OK Computer and Spiritualised's Ladies and Gentlemen we are Floating in Space, and Bjork's Homogenic, Reprazent's New Forms, Photek's debut album, all of which were popular or award-winning or both. It's tempting to conclude that the series had done its job, although I suspect that this overstates its influence. The Brief History albums have a huge blind spot when it comes to drum'n'bass - there are a few drum'n'bass artists, but no real drum'n'bass tracks - and my recollection of the period was that drum'n'bass was far more fashionable than ambient. But was drum'n'bass a parallel evolution of ambient, or a closely-related and less uptight twin? I can't tell, I was only young at the time.

As a mainstream genre "ambient" died a death by the 2000s, but the widespread availability of new music, combined with the crashing prices of portable computers, the popularity of music applications, the rise and rise of digital home recording, the ease with which VST instruments can replace expensive physical synthesisers and so forth mean that each man and woman now has the means to create their own ambient soundtrack and broadcast it to the world. The grand cathedrals of the past have given way to the bazaars of the present.

But is this a good thing? When I think of a bazaar I think of government troops pouring through it, smashing the shops and arresting the shopkeepers; I think of bulldozers crushing it at the behest of the church and government. Individually the shopkeepers are weak, and together they are weak. Like rats or insects they rise again to rebuild the bazaar, but it will always be a lot of scruffy shops. It will always be weak, trapped by idealism and a simple lack of resources. It lives to be crushed.