Control Voltage's Friday Five: The Lost Ambient Weekend


by Philip Sherburne
Laurie Spiegel / Photo by Carlo Carnevali
Laurie Spiegel / Photo by Carlo Carnevali

Featuring an essential Laura Spiegel reissue, Ekoplekz, Bee Mask, Dino Sabatini, and Blut Aus Nord

My partner is out of town, it's grey and rainy here in Berlin, and I spent two hours trekking to and from an interview on the outskirts of the city (in a rehearsal space owned by Rammstein, at that). There's no way in hell I'm leaving the house again anytime soon. Cue up the drones! Today's selection is all about ambient music, from no-fi improv dub to a must-hear reissue from the mid-1970s. My definition of "ambient" is loose: It also includes subliminal, minimal techno and, why not, black metal. Read on.

Laurie Spiegel, The Expanding Universe (Unseen Worlds)
The last few years have seen a wealth of pioneering electronic music get the reissue treatment, including work by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. (Refreshingly, if somewhat poignantly, in the case of long-deceased artists, one unexpected side effect of the reissue boom has been to shine a spotlight on the many women who played central roles in the development of electronic music as we know it.) Laurie Spiegel's The Expanding Universe is a later work, having originally been released in 1980, and it comes from this side of the Atlantic—specifically, Murray Hill, New Jersey, where Spiegel worked at Bell Labs under the tutelage of Max Mathews, the creator of the world's first computer music program. (The software Max/MSP is named in his honor.) Synthesizers were old hat by the time Spiegel recorded the music on this album, but Mathews' system had nothing in common with the commercially available gear of the day; called Generating Realtime Operations on Voltage-Controlled Equipment (GROOVE), it was a multi-room apparatus combining mindblowing processing power (for its day and age), with computer interface, keyboard, and joystick. In Spiegel's hands, the output doesn't sound like "computer music" as we know it (certainly of the academic variety). The four tracks originally released on the LP are minimalist but expressive, with pinging arpeggios and sumptuous, raga-like drones; they will sound instantly familiar to anyone versed in the music of contemporary synth-music voyagers like Emeralds or Oneohtrix Point Never. I paid some $50 for an original pressing of the record last year, but that didn't stop me from buying the reissue, which adds 14 tracks from the same time period and fills two CDs. The previously unreleased "Drums" is particularly flabbergasting, if only for the way that it lays the groundwork for minimal techno over a decade before the genre was invented in Detroit and Berlin.

Bee Mask, Vaporware/Scanops (Room 40)
I have heard Chris Madak's two albums as Bee Mask on John Elliott's Spectrum Spools label and enjoyed them just fine, but I don't reach for them very often; they're noisy, freeform, and a little forbidding. What's different with the two long tracks that make up this release is the newfound sense of narrative. "Vaporware" begins with rhythmic pings reminiscent of early Autechre releases and slowly assumes shape—first with sci-fi chirps and shimmering strings, then Klaus Schulze-styled synth churn and ricocheting mallet tones; you end up far from where you began, but you'd be hard-pressed to say how you got there. "Scanops" is more placid, with almost New Age-y vocal pads, aquatic burble, and softly hammered ride cymbals, but it rises to a tumultuous, laser-strafed climax that will send the crystals-and-incense set running to secure their yurts. The mini-album is available both on vinyl and digital download.

Dino Sabatini, Shaman's Path (Prologue)
One wonders if, as a boy, Dino Sabatini marveled over the contours of the wine opener sitting on his family's dining table — he's from Rome; there must have been wine! — because his music, with its spiral sense of motion, resembles nothing so much as a corkscrew. Four years after his inaugural 12-inch for Munich's Prologue label (whose Spartan, hypnotic aesthetic his own work exemplifies), he delivers his debut LP. Sabatini has been honing his sound over the years; there's less of the throbbing acid underpinning that marked his work in the duo Modern Heads, and more hiss and shadow. On Shaman's Path, there's very little melody at all, just a constant thrum of drum machines, a faint wash of monochromatic synthesizer, and yawning chasms of reverb. His grey-scale preoccupations echo both Shackleton's more techoid productions and Sandwell District's post-punk affect; the deeper you listen, though, the more subtle colors you begin to perceive. I'm sure it sounds amazing on a well-tuned club system, but its filigreed details and hypnotic syncopations are just as apt at home. As you might guess from titles like "Trance State," "Ritual," and "Vision Quest," this is music for getting lost in.

Ekoplekz, Intrusive Incidentalz Vol. 2 (Punch Drunk)
Like Mordant Music, Ekoplekz (Bristol's Nick Edwards) is heavily indebted to the exploratory sonics of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, as well as the charred electronics of Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. There's a particularly English sensibility to his music—the press release for this album ventures it as an "oblique soundtrack for a broken Britain"—which is amplified by his embrace of dub, long one of Bristol's bedrock sounds. Like Intrusive Incidentalz Vol. 1, the music bears little in common with the rest of Peverelist's Punch Drunk catalog, typically geared towards heavy dance-floor cuts on the cusp between techno and dubstep (or at least, what dubstep originally meant). This is not dance music, although its squealy lineage runs back through Drexciya and the Rephlex label; it makes the Orb sound like easy listening, and Burial like the backing music to a Hallmark Cards commercial. Halloween is coming; play it for your trick-or-treaters, and watch them squirm.

Blut Aus Nord, 777 – Cosmosophy (Debemur Morti)
I'll admit, including the French black-metal act Blut Aus Nord in an electronic-music column might be a stretch. In my mind, though, a certain strain of slower-than-slow metal—Earth, Sunn O))), Blut Aus Nord—is pretty much ambient music by another name (albeit with much louder guitars, and occasional screams). Like ambient, this reverberant, doom-buoyed strain of metal is all about levitating in the infinite, is it not? In any case, Blut Aus Nord's use of synthesizers, drum machines, and effects surely qualifies it as a kind of electronic music, and that's particularly true on this, the final album of his 777 trilogy. I don't know what he's rapping about, but "Epitome XV" is essentially a horrorcore hip-hop track, except that it's way spookier than any horrorcore I've ever heard, and its breakbeats and curdled drones give way to soaring wall-of-sound guitars, moans, and blast beats before crashing back to the cracked pavement and crawling away like a wounded animal. More than anything, it reminds me of the goth-streaked breakbeat fugues of Witchman, a British producer who defined post-rave's dark side at its most grimly apocalyptic. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a volume knob to crank up.

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