“Ambient One” – ‘The American Dollar’
It seems like such a long time ago, now that I come to think of it, when I first appeared – more like ‘gatecrashed’ uninvited – onto Highly Evolved, and ever since, it’s been a total blast. I’ve received some welcomed comments of praise, so far lucky on any negative-criticism. Every now and then I like to sit back and re-read over my reviews, see how I’ve grown here and there, picked out the fine points from one album, and now, after a couple of months of a play-through, like it all over again.
This week, I thought I might take a gambit – it could pay off, these guys are big on http://www.last.fm with a whopping 900,000+ hits: ‘The American Dollar’ just about epitomises the decade of ambience, a long-forgotten genre which is easily overlooked due to it’s lack of lyrics, lead, and human-interaction. It commonly associates itself with long-faced teens on the cusp of consciousness, whose eyes are weary from the lack of sleep; those stone-heads, trippin’ on some amazing flight in and out of the atmosphere. Envious much? Not quite – there are ways around those physical drugs, and music like this is one of them:
Where do I begin?
It’s another one of those ponderous questions like: Who are you? It’s not something that we like to read, it’s not something that we like to answer. What are we: are we a sum of individual processes, a highly-developed multi-cellular organism, merely just a collective of microbic-life working together in harmony for the beneficiaries of food, water and the likes. Or are we those sentient memories. Another time perhaps, this music does set the mood for my philosophical attitudes towards things. Ambience is all about evoking emotion musically, and I think some people are inured to this sensory-perception because they target very specific musical things which are lacking in this area. Lyrics are one thing, rhythmic-composition is another – what constitutes ambience?
It lingers in the shadow of minimalism, some might say a very-distant mute-cousin of trip-hop. It has the fundamental layers that make good music, but it’s lacking in good ways, the very elements which would pigeon-hole it into something like rock, or something like experimental. Ambience isn’t one of those flexible genres, I believe: to make good ambient music, you have to limit certain aspects, like lyrics and lead – these become distractions. There are overlays of sound, synthetic or otherwise, that build on one and other, and occasionally, acoustic or otherwise, a sound comes out from beneath to blow your mind. Shoegaze seems to be an acoustic/synth mix, a brother to ambience. It’s an acquired taste, I know, but sometimes, if you just sit back, ambience is one of those unique genres that lets your imagination fly…
… And that’s why I love it, I’ve drifted far from my roots these past few weeks, and ventured into genres that have tempted me to stop and stay and listen. I’ve stopped, I’ve listened, but I’m always on the move. And it’s like coming home when I hear something as good as this: “Ambient One” is an album with individual-tracks that must be listened to in entirety. The album plays like a auditory-film, characters appear and fade in and out as the story changes. As we move from scene to scene, these become the varying tracks, the different rhythms, the different leads, and “Ambient One” is so refreshing in that it tackles its tracks in such an awe-inspiring way. There are ‘multiples’, as I would call them, of the same track; variations of a variation, small, self-contained multi-verses that exist within the existence of an entire track-universe, that co-exist within an album-universe!
In total, there are twenty-nine tracks, and eight of them are grouped in couplets, triplets, or quadruplets, and even one odd-looking quintuplet with it’s own subsidiaries called 1 and 2. Take for example the opening sequence, called “Starscapes”, the first, second, third and fourth track-title – the first of the miniature-universe sets. What’s really different about these is that they all take on relatively the same sound, minus some changes. I’ve seen a handful of artists tackle this same perspective to little avail, hence the first mention of it here – like: “Two Dancers” and “Two Dancers II”, but that was just the tip of the iceberg in concern with “Ambient One”. They were too different to be the same, they lost their flow.
For all I know, my copy of the album could be faulty, and my stupid-Vista computer could be reading something wrong – and in that case, all these multi-verses are in fact singular tracks that are about seven-minutes long. Disappointed, I know I would be. But what I don’t like about those suppositions is the small changes to the song in each, they don’t flow-on from one to the next, and all-too often you’ll hear an awkward cut from one to another. But enough about the construction of the album, which fascinates me to no end: onto the music itself, it’s why you’re here, and it’s why I’m writing it.
For readers who are looking for a similarity between ‘The American Dollar’s’ music and some other artist, it’s difficult to find, for me at least, an ambient artist that is similar to them: I could suggest ‘Konntinent’, but their music had an experimental twist to it which is in no way found here. ‘Van Morrison’ was probably one of the gifted forefathers of this growing genre, but parallels between are thready at best. ‘Mogwai’ aren’t a good artist to complement ‘TAD’, but they are it’s opposite. So, you can work off those sketchy-details, or you can take a listen for yourselves.
I’ll start from the top, it seems like the most logical place to begin with. Back to “Starscapes”, and you’ll find it’s easy to immerse yourself in the world of “Ambient One”. As soon as the waving-synth kicks in, you’ll be on your back, too far away to notice that you’re even where you are. ‘TAD’ is using synthesised sounds to construct their songs, and it’s some of the best I’ve seen to date, a shining example for – hopefully – many artists to come. It’s difficult to describe in great detail the distant chiming synth, or the reminiscent synth-guitar, but “Starscapes” the first sets the scene for it’s brothers and sisters to come. In it’s second incarnation, after the first dies off like a solitary track would, you’re left in a void of empty sound, and then a drip of piano. The synth returns with a flourishing distance, and instead of synth-guitar, the piano takes it’s place. In it’s third, the synth-organ explodes at the beginning and follows through to the end. Here we see that the tracks are building to a final-track-crescendo. The fourth and final “Starscapes” and we see a totally different form of the song. A reduction of the wavy synth, and a build on the more leading-synth piano and organ.
I could go through each and every track like this, but it seems utterly pointless. It’s really something that’s best to be heard and then appreciated, rather than read. Although we’ve got these bizarre multi-cellular tracks like this, we’ve also got the quintessential quantum singularities like “Bump”, which reminds me of a lost ‘Halo’ track. My personal favourite out of the entire album, which will now become a must-buy, is “We’re Hitting Everything”, and it’s got the distant elements of trip-hop – trip-hop in that it has that simplistic rhythm, high-high-low, or low-high-low, etc. Then it has it’s layer of background synth and this very sombre, very emphatic, and emotionally-lethal xylophone that just tickles your soul. It’s the sort of song that turns your insides into jelly, and your mind into mush.
Fans of ‘Chicane‘ or even ‘Enigma’ might find some strings to follow, but ‘TAD’ are still very different. At a very, very generous over-hour limit, some listeners might find it hard to listen from start-to-finish, “Ambient One”. It sluggishly moves from start to end, and although I admire this ooze, some might find the ambient thrill a little tiring and somewhat repetitive. It is a downfall for synth music, that it begins to sound the same, but sit yourself in a corner and try it anyway, the mind needs some private time. What better else than “Ambient One”. I am almost tempted to give it a five, but I don’t know why I can’t, or I won’t. I feel as if I do, another album’s just squeezed it out of me because I’m tired after a long day, or bored on the next. But if I keep giving these epic+ albums fours, or four’s and a half’s, then I’m cheating you and I’m cheating myself. This is the best, best ambient synth example I can find for you guys, to date, and I’ll do it again:
The Enantiomorphic God