Sunday, April 4, 2010
In 1978, Brian Eno changed our perceptions of what the purpose of popular music can be when he released "Ambient 1: Music For Airports." I use the term "popular music" arbitrarily, because while Brian Eno was indeed until then known primarily as a pop music pioneer, this new direction was something different. He released music that was almost like "program music" that would have been used throughout the classical lexicon, but he stripped it of almost all elements. With "Music for Airports" Brian Eno had made a statement that music is as much an internal part of us as an external experience, he captured our breath and our thoughts by creating pieces of music that didn't go anywhere, that served merely as a peaceful repose from our daily grind.
In 1981, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh shattered this concept, took Eno's basic aesthetics and instruments as their own and created "Music For Listening To" as what appears to be a direct response.
Fresh off their departure from burgeoning superstars The Human League and while already supporting "Penthouse and Pavement" as Heaven 17, the duo took a detour towards experimental electronic music as the British Electronic Foundation (or B.E.F.) and showed the world just exactly what the synthesizer was capable of.
I'll say right now that this collection of songs really set the blueprint for much of electronic dance music that followed during the next 20 years. It's not as spaced out as the music Kraftwerk was making at the time, but kick drums and synth lines apparent throughout this release helped catalyze where synth-pop was heading in the immediate 80s and can be looked upon as the most direct starting point for what would become industrial music (and thus spin out many early house releases and even some of the early Warp stuff).
"Groove Thang" which was already known with additional vocals from "Penthouse and Pavement" is a classic right off the bat. With it's rapid-fire percussion, there are additional guitar and bass parts added by John Wilson that really set this track apart. It sounds like LTJ Bukem 15 years prior to his prime as the DnB master. The bass is all over the place, expertly played and providing a solid groove. Almost 30 years after it's initial release, the track doesn't sound dated like many early electronica and can still rock a party.
"Uptown Apocalypse" is dark. Synth sprinkled throughout and very deep sounding steel drum percussion. The title is the perfect fit. This sounds like the soundtrack to a pending fight scene in and 80s action film. Walking down the deserted streets, chains wrapped around your arms and looking to destroy anyone who gets in your way.
"B.E.F. Indent" is an interesting, albeit quick, take on classical music. Equally beautiful and futuristic. This is the music that Vangelis' best productions are in line with. Simple synth-based organ sounds, with an ending that comes to quick. "You wanted a break? Too bad."
The rest of the album touches on many sounds within the electronic music canon for years to come, allowing the listener to make connections as they listen. "The Old at Rest" is a direct connection the music Eno and Tangerine Dream were already making. Beautiful, ambient soundscapes that on its own can serve as aural wallpaper, but taken in the context of the rest of the album, really keep the listener engaged. You are seeking the changes in modulation, you are counting the keys as they echo through your speakers. Enlightening sure, but not boring.
The closing track, "Decline of the West" is just altogether special. Another fitting title for the music contained, the track brings images of decimation, loneliness, despair. Or maybe its just something you are going to put up with.
"Music For Listening To" is exactly that. This isn't background music, much of it is too fast-paced for that, much of it contains little shifts within the tracks that you don't catch unless you listen closely. It's almost entirely synth-based and some of it will sound dated. But it's an important release if you are at all interested in the history of electronic music. It may not have grandfathered every genre or been the only release of it's kind, but its a classic nonetheless and can surely hold your attention.