Archive for the ‘Dark Ambient’ Category

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Brian Eno – Ambient 4: On Land

July 1, 2008

Returning to the artist which the series started out with, Ambient 4 falls into the hands of Brian Eno alone. As the name suggests, On Land clearly seeks to recreate emotions and characteristics of particular geographical locations. In doing this, Eno crafts simple but evocative synthesizer melodies and accompanies them with natural soundscapes. The end result is the most dense and consistently fascinating member of the Ambient family.

In making Ambient 1, it seemed as if Eno was concerned primarily with the mindset of the listener and the practical uses of ambient music to relax and comfort the mind. It seems as if within Ambient 2 and 3’s less practical, more emotional performances, Eno now has the desire to make his music more visceral, realistic, close to the human condition.

He succeeds in this on six of the eight tracks here, and the other two were clearly intended for a different goal. One song can be used as an example to represent the rest. Track six, Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills), is a combination of a synthesizer part and a barrage of natural touchups. The basis of the song is a low, wavering inner tone that seems to teeter back and forth between two notes, which is accompanied on rare occasion by a subtle, gliding, guitar part, a thump of a low bass, or what sounds like a nebulous vocal part in the higher tones of the background. These more traditional instruments are supported by recordings and extremely realistic electronic representations of birds, frogs, wind and water. The result is a piece that is so subtle in melody and so supersaturated in texture and detail that one could simply sit and listen to it on loop for an hour and not get tired of it, in the same way that people might go out and sit in their yard at night and listen to nature.

However, Leeks Hills is only one of eight songs on the album, and most of them are just as pleasing and detailed. Lantern Marsh is just as comfortable with itself as Leeks Hills, and makes use of the sound of distant, clattering chains. Both of these songs are arguably the most relaxing, save perhaps A Clearing, which is the only outwardly major toned piece on the album. The Lost Day has more tension than any other song on the album. The opening Lizard Point is also an accomplishment, its changing dynamics almost ceaseless throughout the song. These songs can be listened to loudly or softly, with the listener either carefully paying attention and examining details or letting the music create a subtle atmosphere. Most of the album follows the Music For Airports logic that good ambient music should be simultaneously listenable and ignorable. During times of great stress, one might find comfort and safety in the pieces, and in times of great optimism, one might be disturbed.

Disturbing is the goal half the time, though. Ambient 4 is often cited as the premier dark ambient album, and it is not unlikely that Eno invented yet another genre here. One song in particular aims to disturb more than others. Shadow is a shocker of a song, not necessarily fitting in any way with the rest of the album. It is purely a scare tactic, but it works. John Hassell takes the spotlight with a strongly manipulated trumpet sound that one has a hard time believing did not in fact come from a set of human vocal chords. The trumpet is played over springloaded dissonant bass tones under cricket sounds, and it would make any remotely normal person soil themselves if they played it while sitting alone in the dark outside. It’s just that disturbing. Impressive, yes. But it doesn’t fit in. Also somewhat out of place but not inappreciable is Tal Coat, less of an ambient soundscape and more of a medium for sonic experimentation. It does, however, vaguely resemble what some poisonous miasma from a bog might sound like on a foggy day. Maybe the existence of that previous sentence justifies the song.

Also particularly poignant is the final piece, Dunwich Beach Autumn 1960. It is perhaps the thesis for the album. There is a particular place, at a particular time, where someone is there feeling something, and here it is, in sound. The ending is completely memorable. It cuts off suddenly, like many of the other songs on the album do, and if you are listening to the album on a CD player or computer where silence follows the final track of an album, you will be floored by the destruction through silence of the environment that is meticulously created and reinforced in Dunwich Beach. Part of what makes Brian Eno’s ambient music so beautiful is that the music can almost be treated like visual art. What is there is seen, and viewed from afar with joy in the same way that one might view a painting over and over again time after time. The more you listen to these songs, the more they become yours. Ambient 4: On Land is undoubtedly the most advanced album in the Ambient Series and a perfect ending statement.

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