This article is an attempt to explore how Richard D. James has evolved his style throughout his career. In it, I group together his releases into several reasonably distinct eras, and discuss the techniques that he uses in each. James seems a good subject for a case study due to how little music theory he took for granted, and how much he built his own musical principles from scratch, which is a noble goal for anyone trying to carve their own niche in the musical ecosystem.
I didn't used to like any music when I was little. I always used to think there was probably music out there that I would like, but I didn't get to hear it until I was a lot older. All the stuff I used to hear around me, I used to hate. I made music for a good five years before liking anyone else's... For me, music, to start off with, was just a game. It still is a game, really, but it was a real childish game when I first used to do it, like playing with cars or anything like that. I just got more and more into it, and started recording things, and... I liked listening back to things I'd done. — Richard D. James, 19979
[I started off from] a sonic experimentation point of view. I was just really interested in piecing sounds together, making little rhythms, things like that. I think that's the first angle that got me interested in it. I just always liked creating stuff. — Richard D. James, 19955
...I didn't have any money. If I wanted to get anything different, I had to change what I had or make something. Through customising the stuff, I got a working knowledge of the keyboards and the circuitry... I realised that making the stuff and coming up with sounds that no-one else could was my main asset, so I decided to keep working on it. — Richard D. James, 19933
Popular music is pretty open and flexible. You're judged not by how much esoteric knowledge you have at your fingertips, but by record sales. Out of all the genres of popular music, the more heavily electronic ones are particularly ideal for newcomers and outsiders, as their musical rules are straightforward, and experimentation is encouraged mostly with the timbres themselves, in which there is no inherent right or wrong approach.
As a result, electronic music made for fun and profit is particularly amenable to newcomers. Anyone with a modest setup and a thirst for experimentation can go far. As a good example, Richard D. James is someone whose work can probably be considered outsider art. By almost anyone's standards, his work is eccentric, quirky and idiosyncratic. Its flaws (such as tape hiss and clipping) are arguably as charming as its finer points (such as whole worlds of original sounds), and its deviations from the norm are what make it so endearing, otherworldly and engaging.
Most music, in pretty much any genre, has certain rules to be followed. For instance, whenever a certain chord is played, all the instruments should generally stick to that chord, in order to be harmonious with one another. Popular music in particular is usually narrower in scope still, often (but not always) adding rules such as insisting almost every song be in 4/4 time, have an emotionally engaging lyric, and combine a pleasing complement of instruments, one covering a simple bass melody, another providing a higher, more rhythmically catchy melody, yet another slow harmonies such as strings or backing vocals, another providing percussive, atonal rhythms (drums), and most importantly a lead vocal to sing the lyric.
Dance music such as techno and house eschews some of these, but emphasises others. From disco, house imports a very simple four-to-the-floor drumbeat, and in both house and techno the chords themselves often seem optional. As long as you keep everything in a single key at any given time, you're good to go. The music (as in melodies, harmonies and rhythms) are often simplistic and repetitive, and the vocals either a token gesture or entirely absent, causing much complaint from people not used to these genres. What these primarily electronic genres lack in notational innovation, however, they make up for with timbral innovation. To concentrate on the musical aspect of genres employing mostly electronic instruments is largely to miss the point. These genres showcase novel and interesting sounds in a way that no primarily acoustic or electric genre can, because the stunning array of sounds required by these genres can only be produced by equipment as versatile as electronic (and now digital) synthesisers and samplers.
Electronic instruments showcased a whole new set of sounds not just when they were first introduced, but with every major innovation since then, from the introduction of subtractive synthesis through to FM synthesis and then digital sampling. In addition, they enabled musicians to drastically change the timbres of their instruments while they were being played. It was therefore inevitable that genres predominantly featuring such timbrally versatile instruments would focus on the sounds themselves more than the actual music, and therefore that the notation itself would be simple, taking a back seat to the sounds, so as not to overwhelm the listener with too much innovation at once.
Since his earliest released works, Richard D. James' music has been most aligned with dance music. Even when you can't dance to it, it generally has a steady pulse that gives you an easily accessible grounding.
Also like many other electronic artists, James often eschews chords, as was especially the case during his entire first two "eras" (as loosely defined here for the sake of convenience, although it's largely an arbitrary distinction). While each of his tracks may well be in a particular key, the different instruments seem largely independent of one another, free to play different melodies and harmonies that, while they may slightly evoke a chord, certainly don't do so strongly enough to warrant the other instruments having to change their own notation to accommodate them. There are often harmonies played on pads, but these are never so strong as to force the bassline to reinforce the root note of a chord. Rather, they largely co-exist without affecting each other.
Secondly, it doesn't have much in the way of structure. This is somewhat to be expected in ambient and dance music, which seldom follows the verse/chorus format (possibly as a side effect of the lack of vocals). As with contemporary electronic musicians Orbital and Underworld, new elements are introduced into the mix and old ones discarded, layering things up one instrument at a time more often than suddenly changing everything. The lack of distinct chords and therefore chord progressions also makes it impossible for a verse/chorus style structure to alternate between two different chord progressions.
No matter how sublime or caustic the track in question, the lack of chords, chord progressions and structure is pretty much constant in these two eras of James' output.
It's something that I've always liked. I like mixing complex things with simple things, so the complex things don't get too avant-garde and way out... To do really complicated things is just a matter of time, how much time you spend doing it, and you know you can produce it if you spend enough time, something that's going to be complicated — the challenge comes from making it like really accessible at the same time; so I like to mix something simple, or deceptively simple, with it. — Richard D. James, 19967
This brings us to the other half of what defines James' unique sound in these first two eras, what is present. The first of these is a love of extremes, in a way that often balances well. James seems to love very quiet, relaxing music, and also very loud, aggressive music, without much in between. Sometimes, however, he'll let one of these bleed through into a track or album that mostly consists of the other, or mix them in various quantities. For instance, listening to the harsh (to put it mildly) track The Garden of Linmiri, it's all too easy to overlook the soft, unsettling ambient pad playing throughout it, quietly uneasing the listener while the caustic beats give her something to focus on. Again, it's arguable that there isn't even any relation to the different channels that comprise the track: the haunting drone and the deafening beats don't appear to interact in any way. Indeed, the drone appears on its own as the untitled eleventh track on Analogue Bubblebath 3. Nevertheless, they somehow seem to complement each other well, as both contain eclectic, otherworldly sounds that work towards the common goal of unsettling the listener.
These eclectic, homebrewed sounds are the second main defining characteristic of James' sound. Instead of using the same sounds as everyone else (such as TR-808 and TR-909 drum sounds), he mostly makes his own sounds from scratch, whether sampling things other than instruments, or making eccentric, quirky patches on his synthesisers that don't sound very much like any acoustic instruments at all.
These are the main features of electronic musical instruments. Samplers can make wholly original musical instruments out of absolutely any object you have lying around, while synthesisers can create artificial sounds that don't resemble anything that could physically exist. This flexibility unique to electronic genres is, surprisingly, often overlooked by musicians. The likely reasons are that they want to use the same instruments as their role models and inspirations, or that they aspire to compose in an established genre. Thankfully, some musicians lack such vertigo and are happy to experiment with what sounds good to them, regardless of whether anyone else is doing the same thing, or perhaps because they're not.
Although it seems ironic in light of the subsequent sample-heavy Expert Knob Twiddlers and the synth-museum-tour Analord series, James' business partner Grant Wilson-Claridge wrote a refreshing manifesto1 for their record label, Rephlex, back in the early nineties:
Firstly, we hope to promote "Innovation in the dynamics of Acid" — a much loved and misunderstood genre of house music forgotten by some and indeed new to others, especially in Britain. We aim to help feed the underground hard-line of house, providing quality "techno"; principally for dance but also highlighting the increasingly popular style of electronic listening music.
Secondly, we aim to demonstrate to the rest of the world that British dance music CAN be entirely original. In the main, we plan to disregard the all-to-common breakbeat and resist the laziness of sampling other people's music. We also want to show that you can make a kick-ass drum beat without preset drum-machine sounds — R.I.P. TR-909!!
A noble goal indeed.
So in the first era of James' musical output, the main memes employed seem to be:
It was like a completely new English techno, completely inspired by his own influences. — Mike Paradinas, 201410
It seems sensible to group James' earliest works together, as the different releases on different labels have a lot of duplications of the exact same tracks. Before being signed to Warp and setting up his own Rephlex label, and certainly before being signed to R&S Records, he was still finding his own niche in the industry.
Analogue Bubblebath 1 was one of the first tracks to be released by James. It's certainly a humble beginning: although it's as lush and warm as anything on his first album, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, and still a pleasure to listen to, it's also very simple.
Although ambient techno hadn't really been established as a genre at the time, articulated with a name, the style wasn't unique to James. It uses well defined techno tropes such as Roland drum machine sounds and warm synth pads, and uses them to a more laid back effect than regular techno in order to give ravers something to chill out to as the party draws to a close and the people come down from their highs. As such, James' ambient techno work fits comfortably alongside other R&S releases of the time, such as Biosphere's Microgravity. The bubble-esque upwards filter sweeps are the main innovation that presumably gives the track its name. Otherwise, aside from the laid back nature, this seems like a pretty straightforward techno track that doesn't yet hint at the originality to come.
Ambient techno is an interesting genre, combining memes from ambient, a genre specifically designed to provide an atmosphere without drawing attention to itself, and techno, a genre specifically designed to inspire you to dance. This combination is a curious juxtaposition of conflicting goals, so it makes sense that James would be drawn towards it.
Polynomial-C combines a fast arpeggiated synth line, rhythmic synth stabs, a breakbeat and a synth melody. The result is cathartic rave music, but without the breakbeat it wouldn't be too far from his ambient works.
The breakbeat is used in the exact same repetitive manner as other people's music of the era: it's a straight up loop, repeated ad nauseum with no subtle changes, only the occasional reversing. This is probably due to the state of the art at the time, as manipulating samples was still painstaking work back in the early nineties. Nevertheless, it's another early case of James making music that's comparable to other people's music of the era, rather than making anything that stands out as unique. As is usually the case with artists, it seems like it took him a while to find his own voice.
Everything is drenched in so much reverb that it comes off more like an instrument in its own right than an effect, much like the entirety of Selected Ambient Works 85-92.
None of these tracks stand out as particularly interesting, being noteworthy only because of who wrote them and what else he would later write. As such, they prove the interesting point that James doesn't only ever write extreme music. These are comparatively bland, or easy on the ears, depending on whether that's your sort of thing.
As with the rest of his work of this era, they don't have chords or structure, just adding and removing various instruments in a long, repetitive piece of music per track.
Unlike Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which is otherworldly and idiosyncratic, this is pretty normal sounding, using more recognisable instruments such as digital piano samples and drum machines. It's a fine line, with not that much difference between the releases, but where the former is interesting, this isn't.
By simply making more of his own custom patches and using less presets, then for that particular album, having only the bass instrument play melodies, slowing everything down, sprinkling on some field recordings and drowning almost everything in reverb, that album became original and interesting in all the ways this isn't, by finding a niche and owning it.
Perhaps the main thing to take home from GAK is that, in spite of the media's image of James being an eccentric genius who can't help but make otherworldly, idiosyncratic music, he's quite capable of writing uninteresting music too. If anything, GAK proves that rather than being the result of an innate ability, the eccentricity of his music is the result of both a choice, whether conscious or merely a direction he happened to drift in, and most of all a lot of hard work. Surely such an observation should provide inspiration for anyone looking to find their own niche in the world of music.
It's also worth noting that what makes his post-GAK music more interesting is that he found his own personal sound, and that the way to replicate his success is not to mimic his sound, but rather to find your own. To try to copy someone else's personal style is to miss the point of their success entirely. They are successful not because of that one particular style, but because they are original. Hence the only thing you should seek to replicate for yourself is the burning desire to make your own equally original art; to find your own niche and completely own it.
As with the rest of James' earlier work, Selected Ambient Works 85-92 consists of music which, while it may have a specific key per piece of music, doesn't have chords shared by all instruments. The basslines are reasonably involved melodies, rather than the standard emphasis of a root note. This is just as well considering they tend to be the focus of the tracks, which often lack higher register lead melodies. These basslines never change chord, rather persisting with the exact same notes throughout any given track. (It's possible this isn't the case with Ageispolis. It's hard to tell, as some of the bassline melody's notes last a whole chord each.)
The palette of sounds is reasonably varied: plenty of synthesised instruments, or at least samples of them, are present. Alongside these are various samples of acoustic drums and even a breathy, wordless vocal on Xtal. Considering the same artist later went on to release the conspicuously analogue Analord, it's worth noting that this album was made on a tight budget, using a Casio sampler and Yamaha FM synthesiser amongst other machines. It was at least partly, if not entirely, digital until it reached the tape recorder. As always, the instruments used are nowhere near as important as the artist's ideas and techniques.
Everything was originally mastered on standard tape on a hi-fi cassette deck... With the first track, the tape had chewed in about seven places... It's a retrospective look, and the tape munching was all part of the stuff I was doing, so I've left it in. — Richard D. James, 19933
Much like the recording of Computer Love on Kraftwerk's CD re-release of Computer World, the fact that this album was mastered to tape — cassette tape, no less — and then played so often that it's worn and occasionally even chewed, adds to the music's charm, seeming as much like a purposeful effect as the delay and reverb that almost every instrument is absolutely drowned in, and arguably serves to give the album a cohesion as well.
This doesn't mean you should rush out and buy a tape deck. Far from it. My point is that whatever you're using, you can make that equipment seem like an advantage rather than a disadvantage if you think creatively enough. Sure, with electronic music more than any other genre, the equipment does make a difference to the kinds of sounds you can create, but that just makes it easier to overestimate its importance. Whatever genre you're writing in, the equipment you use is far less important than what you're personally bringing to the table as an artist. The tools you use to do your job are serving you, not the other way around. A hard working musician using just some free software, a microphone and some household objects can create better music than someone with an unlimited budget who falls into the trap of becoming a synth collector instead of a musician.
There are a lot of lengthy recordings in the background, from what sounds like his friends talking in a train station in Tha to a river in Ageispolis. On some level, these may be inadvertently fulfilling the same role as lyrics, giving the emotions a context in which to exist. They're such a subtle and effective setting that they arguably work even better than the only clear words on the album, a sample of Willy Wonka in We Are the Music Makers.
To summarise, this album makes use of the following memes in addition to the earlier noted ones:
On a side note, n.IASP, released under the alias Soit-P.P., sounds very much like an outtake from this album, and is well worth tracking down.
When a piece of music is wordless, the listener knows which emotion she's supposed to feel, but not why she's supposed to feel it. In the late eighties and early nineties, as samplers became affordable in terms of both cost and physical footprint, many electronic musicians (perhaps most notably The Future Sound of London) took to sampling dialogue from films in order to fill in this contextual gap left by the lack of lyrics. At the time, James was no exception to this trend. With Every Day, he even went as far as building an entire track around sampled dialogue, using it as a significant musical hook.
Although this meme is popular, I wouldn't recommend imitating it. Aside from how overused it now is, and how it involves incorporating other people's work into your own instead of making wholly original pieces, depending on your stance on licensing it's either expensive and involves a lot of hassle, or it's illegal.
A far more personal, legally safe and affordable alternative is simply to include the sound of your studio as friends visit, as James appears to do in Cow Cud Is a Twin and 4, and to sample snippets of personal conversations in various other locations, as seems to be the case with Tha, On and [White Blur 1]. He even goes so far as to sample his own mother in Ventolin (Praze-An-Beeble mix), Come to Daddy (Mummy mix), and (joined by his father) Lornaderek. These give his music a much more idiosyncratic feel, and to this day, this meme still seems to be used almost exclusively by James, at least in popular music, giving it a much more personal touch.
Surfing On Sine Waves generally sees James take his music in an eerie, dark direction. It's often fast paced, bordering on rave music in terms of both style and instrumentation, but drowned in delay and reverb and lacking structure, separating it from most rave music of the era.
Quoth features, as far as I can tell, only toneless rhythms and effects, featuring neither harmonies nor melodies. The only other music I've heard remotely similar to it is The Garden of Linmiri, only this loses the drone and replaces the distorted custom synthesiser sounds with what appear to be various samples of metal on metal.
If It Really Is Me seems to be the first released track of James' to show him playing a digital piano, although GAK may predate it in terms of the actual recording date. He certainly uses this instrument to good effect later on, playing a few simple pentatonic melodies through a delay to create a beautiful soundscape in On.
Minus the other orchestral instruments and background noises, the use of the piano in If It Really Is Me is much more pedestrian, but it's still a great track.
The untitled track revolves around a single repetitive acidline, only a bar in length before it repeats ad nauseum, with a haunting pad and a simple drumbeat draped behind it. Again, despite the simplicity involved, the result is better than it sounds when you hear it described. Considering how much he and his friends seem to like acidlines judging by their label's consistent use of the phrase "innovation in the dynamics of acid" in press releases, t-shirts and compilations at the time, and the request made by the prominent vocal in his later track Cock/Ver10, he released surprisingly few tracks centered around acidlines until his much later Analord series.
Redruth School has some great custom sounding hi-hats, perhaps made out of simply white noise and an envelope generator, which he uses to even better effect in The Waxen Pith and Wet Tip Hen Ax.
Quino-Phec is as ambient as anything else he's made, and the clear stand-out track from the album. It has that eerie landscape-suggesting quality of many of his other ambient works.
It's hard to articulate just why Quino-Phec is so good. I think partly it's because it sounds so distant and fleeting, so unattainable. This may be due to how subdued it is, not to mention how much reverb has been applied. As with most of James' early work, it's musically very simple, consisting of four chords (with the second and fourth being the same) played on a pad; a rhythm played on perhaps just white noise and an attenuator; and alternation between two melodies. However, to describe it in these terms makes it sound like anyone can make such beautiful music at the drop of a hat, which simply isn't the case.
As with much electronic music, the notation is arguably secondary to the sound design, and this is what's so haunting and otherworldly, sounding quite unlike any other music by anyone else. While the music itself is still important, it's quite likely the original sounds that cause tracks like this to resonate so strongly with people's imaginations.
While ambient tracks like these are technically electronic, they're a far cry from techno's beeps and drum machines, providing no familiar territory on which the listener can get a steady footing. Instead, they simply sound alien, which is what makes them so interesting. As much as there is a trick here, it's more than likely to keep the music simple, so it can let the instrumentation sound haunting and emotional without drawing too much attention to itself; to put in a lot of hard work coming up with original sounds that are utterly unfamiliar to even the most experienced listener; and to let these sounds take centre stage. That and the reverb.
In hindsight, Quino-Phec was the perfect blueprint for his next album, Selected Ambient Works Volume II.
James' Caustic Window alias seems to mostly be reserved for, rather appropriately, his more abrasive output, although some of these tracks seem more suited to his AFX and Aphex Twin monikers. Tracks such as Cordialatron and On the Romance Tip, along with Soit-P.P., Analogue Bubblebath 3's CAT 00897-AA1, and the last half of Analogue Bubblebath 4, would have all made worthy additions to Selected Ambient Works 85-92 had he wanted to fill up an extra, slightly more upbeat, record.
As previously touched upon, The Garden of Linmiri is a standout track. Like James' ambient works, it's made of utterly alien sounding timbres, but unlike his ambient works, it's intense to the point where it's hard to listen to on the first few attempts. It sounds like the instruments used are a combination of custom synthesiser patches and samples of real, acoustic sounds — albeit nothing as mundane as actual musical instruments — but they're so distorted and mangled that it's impossible to tell for sure. As with Quoth and Analogue Bubblebath 4's first track, there are no discernible melodies, only an eerie background drone for ambience.
Flaphead seems to possibly share some sounds with The Garden of Linmiri, albeit in their raw, undistorted form. Isoprophlex also shares the combination of eerie ambient pads paired with loud, distorted beats, although it veers dangerously close to having actual notes.
The first track, the aptly named .215061, is made up of frantic synth drums, chord stabs and a bubbling bassline. Towards the very end a bittersweet lead melody is introduced, albeit arguably far too late in the song to really get going. It seems as if, had the track featured less intro and more lead melody, it could have progressed into a much better piece.
.1993841 simply consists of eerie pads and synthesiser percussion. Both of these feature strange, alien timbres, and are likely custom patches. The overall feel is appropriately unsettling.
.942937 features beautiful, shimmering pads, and more custom synthesiser percussion. It's a good example of James' fondness for juxtaposing the sublime with the harsh, and works better than it seems like it should, given that the vibes of these two parts are somewhat contradictory. Contrast this with .1993841, or The Garden of Linmiri, which combines scary pads with harsh drums for a more unified and cohesive effect.
.000890569 is pretty similar to the first track, in as much as both seem designed to fill a dancefloor.
CAT 00897-AA1 is another showcase of beautiful, shimmering pads and custom drums. This time, they're joined by the use of white noise as an instrument in its own right, and a xylophone (or at least an approximation of one). A xylophone is also used in Jelly Fish and Redruth School, probably recorded the same year, whereas white noise makes a reappearance in Batine Acid over a decade later. Outside of James' work, both of these instruments seem vastly underrepresented in popular music. Given the popularity of rock music in particular, the sustain on electric guitars, and the lack of it on acoustic drums, it's all too easy for many musicians to forget entirely that noise can be sustained and pitched instruments can be percussive. By coming at music from an electronic (and occasionally orchestral) angle, James has eschewed such limitations of conventional instrumentation. (Covering the electronic classic Popcorn probably helped.) Despite what you might imagine, the white noise doesn't sound at all harsh, and all the elements work together towards a cohesive emotional whole, this time another beautiful one rather than a scary one.
Track eleven features ominous, scary pads along with intermittent, unpredictable enharmonic synth noises. It would appear that these are entirely unrelated to each other, except for the fact that in combination they heighten the listener's unease. Again, the result works much better than it might seem from a mere description. Listening to this track, it sounds like it either paves the way for Selected Ambient Works Volume II, or was perhaps recorded in the same sessions, and prematurely released before James had decided to release the whole album. At any rate, it would sound much more at home there than on this release.
CAT 00897-A2 contains possibly James' first use of a metre other than 4/4, and rather curiously, it's an instrument playing equidistant notes in 11/4 while the other instruments are playing regular 4/4 backing, making it a polyrhythm. Such diving into the deep end for a fleeting moment suggests that he was likely experimenting with things he was working out for himself, rather than things he'd learnt by reading about them or listening to others' work, as there doesn't seem to be any evidence of him making music with any other interesting metres leading up to this experiment, nor any others since, until Selected Ambient Works Volume II.
Using these earlier releases to gain insight into James' later work, it's clear that his unique vision stems from his origins, which seem to indicate that he started making music almost from first principles, ignoring much of the collective wisdom of the rest of the culture. What's most telling is the flat out absence of verse/chorus structures and lead melodies, in favour of enthusiastic experimentation with rhythms, harmonies, and most of all, the timbres themselves.
Already, Analogue Bubblebath 3 starts to show patterns emerging in James' taste: the use of soft pads to impart either a warm, glowing beauty or outright fear; pairing these with homebrewed synth drum sounds, especially harsh ones; and as a result, combining the serene and the abrasive in a unique manner. At this point, the main things holding him back are the lack of structure in his arrangements, and the lack of actual melodies, both of which he later masters with Melodies From Mars.
Analogue Bubblebath 4 is a typical example of James' love of polar opposites. It consists of four untitled tracks, two to a side. The A-side is extremely harsh, and due to his lack of experience at the time (and possibly his lack of caring), it's produced in quite an amateur way, complete with clipping on the yelling vocal. The rough drums certainly sound unique, if not quite palatable, and as with Quoth and The Garden of Linmiri, there's no melody at all, just relentless pounding and screaming, with an occasional drone in the background.
The second track is also of the relentless pounding variety, only this time with an acidline of sorts instead of screaming.
With that in mind, it's somewhat surprising to flip the disc over and discover a cute, catchy ambient techno number. A breathy choir pad, bleepy arpeggio-like melody, resonant bassline and TR-808 or facsimile thereof combine to make an utterly pleasant piece of music. Again, a bridge of sorts is provided by replacing the pads and melody with a long recording of woodland sounds.
The fourth track goes even further towards background ambience, combining custom percussive synth sounds, pads and synth chord stabs in another otherworldly yet inviting piece of music.
It would be easy to dismiss releases like these as being all over the place, but this constant practicing of making both harsh and sublime music certainly helped the artist later on in his career, as he'd constantly improve at both extremes, and even get more comfortable combining them in single songs. (See, for instance, the work of sheer beauty that is Flim.)
I've got a violin, and a cello as well, and I've learned to play that enough to be able to sample it, get some good notes — Richard D. James, 19967
I might play a violin or a trumpet scale into Pro Tools — every note I can think of — and then bang it into ReCycle, chop it up into little bits, bang it into the sampler, and you've got a complete bank of sounds in your sampler in about five minutes. — Richard D. James, 19978
This era sees James more overtly using digital samples, of orchestral instruments such as pianos, strings and woodwinds, as well as ambient sounds (often those same orchestral instruments pitched down a few octaves) and found sounds. As with Xtal, tracks such as Falling Free, Zeroes and Ones and [Cliffs] use what appear to be female vocals (even when they aren't) to extremely lush effect, although there are still no words being sung, leaving the listener with no context for the music.
As with Selected Ambient Works 85-92, the more ambient of these tracks are often positively bathed in digital delay and reverb effects. While the former ambient album sounded consistently synthetic, this era sounds positively otherworldly, as its natural, acoustic timbres are used in a still synthetic environment of effects, to the extent where their origins are sometimes unrecognisable.
Truly ambient works in the style of Brian Eno and Pete Namlook were hinted at with Analogue Bubblebath 3's first untitled track and Surfing On Sine Waves' Quino-Phec. This second era sees James finally creating them in ernest, in the case of On's "28 mix" and the lengthy album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Indeed, the number 28 hints that perhaps this track was an outtake from the album that was struggling to fit on even two CDs or three vinyl records.
It also sees him pairing ambient principles and aesthetics with harsher drums to create music in a style that's not quite ambient yet not quite not, whether through his own original work (On, At the Heart of It All, much of Analogue Bubblebath 5) or unrecognisable remixes of other people's normal pop songs (Curve's Falling Free, Saint Etienne's Who Do You Think You Are? and Your Head My Voice, and Jesus Jones' minor hit Zeroes and Ones). As with the others, you could cherrypick tracks from this era to make a gratifyingly coherent album that sounds like nothing else ever recorded, by anyone.
What seems to be special is the way he hears sound. Have you heard what he did with our track Falling Free? He's taken one little bit of it — we can't work out where he got it from — and made it into this kind of choral thing. It's really spaced out and very, very sparse, very womb-like. It's actually inspired us in the way we work, and sparked off other ideas. — Curve's Dean Garcia2
Falling Free is a sparse mix of custom drum sounds that don't relate to any particular acoustic equivalents; synth pads, likely of the digital FM variety, as before; a female voice singing wordlessly; and copious amounts of digital reverb. While this is almost the same combination as Xtal, only without such recognisable percussion sounds as a TR-808 style kick drum and an acoustic style snare drum, it sounds far more foreboding and otherworldly.
Who Do You Think You Are? is a similar affair. It features a distorted synthetic kick drum, a sort of piledriver clanging for a snare drum, chopped up wordless vocals, synth pads, and various other percusion. As before, they form a repetitive, hypnotic piece that, relentless pounding aside, is essentially ambient in structure.
Your Head My Voice gets the same treatment, to much the same effect, but without the pads seems somehow less haunting.
James' two remixes of Zeroes and Ones, especially the second, longer piece, take this style a sublime step further. There are very high and slow pads, bordering between being playing a melody and being too slow to be counted as such. The delay is used as an integral instrument in its own right, smearing each sound with its filter. This ensures that while some instruments are fast to arrive, all are slow to fade away, giving the music a dreamlike quality.
The percussion this time sounds likely to be samples of household objects rather than synthesised, although it's impossible to tell with certainty. There is no bassline or real melody as far as I can tell. Everything slowly ebbs and flows. This move towards more acoustic sounds, specifically of things other than musical instruments, and towards the delay as the most prominent piece of equipment, essentially solidifies the sound of his next album.
On starts off with a beautiful piano, playing a very simple melody that borders on being an arpeggio, and delayed in sync with the song's tempo, so that some of the echoes sound almost like original notes in their own right, seemingly increasing the melody's complexity and introducing variation in velocity.
This is soon joined by a field recording of rain and thunder used to exquisite effect, giving the music a context. Most musicians, if they were adventurous enough to include such a recording at all, would probably take great pains to ensure it wasn't contaminated with other sounds. In stark contrast, this recording includes what sounds like distorted voices and the whirring of machinery, which adds to the music's charm.
As with the tape hiss on his previous releases, aspiring musicians shouldn't try to duplicate exactly what James does here, but rather should let in a little of the real world in their own way. Flaws and imperfections can become assets, the subtle nuances of real life recordings.
Some strings provide some simple, repeating harmonies, adding to the emotional impact. Next, a distorted kick and snare drum, and a regular hi-hat give the music a solid foundation on which to rest. To call these percussive sounds such familiar terms is metaphorical at best, such is James' propensity to create his own sounds, but it gives you a good idea of the style of rhythm played on them, if not the timbres themselves.
Finally, woodwinds replace the piano, then augment it, providing a bit of variation to keep the piece from seeming static. Similarly, various instruments occasionally take breaks, so the music is broken down and built back up again, trying out various combinations of instrumentation.
It's rare for a piece of music over seven minutes long with only a single repetitive section to avoid seeming repetitive, especially when that music is upfront enough to (at least sometimes) avoid being classified as ambient, yet somehow James pulls it off.
As with much of James' output, On combines orchestral instruments, homebrew electronic sounds, and a field recording to create a unique soundscape that paints a vivid picture of a certain setting. If anything, the music itself (as in the melodies, harmonies and rhythms) takes a back seat to the sounds, which are the real stars of the show. The other James hallmark that is typified in this piece is the juxtaposition of the serene and the harsh. In these ways, it's typical of his quirky style, and exemplifies the output of someone with a genuine passion for not just music but also sound itself.
73-Yips employs only the harsh percussion without the serene orchestral harmonies and melodies. While it's interesting to hear this particular set of drum sounds start to cohese into a rhythm that is later used in Start As You Mean to Go On, this track lacks the juxtaposition of both that and On.
D-Scape fares much better, combining unnerving field recordings, foreboding woodwinds, ominous strings and relentlessly pounding drums. It's much more identifiably in the same vein as On, despite replacing the former's serenity with a far more sinister tone. It's On's evil twin, if you will. Although it's not as nice as the A-side, it again shows James' masterful use of juxtaposition.
Xepha offers much the same fare again, although again not to as exquisite an effect. If you were to mute individual channels in the mixing desk, you could bounce off an ambient track (like Analogue Bubblebath 3's first untitled track or Quino-Phec), or a harsh, relentless rhythm completely devoid of pitches (like The Garden of Linmiri or Quoth), with nary a melody to be found in between these extremes. While these tracks have showcased the result of using only half the ingredients required for juxtaposition, they've all been few and far between up until this point. For those wanting to hear more of James' genuinely ambient side, his next album would certainly deliver.
(This is a work in progress, to be continued.)