For many people listening to ambient music is the equivalent of watching a fence warp. Not for me though, I’ve broke the ambient wall, I’ve sat through a Steve Reich record, which is basically the same few notes repeated again and again played by an orchestra of doorbells. If I appear not to be selling ambient, then that is because its a very hard sell, a repetitive, aggravated sound without vocals always is, non the less the concentration that is required to get into the music is worth it. Ambient music can be an engaging listen, a study in the texture of sound, without the intrusion of lyrics or melody. It’s basically raw, uncluttered, unfettered noise. Music bottled at its source.
Firstly before praising Jon Hopkins’ excellent new ambient/electronica record “Insides”, I just want to point out his past indiscretions, he’s toured with Coldplay, he’s produced Coldplay, he holds Chris Martins umbrella for him when he goes for long walks in the rain. After hearing his album though, its probably best to bite my lip and say all is forgiven.
Jon Hopkins deals in the electronic ambience of Steve Reich twinned with a more subtle, string powered drone, which is sometimes reminiscent of Penguin Cafe Orchestra or God’s Speed You Black Emperor. The music lightens and darkens like a gradual unravelling dream, and after travelling through some electronic storms, finally returns to the redemptive calm of the first track “The Wider Sun”, in the final cut “Autumn Hill”, both driven by Hopkins own haunting piano playing.
Scott Walker said of his more recent work that the revolutionary sound of ”Tilt” and “The Drift” involved painting with great blocks of sound, instead of trimming a piece to fit vocal and melodic lines and patterns. This is continually exhibited here. In fact at some points during the album, I almost expected Scott Walker to interrupt with a high pitched “I’ll give you 21, 21 ,21”. That’s a reference to Walkers “Farmer in the City” on Tilt, if you haven’t heard that gothic splendour, get it now.
As the album progresses there is a constant echo of dance music, not so much that people start to reach for glow sticks though and the classy people clamber for the exists, no Hopkins walks the delicate tightrope and merges dance sounds into a ambient atmosphere. In fact “Colour Eye” sounds like a 90’s rave if it was taking place on a submerged 1920’s Atlantic liner. The dance beats sound over an echoy piano, like ocean currents tickling ancient ivories in the Hacienda, the track ends with the sound of falling rain, the real Madchester sound.
The nine minute “Light through The Veins” is the most Reichesque track and may test the patience of newcomers to ambient to the limit. But lovers of “Music For Eighteen Musicians” and “Different Trains” will really love this technicolor shoe gaze. The song is hypnotic, the pulsating waves of sound and thundering bass getting inside your consciousness.
The echoy piano sounds return for the rest of the album, particularly in the wonderful minor key piece “A Drifting Up”. Its the kind of music that would usually be set to a time-lapse image of a dying flower, or a city street as the day expires, in an arty documentary.
These pieces could probably be described hundreds of different ways by hundreds of different people, which is the proof of the power of ambient music. In a traditional song the images conjured up in ones minds eyes are passed on verbally by the songwriter. It’s an utterly effective but limited technique. Ambient music allows your own imagination to fire on a limitless scale, on all cylinders, in widescreen. There are no limitations, you make up your own meaning. Jon Hopkins latest aims for transcendence and manages to tip toe awfully close.