It’s hot tonight.
The kind of heat that pushes up against you gently, fogs the mind and drains you of strength. It was a loooooong day at work today, one of my two-a-week eleven-hour shifts, which to be fair I’m happily used to because I get Wednesdays off every week. 9-5, Mon-Fri? Keep it. I’m alright. Still, a long day is a long day, and obviously I’m going to be pretty bloody tired at the end of it. The heat today has been quietly but insistently oppressive, and to be honest, today’s been a lonely day. If you’re already familiar with my Twitter/Facebook/recent reviews you’ll know why, but if you don’t there’s this and this. And this and this and this.
I work in a library, one branch of many branches in the borough, and today I had to cover at another branch, so I was out of my comfort zone, which for the most part I have absolutely no problem with. It’s nice to work somewhere else for a change – you know, shake things up a bit, be in a different area, different people to work with and all that, but the downside is that the latent loneliness that I’m feeling ends up more pronounced with your creature comforts far away in another building. You know, the little things like your tea mug, your familiarity with the stock (books, DVDs, CDs, etc), the regular customers, the reassuring surroundings, the workmates who’ve been there working with you through good and bad. Today I was away from all of that, and like I said earlier, I don’t have a problem with that, but I feel like my strength is a little weaker on days like these.
As ever, music is a beautiful comfort, and today for example, during my lunch break, I was listening to Swimmers, a lovely, gentle collection of melodies from the band Younghusband, and, especially on a hot day like this, such airy, radiant music really soothes the soul and mind. Coincidentally (or not, given I was only made aware of the band through this connection, as the two have collaborated) there’s a touch of early Rose Elinor Dougall about some of their songs, especially the grey-skies-by-the-seaside loveliness of ‘Grinding Teeth’, and Dougall’s music has been an extraordinary source of comfort these last few months.
However, by the end of work, I felt so shattered in body and mind that I couldn’t even muster the strength to listen to music on the way home. It probably didn’t help that I’d taken these stupid over-ear headphones to work with me, the kind that all-too effectively shut out the outside world – great when you want to block out all that external bullshit, not so great when the heat of the day is borderline claustrophobic-inducing. Literally, these headphones make your head hotter. No thanks. Plus, I didn’t feel like shutting out the outside world tonight. I didn’t want to feel separated from it. I wanted to be part of it, even if only softly so. Plus, my journey to another branch today involved me taking the Tube, which can be an ordeal at the best of times, but on a day like today, all that added heat, loudness and subterranean atmosphere is just too much with those bloody headphones on top of it all. Besides, I can barely hear my music over the sound of the underground anyway (cue Girls Aloud joke).
Yet despite not listening to any music on the way back home, a certain album came to mind, a certain sound, utterly in keeping with the humidity of the evening.
I’m talking about Jon Hassell and Brian Eno’s literally otherworldly album Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics.
In the 1970’s, Brian Eno was involved in so much music. His time in Roxy Music, which for many artists would be achievement enough, was merely the springboard for a remarkable musical journey which took in four extraordinary song-based albums, collaborations with Cluster (and by extension Harmonia, made up of Cluster and Neu!’s Michael Rother) Robert Fripp and David Bowie, production work for Ultravox!, Devo, U2 and Talking Heads….and then there were the ambient albums. Even though Eno didn’t exactly invent ambient, he definitely harnessed and popularised the sound to the extent that it became an identifiable genre. As well as the becalming instrumental interludes scattered over Another Green World and Before and After Science, the hypnotic ‘Frippertronics’ on display throughout No Pussyfooting and Evening Star, and the extended tape-loop experiment ‘Discreet Music’, we had four volumes of self-defined ambient music released over five or so years. The third one, Day of Radiance, wasn’t actually an Eno album (it was performed by Laraaji, although Eno produced it), and the second one, The Plateaux of Mirror, was a collaboration with another pioneer of the genre, Harold Budd. The first and fourth instalments – Music for Airports and On Land – were credited to Eno alone, and together, all four albums are like different colours of the same instrumental rainbow, covering a spectrum of styles, moods and most essentially, feelings and sensations. This was music that was designed to be listened to either as background noise or as meditative, hypnotic escape. Sounds a little New Age-y, right? Hey, we can’t blame the originator for the pallid, faded facsimiles to appear in this music’s wake. Eno’s ambient music is often incredibly atmospheric, blissfully serene and seriously tranquil. Of all the pieces of music ever created, only one is guaranteed to send me to sleep every time, and I really do mean this as a compliment. It’s ‘1/1’, the first track from Music for Airports, a seventeen-minute thing of utterly peaceful wonder that will make everything all right.
Still, if the ambient albums were the rainbow, then Possible Musics is the rain. A remarkable album, it devises an imaginary genre of music Hassell has described as “a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques.” On one level this sounds like what came to be known as world music, but it’s world music through a filter, through a kaleidoscope, through heat haze and humidity. It feels utterly, utterly alive – and is one of the few albums out there that truly transports you somewhere else. Despite Eno being the star name on the album cover, rumour has it that this is more of a Hassell album than anything else. Indeed, his trumpet is the predominant feature of these six instrumentals, but this is a trumpet that sounds like it’s been left out in the heat too long. This music sounds like it’s slowly melting, it sounds like a thick, impenetrable jungle that you with your machete must wade through to get to the album’s mysterious centre. At times it sounds like some mysterious animal, howling somewhere in the distance. The bass is deep, repetitive, hypnotic. Opening track ‘Chemistry’ is like stumbling onto a sacred ritual, unseen for centuries by Western eyes. It’s a fascinating sound.
‘Delta Rain Dream’ is probably the most humid-sounding piece of music ever recorded. It truly is the sound of overcast, stormy-skies at breaking-point, just before the first rumbles of thunder. It sounds sweaty, close, uncomfortable yet woozily dream-like. At no point does this music sound like it was recorded by humans – everything about it just oozes pure nature, yet a kind of futuristic nature that’s eerily alien. The percussion is dense, shuffling, quietly forceful. It’s only three minutes long, but ‘Delta Rain Dream’ could have been an extended piece along the lines of Eno’s later ‘Reflection’, ‘Neroli’ or ‘Thursday Afternoon’, all of which are an hour-long or longer. It’s one of my favourite pieces of music ever. ‘Griot’ is much sparser, with what sound like horses galloping, the sound of their horseshoes clapping, albeit at no recognisable or natural pace. Hassell’s trumpet sounds weird as fuck, it doesn’t sound like a trumpet at all. If it wasn’t for the credits, I wouldn’t have guessed what the hell it was. ‘Ba-Benzélé’ allows a little oxygen to enter the scene, which is good as I was feeling a little too woozy. The trumpet sounds almost like a treated human voice, an unrecognisable call of some kind, a wail. The synths rise like mist over trees, it could be either sunrise or sunset, I have no idea. That’s what I love about this album, it’s so intangible. I can never put my finger on it. I’ve never listened to it in the winter. Something about the heat, those sunless but intoxicating, incredibly close days just makes me want to pop this album on. It’s probably about as necessary to listen to this music on a day like today as it is bringing a hot water bottle to bed in the middle of August, but I’m a glutton for this sort of thing. The sound of rain comes in near the end of ‘Ba-Benzélé’, and it feels good, it feels welcome. ‘Rising Thermal 14° 16′ N; 32° 28′ E’ closes the album’s original first side with little more than pure atmospherics, the sounds of heat escaping, of swaying mirages, of distant images retreating even further into the distance.
I have this album on vinyl, but to be honest, like a lot of ambient albums, I prefer to listen to them on CD – that way I don’t have to get up and flip the record over, potentially breaking the spell in the process, although Eno did make a point of wanting to break the spell on Music for Airports by inserting extended gaps of silence between tracks, so that we didn’t get too comfortably lost. I’m sure I read that somewhere. Anyway, the whole of the second side is taken up by just one track, ‘Charm (Over Burundi Cloud)’ – like many of Eno’s extended pieces, it’s essentially the same thing repeated over and over, with only the slightest of tonal shifts. It’s easily the most overtly ambient piece on the album, by sheer length if for no other reason. You can put this on and just go somewhere else entirely for twenty minutes, without the fade outs and atmospheric shifts the first side delivered. It’s pretty spooky. Listen to it in the dark, for ultimate effect. It works best at night, on a night like this, with the window open, because there’s more chance of a chill breeze to add to the atmosphere.
And you know what, the album’s relaxed me. So has writing this piece, to be honest. I love writing about music, love trying (but not trying too hard) to get to grips with why it affects me so. That’s me done. Thank you for reading this structurally awkward, first-take, first-draft slab of prose. Now give the album a listen. It’s the perfect night for it.