NOSTALGIA OF THE YEAR: AMBIENT JUNGLE
by Simon Reynolds
(originally appeared at the Blissout website, Faves and Unfaves of 2000, now located here)
Another Pop Mystery I've been contemplating recently relates to the life cycles of genres, their arc and fall. You can be basking in the blooming fullness of a genre's annus mirabilus, and somehow it never occurs that this is obviously the golden age, the peak, the best it's ever gonna get, and that the only way forward now is downhill. When you're in the thick of it, you think it can just carry on forever at this perpetual crest... Records that at the time seem like portents or glimpses of so-much-more-to-come turn out, years later, to have been swan-songs, the last of the summer wine. Who'd have thought, for instance, that Adam F's 'Metropolis' and Nasty Habit's 'Shadowboxing" were destined to be the historical pinnacle of techstep (and therefore drum'n'bass), that they were form-defining and form-exhausting ultra-tunes?
These thoughts emerged during a spate of compulsive re-listening to what they used to call (alright, what I used to call) "ambient jungle", which inspired musings on the lines of why couldn't this music just stay forever at this sustained peak of awesomeness? Why do musics have to deteriorate or die? Tracks like Dillinja's "Deep Love" and "Sovereign Melody," Bukem's "Atlantis", EZ Roller's 'Believe" and "Rolled Into One" (Moving Shadow's last masterpiece?), the Steve Gurley's remix (more like re-production) of Princess's Eighties Britsoul classic of yearning "Say I'm Your Number One," still sound so fantastic--why couldn't they have carried on like this until the end of time, or at least lasted out the decade. A peculiar twist of hind-hearing is that even tracks I didn't rate particularly at the time sound fabulous now, like PFM's "One and Only"--the way the bass moves and drops, the ripple-trails and
glistening vapors of ambience, the explosive entrance of the diva vocal. Then there's Peshay, a producer I've never rated--his track on the first Logical Progression, "Vocal", is amazing, and I never even noticed it at the time; that kind of Speed-oriented mellow jazzual track was the enemy, back then. Now, long after the battle's subsided, whatever was at stake a faint memory, I can hear it as a tour de force of exquisitely mashed-up beats and diva deployment, using a vocal sample (Anita Baker? Barbara Tucker? it's the vocal lick that goes "I'm singing to you") that's got more in common with a beautifully designed commodity, a sports car or leather sofa, than say Aretha Franklin; it's all burnished technique and poise, not raw soul. After 2step I can appreciate what is basically a kind of capitalist utopianism behind such fetishising of elegance and surface slickness.
Another example: in my disappointment that Omni Trio had abandoned the euphoria fireworks of the "Renegade Snares" formula, I missed how good bits of Haunted Science are--"Who Are You?" and especially "The Elemental", an early neurofunk-style two-stepper beat with keyboard lines as delicate as dew settling and bass-drops like tender thunder--how cleverly Rob Haigh had developed a new, calmer but still compelling style of drum'n'bass for the home environment.
The truth is that there always was an integral side to drum'n'bass that wasn't about rudeness (nasty B-lines, mash-up breakbeats) but about supreme dainty-ness and neat-freak finesse. It's a different kind of rush--the tingle you can get from the groomed delicacy of a hi-hat pattern, the nimble, glancing panache of a synth-chord flourish. Jacob's Optical Stairway, the oft-maligned alter-ego album by 4 Hero, is some kind of pinnacle in this respect: the detail in the music induces its own kind of high, the aural equivalent of putting on your first pair of glasses and suddenly everything's ultra-sharp.
The chill-ness of "ambient jungle" and the jazzy stuff that followed is also more appealing, partly because of the feeling that I've listened to enough extreme music for a lifetime so why not go with sheer beauty and pleasantness for a bit, and partly because there's nothing like parenthood to make you appreciate the aesthetic of stress-reduction. (Actually, a few years ago I had something of an epiphany: a plane trip, creating the typical intense stress situation right up til you go with all the getting work done before departure and packing in a rush. Coiled as tight as bedsprings, we got in the cab to JFK; the driver had the radio tuned to one of those lite-jazz stations, the kind that plays what Jackson Griffiths dubbed "biz jazz", the post-ECM, post-fusion travesty of jazz favored by many corporate executives (and Yellowjackets fan Goldie). Any other day my response would have been nausea, but the music hit like a IV drip pumping liquid valium straight into the spine. Instant tranquilizing bliss. That day, I could dig it.).
Of course, people still make this kind of drum'n'bass (or carry on doing something pretty similar in spirit e.g. broken beats/West London Sound) and it's not as good as the 94/95 stuff. LTJ Bukem's long-awaited debut album came out this year--encased in a striking period-looking jazz-fusion style cover, and with a montage of snapshots of his jazzbo heroes on the inside--but it got almost no attention. Bit sad, for a guy who once commanded dance magazine cover stories.
But going back to the golden period that late 93/94/95 phase when darkside started to flirt with musicality, blossomed into artcore/ambient-jungle, and then went too far into the fuzak-zone.... quite a few tracks from that era fit the syndrome of "lost future" music, or genres-that-never-were (but could/should have been). Sometimes A-sides, more often B-side tunes or track four on an EP
jobs, these tunes--Blame's "Anthemia", Trace's "Jazz Primitives", Myerson's "Find Yourself" (with its painted bird of a Flora Purim sample flitting through a labyrinth of future-jazz foliage), lots more--feel like they could have been blueprints for entire worlds of sound , but of course they weren't. The DJs
weeded them out; the massive rejected them. Still, I'm fascinated by these tracks that represent a path not taken.