Cold Comfort

Environments Two and Think Communications

Ambient techno is a strange beast. Sometimes teetering on the brink of Ken Davis-esque New Age irrelevance, it has shuffled along often with scant regard for a history of ambient music that stretches back to early this century, something which, together with its rave connotations, seems to have marginalised it from the lucrative and classy world of Eno and Budd.. From the over-indulgent outpourings from German label Fax Records who continue to churn out albums at a rate of three each month, the influential, chart-topping, and highly tongue-in-cheek playfulness of The Orb and The KLF, to the bleak experimentalism of Oval, DJ Spooky and Scanner, ambient techno probably went through a high period around 1993 and early 1994 before disappearing back into the comfy lounge it emerged from.

Being lounge-room music, rather than a club sound, ambient techno's moments of glory in Sydney were most often the product of the recently deceased chill-out designers Punos, whose own warped sense of what a chill out should be like, helped create an environment for musical experimentation, and, for listeners, a dancefloor space for the mind. Recently the chill-out has been abandoned as raves have been forced into pubs and clubs, and more often than not, an old lounge and few hastily thrown together pillows in the corner constitutes a chill-out. Elsewhere down-tempo club nights and one-off events like Cryogenesis have shifted towards drum'n'bass, mellow trance and "trip hop" leaving the beatless ambient space behind as a result of crowd pressure and the lack of suitable comfortable sit-down venues.

Despite the decline in visibility, bedroom producers across Sydney have been hard at work writing some world-class ambient material, and, following from the success of volume one, the co-product of Boxcar's Brett Mitchell, the recently departed Phil Smart, and Tim Harrison, Environments 02, showcases some of the best. Itch-E & Scratch-E drop in for some subsonic loungeroom terrorism as Screensaver creating a disturbing uneasy listening experience, whilst Head Affect demostrate, over two long spacious tracks, Cry and CV Siren, a subtle, reflective and moody side to their other more dancefloor oriented work elsewhere. Brett Mitchell's own Altitude is alternately dark and spooky on Dog Travel Parts 1 & 2, and bright and colorful on the rolling digitalia of Luminous. Clan Analogue's 5000 Fingers Of Dr T offer up an appropriately slow building track Sex In The Morning, and the Transcendental Anarchists, appearing as Qpod, round things off with some of their patented weirdness.

Sitting in Kinselas with electronica expert DJ Florian pushing some exquisite electronica in the background, Brett offers his thoughts on Environments;"Originally the boom in ambient techno was a reaction to the increasing hardness of techno around 1993 and people wanted a place to escape from it for a while. Musically there was more scope because you didn't have to cater for the dancefloor, and you could do anything which made ot more fulfilling. I mean its far more freeform than dance music and often a revelation to write, because I still find that even the most progressive dance music is, comparatively conservative and rigid in structure".

For many it is the tyranny of distance, from the main centres of Europe, the UK and America that makes it so difficult to release electronic music here, and with the nearest vinyl pressing plant, themselves with a backlog of orders, in Aotearoa, many resort to licensing their tracks to European labels and then importing them back to Australia. "When Environments One came out we were lucky because we got a full page in the UK magazine DJ which in turn started the ball rolling in America where we shipped 500 copies. It is a difficult process to release music here in Australia, because you need to get together quite a lot of money to get anything off the ground, and there is just no way you can sell enough locally to survive and on top of that local people are still quite apathetic towards locally produced music and tend to wait until it has been sucessful overseas . . . with Phil Smart now relocating to San Franscisco he will be running the label over there and handling the promotion side of things in America, and I might be moving to the UK to do the same over there which will leave Tim in charge here. We found with Environments One that even if you got good reviews overseas that distributors especially in the UK wont pick things up without a local promoter to push things along which makes things almost impossible".

"There has been an exponential rise in new local labels springing up recently and hopefully by doing the Environments series other people will be inspired. San Francisco built its reputation and shaped a particular sound only through a string of its own quality local releases and I am sure Sydney's time will come" Brett concludes. Sure enough the next few months look very promising with a new experimental ambient compilation from Clan Analogue called Aphelion due shortly to be followed soon after by a more dub influenced ceedee. Elsewhere with Summer approaching the time may be right once again for some specialist ambient techno events.

Yellow Peril

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