Minimalist composer Harold Budd has sadly passed away at the age of 84.
He was known for his calming impressionistic soundscapes which he recorded as a solo artist and working with the likes of Brian Eno, John Foxx, Robin Guthrie, Andy Partridge, Bill Nelson, Jah Wobble and David Sylvian among many.
Widely acclaimed as an ambient music trailblazer, he developed a style of piano playing which he referred to as “soft pedal”. Born in Los Angeles, Budd actually began as a jazz drummer while serving in the US Army. He graduated from the University of Southern California in 1966 with a degree in musical composition.
He gained a good reputation within California’s avant garde scene, but retired temporarily in 1970 and began a teaching career at the California Institute of the Arts, although his first album ‘The Oak Of The Golden Dreams’ appeared in 1971. Returning to composition in 1972, Budd began an extended cycle of works which eventually would become ‘The Pavilion of Dreams’; produced by Brian Eno in 1976, it was released on Obscure Records in 1978.
Harold Budd continued his association with Eno, utilising both acoustic and electric piano for what were to become two of his best known albums; ‘The Plateaux Of Mirror’ from 1980 and ‘The Pearl’ from 1984 were marvellously sparkling atmospheric works, both enhanced by electronic treatments from the former ROXY MUSIC synthesist.
Budd’s collaborations with Eno saw him experiment more with synthesizers on his solo albums, with 1986’s ‘Lovely Thunder’ and 1988’s ‘The White Arcades’ exploring subtle electronic textures to compliment his distinctive ivory style with an austere depth.
1986 also saw the release of ‘The Mood & The Melodies’, an album recorded with COCTEAU TWINS comprising of evocative instrumentals as well as songs.
This album was the start of a long and successful artistic relationship with Robin Guthrie, with whom he recorded a beautiful experiment in duality ‘Before The Day Breaks’ and ‘After Night Falls’ in 2007. The pair continued the standard with ‘Winter Garden’ recorded with Eraldo Bernocchi in 2011, while a new Guthrie / Budd long player ‘Another Flower’ had only just been released.
2000’s ‘The Room’ was a solo return to more minimalist climes while in 2003, ‘La Bella Vista’ captured Budd improvising on piano unawares in the Los Angeles living room of U2 producer and Eno associate Daniel Lanois. But collaboration was where Harold Budd seemed to be happiest and he recorded a notable trilogy of works with John Foxx.
Both Budd and Foxx had worked with Eno previously so had common ground. Released in 2003, while ‘Translucence’ was classic shimmering Budd, ‘Drift Music’ was a more subdued ambient affair.
However, 2011’s ‘Nighthawks’ with the late Ruben Garcia was a soothing tranquil nocturnal work with tinkling ivories melting into the subtle layered soundscape in keeping with its Edward Hopper inspired title.
This was all despite Budd declaring that ‘Avalon Sutra’ issued on David Sylvian’s independent record label Samadhisound in 2004 was to be his “Last Recorded Work”. Meanwhile a performance at Brighton Dome in 2005 was billed as his last public performance. However, he did return and performed live as recently as 2019 at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival.
Despite being a comparative late starter to recording, Harold Budd became extremely prolific in the latter half of his life. He has an extraordinary back catalogue worthy of investigation and his list of collaborators are an indicator of how highly he was thought of as an artist, despite his preference for a much lower profile.
Harold Budd’s music is played almost on a daily basis at ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK and while his aural presence will remain, his understated artistic integrity will be missed.
Ambient electronic music is a much misunderstood genre.
One is not talking about JEAN-MICHEL JARRE or VANGELIS who are far too comparatively lively to be truly considered ambient. And it is not ‘chill out’ that’s being talked about either, which seems to lump in any form of dance music that is under 112 beats per minute.
Modern ambient probably came to prominence with BRIAN ENO. While lying in a hospital room after a car accident in 1975, a friend visited him and put on a LP of harp music. However the volume had been set at an extremely low level and one of the stereo channels had failed. Unable to move to adjust this, Eno had a new way of listening to music forced onto him.
In recalling this story for the sleeve notes of his ‘Discreet Music’ album, Eno said the music now became “part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of rain were parts of the ambience.”
Eno may not have been the inventor of ambient, but he was almost certainly was its midwife. With its lengthy gradual processes and unpredictable changes, ambient can be listened to and yet ignored. Going against the Western tradition of music where vocals, melody and rhythm are essential components, ambient music is designed to accommodate many levels of listening without enforcing one in particular.
One of the other beauties of ambient music is that the pieces are often so progressive that it becomes quite difficult to remember individual sections.
Therefore on repeated plays, the music can still sound fresh and rewarding. It was an approach that fascinated many and while they may not have released whole works, artists such as DAVID BOWIE, THE HUMAN LEAGUE, OMD, BLANCMANGE and RADIOHEAD recorded ambient pieces for album tracks or B-sides.
Comments about ambient music being “boring” are missing the point, because at points of the day where the state of near sleep looms, music with no vocals, no rhythms and not too much energetic melody is perfect.
Restricted to one album per moniker or collaborative partnership, here are the twenty long players presented in chronological and then alphabetical order which form The Electronic Legacy of Ambient. Acting as a straightforward introduction to the genre, it refers to many artists whose comparatively mainstream works may already be familiar.
KLAUS SCHULZE Timewind (1974)
A one-time member of TANGERINE DREAM and ASH RA TEMPLE, ‘Timewind’ was Schulze’s first solo album to use a sequencer, evolving as a longer variation on his former band’s ‘Phaedra’. Referencing 19th century composer Richard Wagner, Schulze transposed and manipulated the sequences in real time, providing shimmering and kaleidoscopic washes of electronic sound using equipment such as the EMS Synthi A, ARP 2600, ARP Odyssey, Elka string machine and Farfisa organ.
‘Phaedra’ was the breakthrough record for TANGERINE DREAM which saw them using sequencers for the first time. Featuring the classic line-up of Edgar Froese, Peter Baumann and Chris Franke, the hypnotic noodles of EMS VCS3s and Moogs dominated proceedings while Mellotrons sounding like orchestras trapped inside a transistor radio. Organic lines and flute added to trancey impressionism to produce a fine meditative electronic soundtrack.
The late Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius were CLUSTER. Having released their first long player together in 1969, their fourth album ‘Sowiesoso’ was CLUSTER’s first fully realised exploration into ambient electronics. With gentle melodic phrasing and unimposing rhythmical patterns, the title track was a wonderfully hypnotic adventure that welcomed the listener into the soothing world of the longer player’s remaining aural delights.
ASH RA TEMPLE’s Manuel Göttsching was looking to visit synthesized climes and explored more progressive voxless territory armed with an Eko Rhythm Computer, ARP Odyssey and what was to become his signature keyboard sound, a Farfisa Synthorchestra. An exponent of the more transient solo guitar style of PINK FLOYD’s David Gilmour, this template was particularly evident on New Age Of Earth’, a beautiful treasure trove of an album.
One-time member of GONG, solo artist and an in-house producer at Virgin Records, Steve Hillage had a love of German experimental music and ventured into ambient with long standing partner Miquette Giraudy. Recorded for the Rainbow Dome at the Festival for Mind-Body-Spirit at Olympia, these two lengthy Moog and ARP assisted tracks each had a beautifully spacey quality to induce total relaxation with a colourful sound spectrum.
HAROLD BUDD & BRIAN ENO The Plateaux Of Mirror (1980)
Mostly piano-oriented, its backdrop of shimmering synthesizer and tape loops of voices was conceived in a sound-world that Eno had created via his various instrument treatments. With Budd improvising live, Eno would occasionally add something but his producer tact was to step back if nothing extra was needed. ‘The Plateaux Of Mirror’ was a lovely work with resonating ivories of the acoustic and electric variety. A second collaboration came with ‘The Pearl’ in 1984.
BRIAN ENO Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983)
Recorded as a soundtrack to a documentary film about the Apollo Missions to the moon, one of the inspirations was to react against the uptempo, manner of space travel presented by most TV programmes and news reels of the day with its fast cuts and speeded up images. Eno wanted to convey the feelings of space travel and weightlessness. Although based around Eno’s Yamaha DX7, the album was quite varied instrumentally, featuring his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois.
The debut album from the younger Eno, ‘Voices’ captured a sustained mood of dreamy soundscapes and aural clusters with its beautiful piano template strongly reminiscent of Harold Budd’s work with brother Brian, who was also involved on this record via various electronic treatments although it was actually Daniel Lanois who produced.
By 1986, the former JAPAN front man wanted to get away from singing as reflected by the ‘Gone To Earth’ bonus album of instrumentals. Sylvian found a willing conspirator in CAN’s Holger Czukay who had developed several unconventional compositional techniques using devices such as short wave radios and Dictaphones. Through a series of improvisations, the duo came up with two companion long players that conveyed a sinister yet tranquil quality drifting along in complex spirals.
Unlike the comparatively optimistic air of his work with Eno, Harold Budd’s solo journeys often conveyed a more melancholic density, probably best represented by the haunting immersive atmospheres of ‘The White Arcades’. An elegiac combination of shimmering synthesizers and sporadic piano provided an austere depth that was both ghostly and otherworldly, it was partly inspired by his admiration of COCTEAU TWINS whom he collaborated with on the 1986 4AD album ‘The Moon & The Melodies’.
STEVE JANSEN & RICHARD BARBIERI Other Worlds In A Small Room (1996)
With ‘Other Worlds In A Small Room’, Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri created an atmospheric collection of electronic instrumentals that they considered “Ambient in the traditional sense”. Alongside the three new pieces, there was an appendix of four suitably complimentary tracks from their 1984 album ‘Worlds In A Small Room’ had originally been commissioned by JVC to accompany a documentary about the Space Shuttle Challenger and its various missions.
VINCENT CLARKE & MARTYN WARE Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle (2000)
‘Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle’ was composed by Vince Clarke and Martyn Ware as part of an Illustrious art installation at The Roundhouse in a circular, white clothed room where the colours referred to in the titles of the six lengthy pieces were “programmed to cross fade imperceptibly to create an infinite variation of hue”. Using binaural 3D mixing techniques, the sleeve notes recommended it was best heard using headphones while stating “This album is intended to promote profound relaxation”.
Trance enthusiasts who loved Ferry Corsten’s blinding remix of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio For Strings’ will have been shocked if they had bought its virtually beatless parent long player. Orbit’s concept of adapting classical works was that he wanted to make a chill-out album that had some good tunes. In that respect, a collection featuring lovely electronic versions of Beethoven’s ‘Triple Concerto’ and John Cage’s ‘In A Landscape’ could not really miss.
Alva Noto is a German experimental artist based in Berlin and ‘Vrioon’ was his first collaborative adventure with YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA trailblazer Ryuichi Sakamoto. A beautiful union of piano, synth shimmers and subtle glitch electronics proved to be an unexpectedly soothing and meditative experience that was gloriously minimal over six starkly constructed mood pieces.
Originally released as part of the 2CD version of ‘Hotel’ in 2005, Moby couldn’t find his copy and decided on an expanded re-release. Inspired by the nature of hotels, where humans spend often significant portions of their lives but have all traces of their tenancy removed for the next guests, the ambient companion progressively got quieter and quieter. The emotive ‘Homeward Angel’ and the solemn presence of ‘The Come Down’ were worth the purchase price alone.
ROBIN GUTHRIE & HAROLD BUDD After the Night Falls / Before The Day Breaks (2007)
Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd first collaborated on ‘The Moon & The Melodies’ album along with the other COCTEAU TWINS. ‘After the Night Falls’ and ‘Before the Day Breaks’ were beautiful experiments in duality but it would be unfair to separate these Siamese twins. Serene, relaxing, abstract and distant, Guthrie’s textural guitar and Budd’s signature piano were swathed in drifting synths and treatments that complimented each album’s self-explanatory titles.
JOHN FOXX & HAROLD BUDD Nighthawks / Translucence / Drift Music (2003 – 2011)
A sumptuous trilogy featuring two artists who had both worked with Brian Eno. ‘Nighthawks’ was John Foxx and Harold Budd’s most recent collaboration with the late minimalist composer Ruben Garcia and a soothing tranquil nocturnal work with tinkling ivories melting into the subtle layered soundscape with its Edward Hopper inspired title. Meanwhile, the earlier ‘Translucence’ from 2003 was a close relative and classic Budd, partnered with the more subdued overtures of ‘Drift Music’.
‘London Overgrown’ was John Foxx’s first wholly solo ambient release since the ‘Cathedral Oceans’ trilogy. With the visual narrative of a derelict London where vines and shrubbery are allowed to grow unhindered throughout the city, the conceptual opus was a glorious ethereal synthesizer soundtrack, smothered in a haze of aural sculptures and blurred soundscapes. With ‘The Beautiful Ghost’, as with William Orbit’s take on ‘Opus 132’ from ‘Pieces In A Modern Style’, this was Beethoven reimagined for the 23rd Century.
“I like the effects of calm and dissonance and subtle change” said Steve Jansen; not a remix album as such, the more ambient and orchestral elements of ‘Tender Extinction’ were segued and reinterpreted with new sections to create a suite of instrumentals presented as one beautiful hour long structured ambient record. A gentle blend of electronic and acoustic instrumentation including piano and woodwinds, ‘The Extinct Suite’ exuded a wonderful quality equal to Eno or Budd.
B-MOVIE guitarist and pop tunesmith Paul Statham began his experimental music account with ‘Ephemeral’ and ‘Installation Music 1’. ‘Asylum’ was a more ambitious proposition and featured in an audio visual installation created with painter Jonathan McCree in South London’s Asylum Chapel. The eight compositions together exuded a cinematic, ethereal quality with some darker auras and an eerie sound worthy of the ambient pioneers Statham was influenced by, especially on the gorgeous closer ‘Ascend’.
The recent release of the ULTRAVOX! 4 CD box set ‘The Island Years’ was a timely reminder that their one-time leader John Foxx has had a music career that has spanned over four decades.
Born Dennis Leigh, his first recorded work was a ROXY MUSIC styled cover of ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ for an arthouse adult film of the same name, as a member of TIGER LILY. The quintet comprising of Foxx, Warren Cann, Chris Cross, Billy Currie and Stevie Shears renamed themselves ULTRAVOX! and signed a deal with Island Records.
Reinforcing their art rock aspirations seeded by THE VELVET UNDERGROUND and Bowie, ULTRAVOX! secured the production input of synth pioneer and label mate BRIAN ENO for their self-titled debut in 1977. Two albums later, they began to make headway with a template inspired by the emergent electronic bands from Germany such as KRAFTWERK, CLUSTER and NEU!
However, Foxx became disillusioned with the restrictions of a band format and departed ULTRAVOX! in 1979 for a solo career; the end result was the ‘Metamatic’ album, released in 1980 on Virgin Records. Recorded at Pathway, an eight-track studio in Islington using an ARP Odyssey, Elka Rhapsody 610 and Roland CR78 Compurhythm, the seminal long player yielded two unexpected hit singles in ‘Underpass’ and ‘No-One Driving’.
Foxx said of that period: “You felt like some Film Noir scientist inventing a new life-form in the basement. I also think it was the beginning of Electro-Art-Punk or something like that. A strange wee animal. Seems to have bred copiously with everything available and still survived – right to this day.”
In the years since, John Foxx has continued to innovate within electronic, experimental and ambient spheres. Despite this, he is still very much under rated, especially compared with artists who benefited from his influence.
Gary Numan has always acknowledged his debt to the synth rock overtures of ULTRAVOX! while DEPECHE MODE’s admiration of ‘Metamatic’ led to its incumbent engineer Gareth Jones working with the band on their own Berlin Trilogy of ‘Construction Time Again’, ‘Some Great Reward’ and ‘Black Celebration’.
So with a vast repertoire to his name, what tracks in his various guises would act as a Beginner’s Guide to the man referred to affectionately as Lord Foxx Of Chorley?
This is not intended to be a best of chronology, more a reflection of highly divergent career. With a restriction of one recording per album project, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK lists its #Foxx20.
ULTRAVOX! My Sex (1977)
Using Brian Eno’s Minimoog with a knob marked with a sheep sticker to indicate that it made woolly sounds, Billy Currie’s classical sensibilities combined with Foxx’s detached dissatisfaction for the wonderful ‘My Sex’. Of Eno, Foxx said, “It was good to hear his stories and enact his strategies. He wasn’t greatly experienced in studio craft but he was a good co-conspirator, someone with a useful overview, who understood where we wanted to go. He was just what we wanted, really. A sort of art approach to recording”
Available on the ULTRAVOX! album ‘Ultravox!’ via Island Records
ULTRAVOX! Hiroshima Mon Amour (1977)
Utilising Warren Cann’s modified Roland TR77 rhythm machine, this was Foxx moving into the moody ambience pioneered by CLUSTER, away from the art rock of the first album and the aggressive attack of interim 45 ‘Young Savage’. ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ had been premiered as a spikier uptempo number for the B-side of ‘ROckWrok’. The ‘CC’ credited on saxophone is not Chris Cross, but a member of GLORIA MUNDI, a collective fronted by EDDIE & SUNSHINE who later appeared with Foxx on ‘Top Of The Pops’.
Available on the ULTRAVOX! album ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ via Island Records
ULTRAVOX! Quiet Men – 12 inch version (1978)
Relocating to Cologne to work with the legendary Conny Plank for their third album ‘Systems Of Romance’, ULTRAVOX! became more texturally powerful thanks to Billy Currie’s ARP Odyssey, the EMS Synthi AKS of Chris Cross and the recruitment of guitarist in Robin Simon. ‘Quiet Men’ was a perfect integration of all those elements attached to a rhythm machine backbone. Of the even punchier 12 inch rework, Foxx told Record Collector in 2003: “We remixed it so that Warren’s metal beats would shred speakers”
“I want to be a machine” sang Foxx on the ‘Ultravox!’ debut and he virtually went the full hog with the JG Ballard inspired ‘Metamatic’. His mission was to “Make a language for the synth and the drum machine”. The deviant ‘He’s A Liquid’ was pure unadulterated Sci-Fi: “I think it was a bit of punk electronica at the right time – just before everyone else raided the shed. Historically, perhaps it defines an impulse – something that wasn’t possible before – one man and some cheap machines making music independently”.
Available on the JOHN FOXX album ‘Metamatic’ via Edsel Records
JOHN FOXX Europe After The Rain (1981)
Foxx admitted he had been “reading too much JG Ballard” and had thawed considerably following ‘Metamatic’. Now exploring beautiful Italian gardens and taking on a more foppish appearance, his new mood was reflected in his music. Moving to a disused factory site in Shoreditch, Foxx set up ‘The Garden’ recording complex and the first song to emerge was the Linn Drum driven ‘Europe After The Rain’. Featuring acoustic guitar and piano, Foxx had now achieved his system of romance.
Available on the JOHN FOXX album ‘The Garden’ via Edsel Records
ANTENA The Boy From Ipanema (1982)
Before NOUVELLE VAGUE, French-Belgian combo ANTENA hit upon the idea of merging electronic forms with a samba cocktail style. Released on the prestigious Belgian label Les Disques Du Crépuscule who Foxx contributed ’A Jingle’ for the compilation ‘From Brussels With Love’, he produced their cover of ‘The Boy From Ipanema’, adding robotic textures via The Human Host. Much lighter that any of his own work, it was also quite sinister, making this a unqiue curio in the John Foxx portfolio.
Foxx had envisioned ‘The Golden Section’ as “a roots check: Beatles, Church music, Psychedelia, The Shadows, The Floyd, The Velvets, Roy Orbison, Kraftwerk, and cheap pre-electro Europop”. Working with Zeus B Held, the album had a psychedelic electronic rock flavour, liberally seasoned with vocoder effects and samplers. With folk laden overtones and some frantic percussion work from HAIRCUT 100’s Blair Cunningham, ‘Ghosts On Water’ was one of the album’s highlights.
By 1985, Foxx had lost his way and got embroiled in attempting a more conventional pop sound. With its sax sample lead line, ‘Shine On’ showed Foxx could deliver a fine pop tune but he wasn’t happy: “I simply didn’t like the mid to late eighties scene – all perfect pop and white soul. I suddenly felt isolated. I remember one day finding myself half-heartedly toying with some sort of sh*tty pop music while longing to be out of the studio and working on something visual. So I thought right that’s it – time for a change”.
Available on the JOHN FOXX album ‘In Mysterious Ways’ via Edsel Records
NATION 12 Remember (1990)
Foxx made an unexpected return to music with an acid house inspired number produced by Tim Simenon of BOMB THE BASS fame: “It was a great experience – a new underground evolving from post-industrial Detroit, using analogue instruments rescued from skips and pawn shops… Tim Simenon turned up wanting me to do some music… so Foxx was out the freezer and into the microwave…” – the other material that was recorded didn’t see the light of day until 2005.
Available on the NATION 12 album ‘Electrofear’ via Tape Modern
JOHN FOXX Sunset Rising (1995)
‘Cathedral Oceans’ saw Foxx developing his interest in ambient forms fused with Gregorian chants, as exemplified by ‘Sunset Rising’. But the project had an extremely long genesis with the first recordings made in 1983. Inspired by his brief period as a choir boy, when asked what this material gave him that songs couldn’t, he answered: “Well, they cover a different emotional and sonic spectrum – more concerned with tranquility and contemplation. Music with beats can’t address this at all”. The third volume was released in 2005.
Weaned on ‘Metamatic’, Louis Gordon was a natural collaborator for Foxx’s song based comeback. Their partnership over four albums, confirmed that Foxx still had that inventive spark within electronic music. Noisy and percussive, ‘Dust & Light’ recalled the unsettling Dystopian standpoint with which Foxx had made his pioneering impact. Tracks like ‘Drive’ and ‘Automobile’ continued the theme, although Foxx sustained his interest in more psychedelic forms via songs like ‘An Ocean We Can Breathe’.
Available on the JOHN FOXX & LOUIS GORDON album ‘Crash & Burn’ via Metamatic Records
HAROLD BUDD & JOHN FOXX Subtext (2003)
With beautiful piano and processed electronics, the sparse ‘Subtext’ was very reminiscent of Harold Budd’s 1984 Eno collaboration ‘The Pearl’. From the ‘Translucence’ album which was twinned with the more discreet, sleepier textures of ‘Drift Music’, it was smothered in echoes and reverberations galore as slow atmospherics and glistening melodies esoterically blended into the ether. A further collaboration ‘Nighthawks’, with the additional input of Ruben Garcia, was issued in 2011.
JOHN FOXX & ROBIN GUTHRIE My Life As An Echo (2009)
If nothing, John Foxx had diverse artistic interests. The ‘Mirrorball’ album with COCTEAU TWINS’ Robin Guthrie took textural guitars and echoing piano into a dreamworld that he could now enter. ‘My Life As An Echo’ was a beautiful instrumental which stopped short of being fully ambient thanks to its live drum loop. Other tracks such as ‘Estrellita’ and ‘The Perfect Line’ saw Foxx adding Glossolalia to the soundscape, recalling not only ‘Cathedral Oceans’ but Guthrie’s work with former partner Elizabeth Fraser.
Available on the JOHN FOXX & ROBIN GUTHRIE album ‘Mirrorball’ via Metamatic Records
JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS featuring MIRA AROYO Watching A Building On Fire (2011)
Joining forces with synth collector extraordinaire Benge, Foxx found the perfect foil for his earlier analogue ambitions, only this time combined with a warmth that had not been apparent on ‘Metamatic’, or his work with Louis Gordon. The best track on their debut album ‘Interplay’ was a co-written duet with Mira Aroyo of LADYTRON entitled ‘Watching A Building On Fire’. With its chattering drum machine and accessible Trans-European melodies, it was an obvious spiritual successor to ‘Burning Car’.
Available on the JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS album ‘Interplay’ via Metamatic Records
GAZELLE TWIN Changelings – JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS remix (2012)
JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS became extremely prolific and a number of remixes appeared, the best of which was for GAZELLE TWIN aka Elizabeth Bernholz. She said: “John and Benge’s remix of ‘Changelings’ was really delicate and elegant. It’s one of my favourites of all the remixes because it doesn’t alter the song much at all. I love the addition of John’s vocal in there too. It was perfectly suited. I am so flattered that they chose to put (it) on the new ‘Evidence’ album. It’s really special for me”.
Available on the JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS album ‘Evidence’ via Metamatic Records
JOHN FOXX & JORI HULKKONEN Evangeline (2013)
Foxx and Jori Hulkkonen had worked together previously on the songs ‘Dislocated’ and ‘Never Been Here Before’ for the Finnish producer’s solo albums ‘Dualizm’ and ‘Errare Machinale Est’ respectively, but never before on a body of work with a conceptual theme. Their eventual ‘European Splendour’ EP took on a grainier downtempo template and the lead track ‘Evangeline’ possessed a glorious pastoral elegance coupled with an otherworldly anthemic chorus.
JOHN FOXX & STEVE D’AGOSTINO The Forbidden Experiment (2014)
With a Dystopian backdrop, Foxx returned to the more mechanical approach in collaboration with Steve D’Agostino for the soundtrack of Karborn’s experimental short film. Described as “a unique investigation of the terrors and pleasures of temporal displacement”, it was “a sinister sonic architecture of drum-machine-music and analogue synthesizers”. The rumbling rush of ‘The Forbidden Experiment’ became a favourite of those Foxx enthusiasts who preferred his instrumental work to have more rhythmic tension.
GHOST HARMONIC was a project comprising of Foxx and Benge alongside Japanese violinist Diana Yukawa. Foxx said: “the underlying intention was we all wanted to see what might happen when a classically trained musician engaged with some of the possibilities a modern recording studio can offer…” – the result was a startling dynamic between Yukawa’s heavily treated violin and the looming electronics. The closing album title track was a string and synth opus of soothing bliss.
Available on the GHOST HARMONIC ‘Codex’ via Metamatic Records
JOHN FOXX The Beautiful Ghost (2015)
‘London Overgrown’ was Foxx’s first wholly solo ambient release since the ‘Cathedral Oceans’ trilogy. With the visual narrative of a derelict London where vines and shrubbery are allowed to grow unhindered throughout the city, ‘The Beautiful Ghost’ was like Beethoven reimagined for the 23rd Century with beautiful string synths placed in a cavernous reverb. Recalling William Orbit’s ‘Pieces In A Modern Style’, ‘London Overgrown’ was an accessible chill-out record that encompassed emotion and subtle melody.
A previously unreleased song, ‘A Man & A Woman’ was a surprise in that it was less rigid than previous JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS recordings. Featuring the enchanting voice of Hannah Peel, it was a departure that even featured some acoustic guitar flourishes. Despite this, vintage synths were still a key element to his mathematical theories: “Analogue is a bit more complex – still mysterious and rebellious. Digital is more controllable. Use where necessary. Avoid anything with a multi-function menu!”
In many respects, JOHN FOXX’s musical career has had many parallels with BRIAN ENO. Both were members of innovative bands, both departed before their respective bands went global and both explored ambient music as part of their subsequent and varied solo careers.
At the start of his solo endeavours, JOHN FOXX had ventured into instrumental territory with ‘Film One’, Mr No’ and Swimmer’, but only the ‘No-One Driving’ B-side ‘Glimmer’ got close to the ambient tradition.
Retiring from music in 1986, when the former Dennis Leigh returned in 1997, he made an artistic statement by releasing the first volume of his ‘Cathedral Oceans’ trilogy alongside ‘Shifting City’, his more conventional song based offering with Louis Gordon.
‘Cathedral Oceans’ saw Foxx immersing himself in religious choral musical forms like Gregorian Chants alongside gravitating electronic textures. While there were to be other instrumental soundtrack works like ‘Tiny Colour Movies’, ‘DNA’, ‘B-Movie (Ballardian Video Neuronica)’ and ‘Evidence Of Time Travel’ which recalled the Sci-Fi nature of his early B-sides, eventually Foxx’s ambient work was to become his most dominant platform of expression; noted collaborators over the years have included Theo Travis, Robin Guthrie, Steve Jansen and Steve D’Agostino.
It was ‘Translucence’, ‘Drift Music’ and ‘Nighthawks’, his three albums with pianist Harold Budd in the period between 2003-2011 that took Foxx’s ambient work to another level. Wonderfully placed in shimmering settings that entered a whole otherworldly sphere, the partnership recalled Budd’s two collaborations with Eno, ‘Plateaux Of Mirror’ and ‘The Pearl’. On this year’s magnificent ‘Codex’ with Diana Yuka and Benge as GHOST HARMONIC, the tradition has been continued and points to Foxx’s musical future as he approaches the twilight of his seventh decade.
‘London Overgrown’ is Foxx’s first wholly solo ambient release since the ‘Cathedral Oceans’ trilogy. With the visual narrative of a derelict London where vines and shrubbery are allowed to grow unhindered throughout the city, the conceptual opus is a glorious ethereal synthesizer soundtrack.
‘Through Gardens Overgrown’ from the third instalment of ‘Cathedral Oceans’ appears to be a pivotal inspiration. But how ‘London Overgrown’ differs is the complete absence of vocals of any kind. This nullavox template is a crucial aspect of the work, as it then totally disconnects the listener from environmental human intervention.
Effectively a synthony in ten movements, the ambient caveat of no vocals and no rhythms has provided interesting compositional challenges. References to Foxx’s previous ambient works with ‘London Overgrown’ are inevitable. It begins with ‘Oceanic II’, a more minimal progression of the ‘Cathedral Oceans III’ track and ‘A Man, A Woman & A City’, a pastoral cousin of the GHOST HARMONIC project.
With ‘The Beautiful Ghost’, as with William Orbit’s take on ‘Opus 132’ from ‘Pieces In A Modern Style’, this is Beethoven reimagined for the 23rd Century with beautiful string synths placed in a cavernous reverb. Meanwhile, the deeper resonances of the title track and spacey overtones in ‘Everything Is Illuminated’ provide a number of spectrum variations.
‘A Small Revolving World’ acts as a churchy interlude before continuing the lingering mood constructed in the first half. The flowing sweeps of ‘Often Now, I Wake’ recall the atmospheres of ‘Drift Music’ while ‘Persistence Of Vision’ is the most abstract of the album, with Eno’s ‘Neroli’ being the most obvious reference point. Concluding ‘London Overgrown’, ‘City Of Mirage’ and ‘Imaginary Music’ both do what they say on the tin in a haze of aural sculptures and blurred soundscapes.
Brian Eno said that ambient music had to be interesting enough to be listened to, yet simultaneously unobtrusive enough to be ignored. A difficult feat to pull off, ‘London Overgrown’ achieves this is the best understated manner. Ambient is not for everyone and very much a cognoscenti pursuit. But like Eno’s own ‘Apollo – Soundtracks & Atmospheres’, this is a fine entry point to begin an appreciation of a much under rated music form.
The vast career of electronic innovator and ambient godfather BRIAN ENO has crossed genres, styles and instrumentation.
Ranging from his solo work with his use of simplistic keyboards and snake guitar to major rock productions and motivational techniques such as his famous ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards, Eno’s theories and thought processes have shaped the pop, rock and avant garde worlds.
“Anything that’s strong enough will stand up to any amount of analysis” Eno said profoundly.
While starting out in art rock with ROXY MUSIC as an EMS VCS3 wielding non-musician, a car accident in early 1975 left him temporarily immobile in a hospital bed. Ever the thinker, it allowed him to explore the possibilities of environmental music.
Inadvertently, he had discovered the sub-genre of ambient. One of his best known early compositions of this type was the short instrumental title track of his 1975 opus ‘Another Green World’ which combined voxless and vocalled tracks in equal measures; the track later became the opening title theme to the BBC2 arts programme ‘Arena’. He focussed on this wordless aesthetic, producing acknowledged ambient classics such as ‘Music for Airports’, ‘Thursday Afternoon’ and ‘Neroli’. His recent album ‘Lux’ on Warp Records continued this quality tradition.
Following his acclaimed solo album ‘Before & After Science’ in 1977, he largely steered clear of conventional vocal led material until 2005’s excellent ‘Another Day On Earth’. However, he maintained a presence within the pop and rock sphere as a producer with ULTRAVOX! and later acts such as DEVO, TALKING HEADS, U2 and JAMES.
“Being a record producer is the best form of cowardice. Producers often get praised but they have to do a really bad job for anyone to criticise them” he said of his occasionally hands-off approach, “The way I work is to try to find out what isn’t being done that ought to be done. Sometimes that means somebody ought to make the tea. Sometimes it means somebody ought to re-write the whole bloody song”.
Such is Eno’s magic, he even managed to steer COLDPLAY into making their most bearable track ‘Viva La Vida’! Eno’s influence in the studio has been significant, even when not actually behind the desk.
Photo by Christian Simonpietri
While often miscredited as the producer of DAVID BOWIE’s Berlin trilogy ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’, he was paramount in directing Bowie’s train of thought towards a new school of pretension beyond conventional rock ’n’ roll. The result was half instrumental tracks such as ‘Sound & Vision’ and doomy neo-classical electronic pieces such as ‘Sense Of Doubt’, while both the ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’ albums were conceptualised into vocal and instrumental sides.
Other Eno collaborators have included HARMONIA, LARAAJI, ICEHOUSE, JOHN CALE, JAH WOBBLE, SUEDE, LEO ABRAHAMS, JON HOPKINS and KARL HYDE among many. Scouse pranksters HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT even sent up this artistic rite of passage in a song called ‘Eno Collaboration’. Eno’s catalogue is far too extensive to summarise in a short synopsis.
So what material would serve as an introduction to his varied career as a recording artist, producer, remixer and collaborative muse? Here are eighteen affectionately chosen examples. As with all previous Beginner’s Guides by ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK, the list is not definitive, presented in chronological order and limited to one track per moniker, project or artist. The intention is to act as an oblique strategy to inspire further investigation…
ROXY MUSIC Ladytron (1972)
‘Ladytron’ was a gloriously arty adventure; the inclusion of otherworldly sonic manipulations on Andy MacKay’s oboe and sax alongside Eno’s striking VCS3 sourced electronics signalled a futuristic vision that was later to reveal itself in the New Romantic scene. But Eno’s tenure in ROXY MUSIC wasn’t to last; tensions had been running high at Roxy gigs.Following Roxy’s second album ‘For Your Pleasure’, Eno was gone!
While Eno’s solo debut ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ followed a trashy, energetic guitar led style inspired by THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, his sophomore offering took in more esoteric approaches and an interest in Chinese Communism. The skippy waltz of ‘Back In Judy’s Jungle’ with percussion played by Phil Collins headed towards the 38th Parallel as a wonderfully infectious guitar melody (borrowed from a Korean folk tune) took hold alongside various whistles and electronic effects.
Prog rockers KING CRIMSON shared management with Roxy and Eno; their guitarist Robert Fripp made his first collaboration with Eno in 1973 on ‘(No Pussyfooting)’. Comprising of two long spiky improvisations, it used a live tape loop technique christened Frippertronics which allowed Mr Toyah Wilcox to layer guitar sounds. This was put to good use on ‘Evening Star’ which had more accessible melodic components compared with ‘(No Pussyfooting)’ and gentle harmonics.
‘Warszawa’ was named after the Polish capital city but accurately captured the post-war tensions in West Berlin without the need for lyricism. At Hansa Studios where the sessions were being mixed, the soldiers in the East Berlin watch towers could look into the windows of the building! Tony Visconti’s production only enhanced the collaborative drama between Bowie’s enigmatic wailing over Eno’s Minimoog and Chamberlain keys. This formed part of an all instrumental suite on the ‘Low’ album’s second side.
Available on the DAVID BOWIE album ‘Low’ via EMI Records
Using Eno’s Minimoog with a knob marked with a sheep sticker to indicate it made woolly sounds, Billy Currie’s classical sensibilities combined with John Foxx’s detached dissatisfaction to effectively invent Gary Numan on ‘My Sex’. Despite being accorded joint billing with Steve Lillywhite and the band in the ‘Ultravox!’ album’s production credits, drummer Warren Cann later revealed that Eno had only worked on four tracks and had not been quite the accomplished studio technician the band hoped he would be!
Available on the ULTRAVOX! album ‘Ultravox!’ via Universal Music
While the 1976 sessions with cult German band HARMONIA featuring Michael Rother of NEU! remained unreleased until 1997, collaborations with two of the collective Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius aka CLUSTER proved to be more successful. With a wonderful ambient collection ‘Cluster & Eno’to their name, their second album ‘After The Heat’added Eno’s contemplative voice to the experimentation, the best of which was the gentle sequencer led beauty of ‘The Belldog’.
With ‘Music for Airports’, No1 in his Ambient series, the concept had been to create soothing pieces for inducing calm in those who had a fear of flying. Unlike ‘Music For Films’ which consisted of short musical fragments, ‘Music For Airports’ comprised of four extended sketches utilising piano, synths and vocal tape loops. Very much a product of the studio and the possibilities opened up due to quality improvements of public address systems, ‘1/1’ was a magnificent 17 minute calling card that was “ignorable as it is interesting”.
Strangely enigmatic, Hassell’s muted avant garde trumpet playing and use of Prophet 5 processing in partnership with Eno on ‘Delta Rain Dream’ from ‘Fourth World Vol 1 Possible Musics’ provided a backdrop for a type of percussive primitive futurism where it was envisaged what indigenous tribes would have done if a solar powered synthesizer had been dropped in at the beginning of time and become their instrument of choice. ‘Dream Theory in Malaya: Fourth World Vol 2’ was recorded by Hassell solo in 1981.
Eno had produced and issued Budd’s ‘Pavilion Of Dreams’ on Obscure, but didn’t directly collaborate on a full album project with the American self-taught pianist until ‘The Plateaux Of Mirror’; ‘First Light’ was typical of an Eno collaboration where the musician of the partnership was allowed to breathe and build tension before Eno’s magical layers of synthesizer appeared in the final quarter. The approach could be compared to Eno choosing a tie for Budd’s shirt and suit…
‘Once In A Lifetime’ may have been the hit but ‘Crosseyed & Painless’ was the key track from ‘Remain In Light’, TALKING HEADS’ third album with Eno. Incorporating funk rhythms alongside assorted instrumentation modulating around a very basic repetitive chord structure, there was tension within the dance as David Byrne preached like an inebriate evangelist. The credit “All songs written by David Byrne, Brian Eno and Talking Heads” said it all as Eno tried to turn TALKING HEADS into his backing group.
Recorded simultaneously during the ‘Remain In Light’ sessions, ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’ was the playroom that nearly drove TALKING HEADS apart. This influential album used taped speeches by personalities of assorted faiths effectively as lead vocals. Featuring the found voice of Lebanese mountain singer Dunya Yusin, ‘Regiment’ was mildly funky and its assortment of rhythmical clarity, synthetic atmospheres and sustained guitar textures proved to be a forerunner of JAPAN’s ‘Tin Drum’.
BRIAN ENO, DANIEL LANOIS & ROGER ENO Deep Blue Day (1983)
The ‘Apollo’ album was recorded as a soundtrack to a documentary film about the mission to the moon. Its intention was to react against the newsy manner of space travel presented by most TV programmes of the day with its fast cuts and speeded up images. Feelings of weightlessness were captured among the collection’s aural clusters and atmospheres. ‘Deep Blue Day’ with its accessible countrified twang from Lanois was used in the infamous ‘toilet’ scene of the film ‘Trainspotting’.
Available on the BRIAN ENO album ‘Apollo’ via Virgin Records
It seemed a most ludicrous union at the time… the flag waving over earnest rock group teaming up with the thoughtful, ambient egghead! With Bono and Co doing their best ‘New Gold Dream’ period SIMPLE MINDS impression, ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ captured the harrowing trauma of Hiroshima in layers of Yamaha DX7 and Fairlight as Eno pushed the Irish quartet into a more esoteric mind process to counter their naturally bombastic tendencies. He continues to work with them today.
Brook was a studio engineer who could see the possibilities of stretching out the timbres and textures of the electric guitar. His experiments led to his development of the Infinite Guitar. Co-produced by Eno, ‘Hybrid’ was the first album to fully exploit this instrument and the title track very much followed the percussive possible musics of Eno’s ‘Fourth World Vol 1 Possible Musics’ collaboration with Jon Hassell. This wasn’t entirely surprising as Brook had played live with the duo in 1981.
Available on the MICHAEL BROOK album ‘Hybrid’ via Virgin Records
After their ‘Seven’ album, JAMES were accused of heading down the U2 route so in a replicant move, Booth and Co secured the services of Eno for ‘Laid’, which was released in Autumn 1993. While driven by frantic acoustic guitar, the lead single ‘Sometimes’ benefitted from Eno’s input by steadily building and adding glistening ambient synths. A most gloriously harmonic vocal section towards the conclusion appeared for yet another lift when it was least expected… pure Eno!
Available on the JAMES album ‘Laid’ via Mercury Records
Using the percolating bass sequence and chilling stabs from the original album version plus slices of Martin Gore’s backing vocal, Eno’s Apex Mix of this highlight from ‘Songs Of Faith & Devotion’ was almost Zen-like in its meditative qualities. Legend has it that while Martin Gore was playing this version in his car, he had to turn it off as it was sending him to sleep! In true Eno style, the backing built slowly and made the most of the song’s inherent tension, something which Butch Vig’s rocked up single mix failed to do.
Available on the DEPECHE MODE CD single ‘In Your Room’ via Mute Records
The first co-write between the two former sparring partners with perhaps some nostalgic lyrical reference to the fledgling days of ROXY MUSIC, ‘Wildcat Days’ was the best track from Ferry’s arduous ‘Mamouna’ project, the original sessions of which had started as far back as 1989 under the working title of ‘Horoscope’. Lots of weird noises, detuned swoops and a seasoned supporting cast including Andy MacKay, Chester Kamen and Steve Ferrone combined for this marvellous slice of electronic art funk.
Available on the BRYAN FERRY album ‘Mamouna’ via Virgin Records
BRIAN ENO & J PETER SCHWALM From This Moment (2001)
For his project with German DJ and percussionist Schwalm, Eno took a more rhythmically colourful approach to his ambient philosophies that coincided with the emergence of chill-out rooms within the club scene. Certainly, ‘Drawn From Life’ possessed more accessible entry points for those who maybe found works such as ‘Music For Airports’ too sedate. The album’s opener ‘From This Moment’ was great soundtrack music, bolstered by live percussion and strings.
Available on the BRIAN ENO & J PETER SCHWALM album ‘Drawn from Life’ via Virgin Records