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Ambient: A Starter Kit

By Marc Weidenbaum

It’s a tough call, suggesting a short list of essential introductory electronica albums, electronica being this hopelessly utopian umbrella terminology for a very wide variety of machine-made pop music: ambient, techno, jungle, trip-hop, “abstract” hip-hop, drum’n’bass, industrial, trance, illbient. Those are all names being used to track the various subgenres of today’s electronic pop music: songs and soundscapes that are produced, primarily, on computers and other automated devices (turntables, tape machines, sine-wave generators) rather than on traditional musical instruments (guitar, bass, drums).

To list, say, five key full-length albums exemplifying the new electronic music would be mistaken. Today’s electronic music is continuously in flux, continuously changing. Whereas a typical rock band or rapper might release a single album each year, electronic musicians tend to release upwards of a dozen hours of music in the same amount of time: in the form of full-length albums, EPs, singles and remixes of other musicians’ songs.

Instead, here is a list of starting places: five compilations that will suggest various directions, five EPs which should allow you to inexpensively test the waters, five web sites packed with information (and music), and five text-based Internet resources. Happy hunting.

COMPILATIONS: Various-artists collections generally offer more filler than substance and rarely provide any sense of context. Following are rare recent exceptions, all domestic releases:

  1. Macro Dub Infection, Volume One (Caroline, 1995): This watershed, two-CD collection features an international cast of electronic-music avatars, including Spring Heel Jack, Omni Trio, Tortoise, 4-Hero and Tricky. Emphasis is on dub, the highly reverberant offshoot of reggae. Volume Two is due soon, perhaps before the end of 1996.

  2. Earthrise.Ninja.2 (Shadow/Ninja Tune USA, 1996): Maddening two-CD assortment from the U.K.-based Ninja Tune label, including cuts by DJ Food, Funki Porcini, Kruder & Dorfmeister and 9 Lazy 9 and remixes by Wagon Christ, Autechre and others; an endlessly rewarding slew of low-down grooves and dank funk.

  3. Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip (WaxTrax!/TVT, 1996): Skylab, DJ Krush, Meat Beat Manifesto and others unite for AIDS-charity collection. Focus is on remarkable team-ups: Vocalists Mark Eitzel, David Byrne and (poet) Amiri Baraka meet, respectively, My Bloody Valentine, Tomandandy and DJ Spooky. Also, jazz traditionalists Christian McBride (bass) and Joey DeFrancesco (organ) meet DJ Krazy.

  4. Synthetic Pleasures, Volume One (Moonshine, 1996): Recent documentary film about information-age innovators, mystics and extremists draws its soundtrack from work of Terre Theaemlitz, Single Cell Orchestra, Hardfloor and others.

  5. Source Lab 2 (Source/Gyroscope, 1996): Little is readily available stateside from the French label Source; so this compilation is a rare taste of the trip-hop descendants of composer Eric Satie and chanteur Serge Gainsbourg, most notably Dimitri From Paris and Extra Lucid.

12-INCHES: Despite vinyl’s precipitous disappearance from the mass market, it remains a fundamental part of all dance music, electronic or otherwise. Among the 12-inch’s assets are limited press runs, haphazard distribution and cryptic-to-nonexistent album-sleeve graphics: the perfect combination for pop-music fetish objects. All five of these are relatively recent U.S. releases, so they shouldn’t be too difficult to track down. And all, aside from the first, have related full-length albums.

  1. Photek: The Hidden Camera (Astralwerks, 1996): Photek is Rupert Parkes, a mid-20s British DJ whose technical prowess has developed logarithmically over an ongoing series of singles. Hidden Camera’s juicy range of percussive sounds lends Parker’s sterescopic rhythm-play an intoxicating effect.

  2. Oval vs. Tortoise: “Bubble Economy”/”Learning Curve” (Thrill Jockey, 1996): Tortoise is a noodly Chicago-based band that records spare, transcendent instrumentals. Oval is a German electronic unit whose breathless music makes the static between radio stations sound lush by comparison (and that’s a compliment). Oval vs. Tortoise is Markus Popp, of the latter, carving up the former’s recent album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The 12-inch is one of four in a Tortoise remix series, which includes reworkings by Luke Vibert, Spring Heel Jack and others.

  3. Skylab: Oh! Skylab (Astralwerks, 1995): One of the more remarkable team-ups, Skylab is an international quartet (with two members each from the U.K. and Japan) that overcomes a major language barrier to create some of the most richly orchestrated electronic pop music going. Contains remixes and extensions of material from the band’s debut, #1 (Astralwerks).

  4. Pentatonik: “Credo”/”Zeitgeist” (Island/Quango, 199?): Pentatonik is Britain’s Simeon Bowring and friends, creating a dense electronic dance music that owes much to Ennio Morricone. Also available as part of Quango’s Atomic Audio compilation.

  5. Drain: Regional Action! (Trance, 1996): As if Butthole Surfer drummer King Coffey didn’t have enough work running his indie Trance label, he locked himself away with a bank of samplers and came up with this EP (followed by a full-length called Offspeed and in There). If you dig the tweaked hip-hop groove of Cibo Matto, the kitchen-sink palette of Beck/Beastie Boys producers the Dust Brothers, or the innocent Orientalism of Mouse on Mars, take Action.

WORLDWIDE WEB SITES: The Internet, in particular the World Wide Web, is to electronic music what Kansas City was to jazz, what Vienna was to classical music: scene, magnet, muse.

  1. hyperreal.com: Hyperreal is a byzantine collective served from San Francisco; a data universe worth getting lost in, especially the area called Epsilon; the source of two of the best electronic-music mailing lists (see below); a major nexus of ambient links should you ever feel the need to venture beyond.

  2. breaks.com: Jungle is the kinetic extreme of electronic music, and the Breaks site, based in London, has much in the way of profiles, discographies and related links.

  3. needle-drop.com: Needles, you may recall, are what one once, before the age of the Internet, lowered onto circular vinyl platters in order to access sonic material. Click on www.needle-drop.com to access (via RealAudio) full-length DJ webcasts. At presstime, a full hour of France’s Laurent Garnier, was up and running.

  4. web.canlink.com/nation: Otherwise known as Squelch, a bright webzine, albeit with an awkward interface, featuring downloadable sound clips from interviews and recordings. Located in Kingston, Ontario.

  5. nirvanet.fr: Nirvanet is a Paris-based, trilingual (Francais, English, Espanol) cyberculture website which heavily emphasizes electronic music. Multiple plug-in requirements make the site kinda gimmicky, but the Techno Ballroom is well worth a twirl.

ONLINE (LO REZ): You don’t need to feed a superpowered ISDN connection into your computer in order to partake of the Internet’s electronic-music culture. There is much text-based activity

  1. Intelligent Dance Music mailing list: Initiated in August of 1993 as an Aphex Twin discussion, this list quickly expanded to all manner of so-called intelligent dance. As a private, mediated list, it’s free of the “spams” (unwanted, generally commercial, posts) and “flames” (feud-inviting vitriol) that clog many Usenet newsgroups. Visit hyperreal.com/music/lists/idm to learn how to subscribe.

  2. Ambient Music mailing list: The Hyperreal ambient email list is flush with advance-release news, philosophical debate and creative tangents (ambient movies, ambient novels); like IDM, it’s a mediated list. Visit hyperreal.com/music/lists/ambient to learn how to subscribe.

  3. rec.music ambient: Usenet newsgroups are the best places to post questions and thoughts and to receive feedback. There are newsgroups devoted to hundreds of types of music, and electronic music is no exception. The ambient group tends to feature album reviews, next-day concert reports and demo-tape swaps. Also check out alt.music.techno.

  4. alt.music.makers.electronic: Usenet is also popular with professional and amateur musicians. The conversation can prove impenetrable to outsiders, but there’s a lot of information here. Also check out alt.music.makers.DJ.

  5. Internet Relay Chat: IRC is not the hotbed of ambient talk one might expect. However, if you set up a channel called #ambient, someone is likely to stop by.

    Originally published, in slightly different form, in Pulse! magazine, November 1996.

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