Sunday, November 20, 2016

Shadowfall Equinox III

"Five Fathoms Below You"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.  You may also want to check out the first volume in this multi-volume mix for more info on its theme.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

Although hardly any of my mixes are exclusive to a particular musical style, some of them are pretty close.  Shadowfall Equinox, for instance, focuses pretty strongly on ambient.  Oh, sure, there are touches of new age, world, and a healthy dose of darkwave, but the majority of the tracks are firmly in the camp of ambient.

But just what is ambient?  I recently stumbled on a pretty decent blog post exploring that exact topic, and, although the podcast the author references is no longer with us,1 the discussion is still very much relevant.  In particular, he throws out some of what Brian Eno said about the subgenre, which he is generally credited with creating.  The (possibly apocryphal) story goes that Eno was inspired (or disgusted) by some Muzak he heard playing in an airpport.  Instead of taking “regular” music and watering it down, he reasoned, why not design music especially for being in the background of other activities?  This led to his landmark album Music for Airports, which many consider to be the first ambient album (or at least the first to be called “ambient”).  As the liner notes for that album proclaimed: “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

He expanded on these thoughts, being careful to distinguish ambient from Muzak:

The concept of music designed specifically as a background feature in the environment was pioneered by Muzak Inc. in the fifties, and has since come to be known generically by the term Muzak.  The connotations that this term carries are those particularly associated with the kind of material that Muzak Inc. produces—familiar tunes arranged and orchestrated in a lightweight and derivative manner.  Understandably, this has led most discerning listeners (and most composers) to dismiss entirely the concept of environmental music....  Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these.  Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities.  And whereas their intention is to “brighten” the environment by adding stimulus to it ... Ambient Music is intended to produce calm and a space to think.2

A space to think ... that is exactly what I use Shadowfall Equinox for.  And of course Eno says it better than I did (in my opening post for this mix), but allow me the indulgence of quoting myself here:

It’s the perfect mood music for contemplative thought, for creative endeavor, for living in the background while you go on living, not dragging you down but not lifting you up either; it doesn’t fade into the wallpaper, but rather makes you think; it doesn’t engage your brain actively, but somehow sneaks in under the radar, making your subconscious race and your dreaming self wake up and take notice.

I find Shadowfall Equinox quite stimulating, mentally.  And it mostly stems from my discovery of Hearts of Space (and particularly “Shadowfall II”).  From that particular HoS program we have, of course, another tune from Jeff Greinke, and another from Kevin Keller, but we open this volume with the same opener used for a different HoS program, “Tango Zero Hour”: “Milonga del Angel” by Astor Piazzolla.  Piazzolla was often considered to be the top tango composer and performer in the world: you’ve no doubt heard his music on the soundtrack for 12 Monkeys, and how many other tango artists have an airport named after them?  A “milonga” is a type of tango (or, more properly, the musical precursor to the tango), so one might translate “Milonga del Angel” as “tango of the angel.”  And it’s quite a heavenly tune, one which establishes the mood immediately and strongly.

For a bit of Native American flavor, I’ve paired Robbie Robertson’s “Coyote Dance” with “Passage Two” from Kiva.  We last heard from Robertson on Porchwell Firetime; although I really hate his most prominent music,3 I’ve had much better luck with his solo efforts; this one is from his 1994 soundtrack Music for the Native Americans with the Red Road Ensemble, which included several members of his family.4  Kiva is a collaboration among Steve Roach—possibly the biggest name in ambient after Eno himself—and Michael Stearns (another well-known name in the ambient game) and Native American new age/ambient artist Ron Sunsinger.5  Kiva is the best example I’ve personally heard of ambient music with a Native American flair, although we may yet hear from another Stearns/Sunsinger collaboration, Sorcerer, on a future volume.

Surprisingly, we’ve no Falling You this time around, but our darkwave component is still represented admirably by darkwave godfather Sam Rosenthal in his usual guise of Black Tape for a Blue Girl, this time with the title track off his more recent Halo Star, with vocals provided by Bret Helm from goth-rockers Audra.6  Typically songs on Shadowfall Equinox don’t have words, but I tend to cut the darkwave tunes some slack.  Titles for the past two volumes were both provided by Falling You, as it happens, and “Halo Star” was in the running for doing so here, but it was narrowly beaten out by our other vocal track, “Five Seconds to Hold You” by Devics.  Devics, who we first heard from on Darkling Embrace but whom I spoke about at greatest length over on Smokelit Flashback IV, where I described them as dream pop crossed with darkwave, which is not a bad description.  “Five Seconds” has a slow, ponderous, nearly underwater feel that’s perfect for this contemplative mix, and it also provides our volume title.

Not quite darkwave but not not darkwave either, I introduced you to Nox Arcana in our last music mix installment, Phantasma Chorale, where I called them “gaming music,” which is appropos but insufficient.  Here I’ve chosen two tracks of theirs—one off Legion of Shadows and one off Grimm Tales.  The first provides our “almost-but-not-quite creepy” factor, and the second has a bit of a Renaissance-faire feel that flows nicely after Stellamara’s Balkan-infused selection, “Immrama.”  As a bonus, “The Forgotten Path” makes a nice closer, and “Immrama” gives us a Magnatune representative to replace Falling You (and Lisa DeBenedictis from back on volume I).  And, speaking of worldmusic, Logical Drift gives us a bit of world-inflected ambient with “Judean Desert.”  Logical Drift is a side project of producer John Matarazzo which I discovered via my satellite provider’s “Zen” music channel.7  So the closing triplet here on volume III is the nice 1-2-3 worldmusic punch of “Judean Desert,” “Immrama,” and “The Forgotten Path,” which all flow nicely into each other.

Shadowfall Equinox III
    [Five Fathoms Below You]

        “Milonga del Angel” by Astor Piazzolla, off Tango: Zero Hour
        “Morpheus” by Delerium, off Morpheus
        “Coyote Dance” by Robbie Robertson & The Red Road Ensemble, off Music for the Native Americans [Soundtrack]
        “Passage Two” by Steve Roach, Michael Stearns & Ron Sunsinger, off Kiva
        “Hidden Realm” by Nox Arcana, off Legion of Shadows
        “Searching” by Kevin Keller, off The Day I Met Myself
        “Coelocanth” by Shriekback, off Oil and Gold
        “Halo Star” by Black Tape for a Blue Girl, off Halo Star
        “Friday Afternoon” by The Hope Blister, off Underarms
        “Five Seconds to Hold You” by Devics, off My Beautiful Sinking Ship
        “Last Wave” by Jeff Greinke, off Wide View
        “The Dogs of Breakfast” by Lawlor, off Mad Alice Lane (A Ghost Story) [EP]
        “Judean Desert” by Logical Drift, off Logical Drift
        “Immrama” by Stellamara, off Star of the Sea
        “The Forgotten Path” by Nox Arcana, off Grimm Tales
Total:  15 tracks,  74:24

The remaining tracks are unexpected in various ways.  “Dogs of Breakfast” is from Lawlor’s impossible-to-find EP Mad Alice Lane (A Ghost Story).  The title track of that disc is obviously what you want, and we will absolutely see it show up on another mix,8 but this “flip side” isn’t so bad itself, and it works well here.  (“Lawlor,” by the way, is in this case Peter Lawlor, most famous for providing music for BBC news and sports shows, including that used in the 2000 Olympics.  He was also a founding member of Stiltskin, but you probably never heard of them.9)

On the other hand, Hope Blister isn’t too surprising, and not but so obscure—especially once you realize that they are an Ivo Watts offshoot of This Mortal Coil, who graced us with a song each on the first two volumes.  Unlike This Mortal Coil’s constantly rotating personnel, Hope Blister was fairly fixed, with Louise Rutkowski (who also sang a few TMC tracks) providing the vocals, and the bass player from Dark Star playing bass.  Layer onto that a fair amount of cello and strings arrangements from Audrey Riley (who has done the same for bands ranging from the Style Council to the Smiths to the Smashing Pumpkins) and the occasional sax from Dif Juz’s amazing Ritchie Thomas,10 and you have a pretty decent continuation of what This Mortal Coil was trying to achieve.  While Hope Blister’s vocal tracks are decent enough, their instrumental tracks, like TMC’s, are ambient and occasionally fascinating.  “Friday Afternoon” is repetitive to the point of minimalism, but I find its synth-wash-over-the-sounds-of-a-rainy-day ambiance quite soothing.

“Coelocanth” by Shriekback is, with “Halo Star,” the centerpiece of the volume, so it has to be pretty strong.  Happily, it is: it has a ringing, echoey, undersea feel that befits its namesake.  If you ever saw the early Michael Mann film Manhunter, you may recognize it.  It’s quite atypical for a Shriekback tune, especially given that it comes from Oil & Gold, which, while not their poppiest album,11 is certainly no Big Night Music either.12  It’s the closer for Oil & Gold, being a winding down after mostly upbeat tracks, but its much more evocative and central on a mix like this one.

Which just leaves us with our second track, “Morpheus” by Delerium.  Delerium is a curious entity; Wikipedia accuses them of being purveyors of “dark ethereal ambient trance,” which is such a tumbled-together profusion of musical styles that it nearly takes my breath away.  Still, I suppose it’s a not-entirely-incorrect description of “Morpheus,” at least, although Delerium’s “style” (if you can even pin them down with such a word) is fairly wide-ranging.  Delerium grows out of industrial greats Front Line Assembly, and later evolves (or devolves, depending on your point of view) into trip-hop aspirants Fauxliage, who you may remember encountering back on Smokelit Flashback IV.  But Delerium is sort of dark, and ambient, and ... yeah, okay, ethereal and trancy, I suppose.  I don’t like all of their music, but every once in a while they hit on something magical, and I think “Morpheus” may be the best of the best.

Next time, we look forward to the approaching holiday season.


1 The only remnant of the podcast I could find was There’s Been a Change, which is pretty interesting to listen to if you’re really into ambient.

2 I rely here on the excerpts from Eno’s liner notes presented in the essay “Brian Eno and the ‘Quiet Club’: Subtle Beauty as Social Critique”, which is, along with the Wikipedia article on ambient, quite an excellent source for diving into more detail on ambient than I have room for here.

3 By which I mean the Band.  While I at least like some examples of nearly every type of music, the one I can’t stand is country, and there are certain artists which just drift too close to that line to be tolerated.  The Band is definitely one of them.

4 His daughter is providing some of the wordless background vocals on this track, in fact.  The Robertsons are part Mohawk.

5 Coincidentally, Music for the Native Americans was recorded at Sunsinger Studios (among other places), and Sunsinger gets an engineer credit on that album.

6 Who are, unsurprisingly, signed to Rosenthal’s Projekt Records.

7 Which I first talked about back on Paradoxically Sized World I.

8 In the fullness of time ... as the mix-starter, even.

9 I know I hadn’t, until writing this post.

10 Who is, not coincidentally at all, the same person who gave the Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand a good deal of its awesomeness.

11 That dubious distinction would certainly have to go to Go Bang!, exclamation point and all.

12 The latter album being whence cometh tunes such as “The Reptiles and I,” which we saw on Slithy Toves, and “Cradle Song,” which I used on Numeric Driftwood II.

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