Brian Eno and John Cale

Wrong Way Up (Warner Bros 1990)

It took quite a long time for me to appreciate this one. It’s the most middlebrow, mature and accessible release by either gentleman and those three adjectives weren’t exactly the most endearing to me when I initially immersed myself in their respective discographies long ago.  I foolishly looked at the 1990 release date and the garish cover art and never gave Wrong Way Up its due since it sounded a bit slick and lacking in the drifting stasis of 70s Eno or the unsettling, orchestral gravitas of Cale’s early string of solo albums. I wanted them to be obtuse and challenging, but that was my shortcoming because these two brilliant musicians had mellowed and now traveled along a different pathway than those that inspired their colorful origin. This was their attempt at a pop album and I now see the beauty and mastery that lurked behind its superficially slick sheen.

Wrong Way Up opens with the familiar strain of Cale’s viola playing on “Lay My Love” as Eno croons a cosmic yarn about the inherent power of love to transcend time and space. It’s a sentimentally hippie sentiment couched in cyberpunk imagery and its somehow touching despite the revulsion I feel at tying those two disparate genres together in one untidy knot. It’s a perfect synthesis of their musical outlooks as Cale’s viola lends it a stately grace to counteract the clunky electro-pop of Eno. It’s kind of like the pop songs on Another Green World with an orchestral bent. That’s a quite a combo in my book.

“One Word” was the commercially released single from Wrong Way Up and there is no way in hell that it ever had a chance at the top 40. My snarky cynicism isn’t due to poor quality control, but because it is way too bright, witty and impressionistic to ever capture the imagination of the dullards of our imperfect universe. This song is like a microcosm of the album as the two men trade stanzas establishing competing viewpoints as one argues for the power of words to derail any sense of camaraderie in this combative world while the other paints an idealistic picture of a world where words have the power to unite us all under the same banner. For some reason, this setting for this existential debate skips from the Louvre to Cologne and drops allusions to oil paintings by Welsh painter Augustus John, but these idiosyncrasies are what make this such a lovably unlikely stab at commercialism. It’s just another reason why I believe Wrong Way Up belongs in the same discussion as Cale and Eno’s accepted classics when you take a long listen to it and pay attention to the little eccentricities that define it.

“Empty Frame” is a head scratcher in the best possible way as Eno tries his hand at melding his 70s pop aesthetic to 50s pop music as the song rises and falls on a wave of “whoa, whoa whoas” like he’s aiming for some stoned, avant-garde take on “Runaround Sue.”  It sounds so uplifting, but listen closely and the song is really about a crew of unwitting sailors headed towards their demise by a clueless captain as they are slowly driven insane looking for signs of safety and survival. It’s a saccharine sweet tune laced with a tale full of arsenic. Again, these contradictions and literary flourishes are the lifeblood of Wrong Way Up and explain why a cursory listen is destined to obscure the brilliance that lies under its surface.

What would an album full of contradictions and idiosyncrasies be without a oddball honky-tonk number by John Cale?  “Crime in the Desert” tackles familiar country and western themes of women in love with broken hearted souls, tumbling dice and murder in the murky moonlight. However, Cale’s rollicking piano playing is juxtaposed over Eno’s enthusiastic bleeps and it somehow takes on a post-modern flair of its very own. It’s a bizarre, yet infectious twist on Americana that tweaks familiar themes and makes it into something wholly unique that could only be created by these two weathered crackpots.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Just because it is rarely mentioned in the same hallowed breath as Paris 1919 or Here Come the Warm Jets doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pour yourself a glass of wine and get very familiar with Wrong Way Up. It is the most poetic and literary effort by both men and boasts some of their best lyrical work. Yes, the production kind of mucks things up a bit when you approach it as a backseat listener, but Wrong Way Up is the sound of two geniuses navigating their way through their middle ages and pondering love, life and mortality in their own peculiar way.

Global Communications

76:14 (Dedicated 1994)

Sometimes I obsessively search for the “perfect” album to post here at the expense of countless ones whose brilliance is overshadowed by the filler that hinders its chance at greatness. That’s a shame since this omits so many beloved fragments just because they don’t quite complete the jigsaw puzzle I’ve built up in my snooty mind. These meanderings rambled through my noggin as I revisited Global Communications’ 76:14 album for the first time in a decade and literally became teary-eyed while listening to the opening strains of “14.31.” All of 76:14’s titles signify their length and I found myself wishing it could be renamed something approximating” infinity and beyond” as a deceptively simple trio of a circular keyboard pattern, waxing and waning waves of synthesizers and a ticking clock coalesce into the kind of aural experience that makes you feel like you are levitating a few inches off of the earth. It’s easily one of the true ambient records in that it changes your mood instantly and alters your immediate reality without ever quite rising above a whisper. If only I lugged a blood pressure cuff around for kicks so I could test my new theory that 76:14 lowers my blood pressure when the right tracks are played in my general vicinity.

Global Communication consisted of an English duo, Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton, who were an integral part of the 90s ambient scene popularized by The Orb, early Autechre, Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. People tend to forget albums like the KLF’s Chill Out and Future Sounds of London’s Lifeforms and artists like Biosphere, Higher Intelligence Agency, Pete Namlook and early Black Dog which is a shame since many of the aforementioned artists released work that fits snugly against the discographies of Brian Eno, Roedelius, Cluster, Moebius and Tangerine Dream, let alone the swath of 70s synth loners that seem to get reissued and snapped up by folks turned onto these sounds by today’s kinded spirits like Emeralds, Oneohtrix Point Never and Steve Moore. Maybe it’s because the 90s ambient scene got lumped into the unfortunate genre of electronica that it gets snubbed due to its unfortunate association with such unfortunate genres as trip-hop and electronica and folks got blinded by the haze of glow sticks and MDMA, but there are so many gems patiently waiting for your discerning ears to validate their existence.

Anyhow, lets get back to the thesis laid out in the first sentence of this rambling mess of a review. 76:14 is by no means a perfect album as a few tracks dull its edge as Pritchard and Middleton let the beat take center stage at the expense of the pristine ambience that is meticulously crafted throughout the remainder of the album. However, even the stinkers are bearable in a mellow, shuffling and aimless way, but 76:14’s summits erase your mental chalkboard pretty quickly and you forgive them for their foibles. I’ve even grown to love “9.25” even though it is centered around a slow-motion breakbeat since it slathers on a healthy slab of 4ad inspired etherealness comlplete with angelic coos and a subliminal wash of whispers that make it just weird enough to pass muster.

Even though I sheepishly admitted that “14.31” nearly reduced me to quivering jelly, the true centerpiece of 76:14 can be found in its majestic finale “12.18.” During my admittedly amateurish research of this album, I consulted the sages at who’ve reviewed this album over the past 17 years and was pleasantly surprised to see the litany of praise for this track as one of the most gorgeous ambient compositions of all-time. Yes, it sounds like pure bullshit and sheer hyperbole, but it is so goddamn true. This track sends that same shiver up my spine as Arvo Part, Steve Reich, Roedelius’ Lustwandel, Cocteau Twins’ Treasure, Lisa Gerrard’s Mirror Pool and countless other albums and songs that seem like they were plucked from an alien universe to teach us how life affirming, moving and goddamn radiant music can be when you aim for synchronicity. For once, I must pay tribute to those surprisingly erudite souls at because they are right on the money. “12.18” honestly eclipses 99% of anything ever  it labeled as ambient music as qualifies as a spiritual cleansing through sound. It’s the kind of ethereal fog you want to dive into during times of distress as if it were an aural womb. It is a peaceful, calm place where all is right in your godforsaken world and it alone makes this admittedly uneven album a transcendent one.


February 18, 2012


Tonspuren(Sky 1983)

As a recent transplant to the universe of fatherhood, the connotations of 3am have changed dramatically. What was once a tardy witching hour spent winding down after an evening that should’ve mercifully ended long ago has been replaced with a piercing cry that jolts you to your very core as it brutally catapults you from the stasis of slumber into a panicked race to cradle and comfort your child. Don’t get me wrong. I greatly prefer my newfound existence far more than my latter days spent aimlessly meandering towards unconsciousness with stoned drones and their ambient counterparts as my trusted escorts towards a deep sleep. However, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have many fond memories of late night drives to nowhere in particular or burning the last drops of the midnight oil with Moebius’ Tonspuren as my co-pilot on countless bouts with insomnia. I love Tonspuren because it is simultaneously soothing and familiar, yet ominous and alien like some bastardized misappropriation of muzak. Its uneasy listening perfectly captures the vibe of driving through a strange metropolis once all the bars have closed and its citizens are asleep and all that’s left is the gauzy illumination of skyscrapers and steam rising from ramshackle vents until everyone repeats the same routine in the morning. It’s the sound of circuitry winding down as all the machinery slowly comes to a standstill. I’ve always had a fascination for meandering through whatever city I reside after life undergoes its nightly standstill and Tonspuren has been my trusted companion on many a nocturnal voyage.

I guess that’s enough hyperbole for one review, but Tonspuren is one of those albums near and dear to my heart even though it makes for a woozy, tense listen. Tonspuren was Moebius’ first solo album after his break with krautrock pioneers Cluster and a successful series of collaborations with Brian Eno and Conny Plank. Although it doesn’t stray far from the hypnotic, repetitive and lovely blueprint laid down in past works, it possesses an icy coldness and aura of alienation that only lurked in the background of his other works. There is an airy, ethereal ambiance in the forefront at first listen, but a dark, sinister vibe overtakes it on repeated listens as you get the sense he was not in a good place when he recorded this one. I also love how Tonspuren gradually grows more dismal and apocalyptic as each track documents a progression towards light melody to dark dissonance. It kind of serves as a fitting counterpart to Roedelius’, his former partner in Cluster, work during this time period. While Roedelius was crafting shimmering and perfect piano driven soundtracks, Moebius was doing the same, but dragging it through the mud and grime to conjure a wildly opposing reaction from his listener. It’s fitting that one would be the yin to the other’s yang as they both occupy the same stylistic orbit but have always explored diverging trajectories. Both artists aimed to create something moving and beautiful, but I will will always prefer Moebius because his music never settled for gorgeous gracefulness and allowed the ugliness and the glitches in the machinery to serve as a counterpoint, which is what makes Tonspuren an infinitely more compelling listen than most of what his peers ever created.

Vladislav Delay-Anima

November 24, 2008

Vladislav Delay

Anima (Mille Plateaux 2001)

Growing up in Philadelphia, I was lucky to have a duo of excellent college radio stations to introduce me to a cavalcade of strange and wonderful sounds that my meager paycheck could never quite afford. My teenage years as well as college breaks were spent glued to Princeton’s WPRB and Drexel’s WKDU because you truly heard the good, the bad and the ugly of what independent labels and assorted oddballs had to offer. One the internet was introduced to my measly existence, WFMU also swooped in to sink me further into a crippling addiction to music.

However, there is a distance or apathy that can arise once you’ve digested the major food groups and the airwaves seem to introduce to old friends instead of exciting new flames. Thankfully, life constantly provides sudden inspiration and spark because one lonely night brought Vladislav Delay’s Anima to my car radio.

It was a mundane evening filled with such highlights as shopping for clothing and toiletries when a WKDU DJ played Anima in its entirety and I literally took the longest route possible to the humdrum mall in order to soak in every single note. I’m a big fan of ambient music that can whisk me off to my own little world and the gentle, stuttering beats, synthesized whooshes and echo of their aftermath gripped me by the collar immediately. That isn’t to say that there aren’t hundreds of other albums that traverse the same byways and highways, but this one clicked with the cold air and sunset on my horizon. It was a perfect intersection of moment and music and I still associate with lonely drives to aimless destinations in the dead of winter. Although Delay’s music has made great stylistic strides since this early release, I always find myself nostalgic for the first moment that his music utterly bewitched me and summed up all I love about gazing at a starry sky and pondering the quieter moments in life.

Various Artists(Compiled by David Toop)

Ocean of Sound (Virgin UK 1996)

links are down, but will be reposted tomorrow.

Although it sometimes spends too much time sniffing its own arse, The Wire, a British magazine, has helped turn me on to new horizons during the thirteen years I have read its pontifications. Yes, I could do without its testimonials to grime and its ill-fated interludes with post-rock, but no current magazine delves into the nitty gritty of oddball musics like they do. Although he doesn’t seem to write for them anymore, David Toop’s meanderings on music warped my mind in new directions. To be honest, I read them now and find less to love, but his articles and book Ocean of Sound provided the context for why I found whirrs, buzzes and drones to be such a wonderland. In 1996, Toop wrote a book entitled Ocean of Sound which attempted to trace the history of ambient music as well as the motivations behind those who devoted themselves to its creation. He touched on Satie, Terry Riley, Eno and Aphex Twin and how supposed background music became an artform. I still kind of dig this book, but years have hardened me and I no longer have the same bright-eyed and bushy-tailed look as I read the words. However, this book really gave my musical loves a sense of place. It connected dots and made sense of things that my young mind didn’t grasp until then.

A double cd was released in conjunction with book and I’ll be damned if there isn’t a better compendium of music to correlate with the book’s explorations of the ability of music to create an atmosphere. Now the book and compilation do not limit themselves to mellow bubbles and chirps since Peter Brotzmann and Ornette Coleman play a role as well as My Bloody Valentine and Jon Hassell. I love the diversity of this collection because its field recordings of howler monkeys and rain songs just melt into the more austere terrain of Harold Budd. At heart, it is just an excellent mix tape devoted to the power of sound by a man who put all of his love into each selection.

Phil Manzanera-Diamond Head

October 11, 2008

Phil Manzanera

Diamond Head

As an English teacher, I always gravitate towards a strong introduction. Amidst the dreck, there are those essays that begin with a statement of purpose that gets your full attention while setting the stage for the story to come. Since I am also a music junkie, there is something compelling about the rare album that grabs you by the wazoo and informs you that this artist means business. It seems like an easier task if you traffic in the genres of punk or metal as you can blaze through the opening minutes, but a prog-pop album with Tropicalia influences has a much higher handicap in the first at-bat.

Diamond Head was Phil Manzanera’s debut and it is kind of surprising when you consider that he made his name as the guitarist for Roxy Music. It is less surprising when you dig deeper to find that he contrinuted to Brian Eno’s solo albums as well as leading 60s psych outfit Quiet Sun. Even when you take this all into consideration, his debut is a surprising twist in a successful career. “Frontera” is the opener is question and it derives most of its strength from Robert Wyatt’s tour de force of Spanish gibberish accompanied from a driving riff that hits the high notes one always desires from a debut, but rarely receives.

To be honest. the rest is a slight letdown from the heights of the first few minutes, but the lazy prog riffs are pretty excellent and much of the album is predictably reminiscent of Eno’s first vocal albums. Other moments remind me of a more sleazy soundtrack to Boogie Nights, but that is ok with me too. It is a scattershot affair, but Diamond Head finds its way onto the stereo because of its schizophrenic nature. It kind of wants to be loved, but Manzanera dips his toes into all sorts of 70s sleaze that it is rendered somewhat pock-marked and damaged. It is supposed to be accessible, but there is something awkward about it that draws me to it.

The opener is worth the price of admission since it may be one of my my favorite Robert Wyatt tracks, but the remainder is interesting to say the least. Diamind head is a big old frog that only got a reacharound instead of a kiss.

Virginia Astley

From Gardens Where We Feel Secure (Rough Trade 1983)

I’ve always been a sucker for the classical/ambient hybrids of Roger Eno, Kate St. John, Michael Nyman and Roedelius. Nyman definitely veers more towards the neo-classical end of the pool, but the others have devoted themselves to this utterly pleasant, bucolic music that challenges noone, but remains in your consciousness long after you turn the stereo off for the night. My obsession with these sounds stem from my college years listening to the Orb, Pete Namlook, the Fax label and Penguin Cafe Orchestra and discovering beauty in things that weren’t layered in reverb and psychedelic effects.

I always found From gardens Where we Feel Secure to be a bit of an oddity in the context of the Rough Trade label, but I guess it isn’t so surprising since they embraced all ends of the musical spectrum. However, Virginia Astley did play piano on some of Siouxsie and the Banshees early works and some of this wouldn’t sound out of place on an 80s 4ad album.  As a side note, she is Pete Townsend’s sister-in-law, but that lame tidbit provides little insight into these soothing sounds.

There is something subtly challenging lying beneath the surface of the rural ambience of the album. In fact, certain tracks gel due to the combo of uplifting bliss and dissonant undertones that veer into its happy-go-lucky path. Although I assume her aim was to assume the relaxed charm of the countryside, I always associated it with time spent stoned in Western Pa or driving along the Georgia coast. There is nothing particularily southern or Pennsyltuckian about it, but it reminds me of quiet moments far away from all who may vex you or drag you into drama not of your making. Ultimately, it is just goddamn pretty and soothing on those days when the heart rate needs to crawl and distractions need to slowly fade into the background of a hectic existence.

Simon Fisher Turner/Derek Jarman-Blue (Mute/Nonesuch 1993)

Simon Fisher Turner’s soundtrack is a momentous one since it serves as an integral element of Derek Jarman’s twelfth and final film. The reason that the soundtrack is so essential to the film is that the entire movie consists of a flickering, amorphous blue screen accompanied by narration by three of his favorite actors: Nigel Terry, John Quentin and Tilda Swinton as well as his own commentary. Jarman’s flickering blue visuals were inspired by French painter Yves Klein and were meant to simulate his own blindness caused by an AIDS-related illness.

I witnessed a screening of Blue at International House in Philadelphia when it was originally released and it devastated me while opening my eyes to possibilities of the soundtrack. In my opinion, this film is impotent on your meager television, but must be seen on a large screen to appreciate the intricacies of the shifting blue canvas on which he documents his final days. It is meant to simulate what he saw as well as his final thoughts before he left this world. Blue is a meditation on death. Blue is a last will and testament of a brilliant filmmaker. Blue’s soundtrack is pretty much the entire movie if you can conjure up a faulty tv to replicate its shimmering decay.

Simon Fisher Turner contributes a suitably ambient soundtrack that adds to the surreal experience of listening to a man narrate his own death. He smartly includes snatches of Brian Eno, Momus, Coil, Satie, Durutti Column, Kate St. John amongst others. It all coalesces into a dream state where Jarman comes to peace with his condition and provides an angelic atmosphere for his eventual demise. It is heartbreaking stuff as well as a courageous statement in an age where many had little empathy for those suffering from HIV. A perfect soundtrack as well as a fitting farewell from a director who turned the lens onto himself.