Unless you’re willing to pay 30 bucks or more, you’re not going to find a physical copy of Microgravity. Since no one buys music anymore, this isn’t really an issue. But read on, and we shall explore why the damn thing is worth $8.91 from the iTunes store or an even ten bucks from bleep.com, to keep it truly, really and really truly real.
These days Biosphere is all about the ambient; an icy ambient that’s filled with coldness and ice cubes and other words that mean “weird and somewhat spooky.” Dude even climbs mountains in his spare time and samples the mountain sounds after he’s done climbing it – the musical equivalent of screwing a supermodel and then tattooing your name on her neck in your own blood.
Drifting beyond the “the arctic sound” of recent albums (though Autour de la Lune is so minimal as to be nearly inaudible) is a past when Geir Jenssen was an ambient techno badass. Seriously! If The Orb were a drug-addled maniac, Biosphere was the methodical cop who would burst into the interview room, kick over a chair and pin Alex Patterson into the corner all in one fell swoop.
Do not fuck with Biosphere.
That may be nonsense, but a world where one man wanted to stop making acid house, ambient techno was a way to stay true to the thrust and flow of kicks and hats without having to find an entirely new way of working. I may be a pushover for this era – though at the time all this actually dropped I was listening to Slayer and playing football, and regarded raver types as moral lepers at best – but quality is pretty easy to judge here. For every Basic Channel classic there’s oodles of terrible “ambient dub techno” or “dubby ambient house” from the early 90s. As a handy guide, the more buzzwords you need to describe something in a press release, the more fucked the tracks are.
Microgravity is an exercise in using space, the exact opposite of a dense and tension-filled acid house anthem. It is ambient techno done so correctly that the dancefloor aspects exist only to highlight the hypnotic textures that lie between the beats. Even the little snippets of television and movie samples don’t seem like a quaint throwback so much as a glue. The album begins and ends with soundscape pieces that hint at the future – most fully realized in Substrata – of Biosphere as creator of perfect snapshots of space. Neither tense nor relaxing, it is a compelling document that showcases the very best of an era now long gone. (The efforts of labels like Kompakt aside; it’s just not the same thing, really.)
Patashnik is not as good as its predecessor. Not to say that it’s not a great continuation of this melding of techno and anti-techno, but it can’t quite compare. Great tracks abound – the opener “Phantasm” features a catchy vocal loop that’s just creepy enough – but it’s a missing link between Biosphere’s technoid past and the weightless future.
What does make it most interesting is that it hints at what was to come, and when you listen to Microgravity, Patashnik and Substrata in sequence (and once you’re hooked, in reverse order) you hear the sounds of a man who was working out what kind of moods and sounds could be invoked by not cutting the midrange and dropping the bass, as it were. In that context, it is an exciting placeholder between the soft muscle of Microgravity and the unerring precision of Substrata, which I will get to shortly.
One of the most charming things about Geir Jenssen is that every album cover lets you know exactly what is going to happen. The invocation of the male seed on the cover of Microgravity is a sign from an earlier era; this cover is equal parts Eno and fantasy landscape, which isn’t an unfair description of the music. One exception would be “Novelty Waves” – the last gasp of his dance past that was picked up by advertisers and remixers who were looking for something fresh. It’s a compelling track, no doubt, but this brush with commercial success seems to have pushed him in the direction of abandoning the beat.
His changing course was a great thing.
To say that Substrata is a classic is to admit that “ambient” is not a subset of modern classical or formal music, but an aim of a recording to create something that can be listened to in several settings. The Eno Made Flesh – since that seems to have been his intention – and it appears the old curmudgeon was right about some things (not so much Roxy Music, though). There is plenty of background noise to choose from, and plenty of lazy, shiftless hosers creating sound installations that aren’t worth the time it takes to pronounce “sound installation” – I’m looking at you, Francisco Lopez, or I would be if i could keep my eyes open and focus on shaking my finger at your wankitude instead of drifting off into sleepytime. The musical equivalent of vaporware, I tells ya.
Cheap insults aside, there’s a genre called “ambient” and it’s not necessarily the mechanical classical or formal minimalist music nor is it the lazy loops and semi-racist ethno flourishes of New Age, though there’s plenty of that to go around. It usually starts with Brian Eno, a fair place to begin in any modern consideration; it can be cold and loveless or bright and airy – if you’re Coil you melt minds and erase the distinctions of time with it. It is many things and like any grouping has exceptions and a ridiculous amount of dreck. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, start with two albums – Music For Airports and Substrata. A little bit of the past, a little bit of the future.
“Poa Alpina,” is one of those songs that can be listened to on repeat for three or four ours without destroying anyone’s patience or passion; similar to the texture invoked by “Spirits Abandoned” by Six Organs of Admittance (off of Dark Noontide) or, hell, all of Music For Airports. Why do some songs work so well in insane repetition, especially when I would be the first to complain about commercial overplay were I unfortunate enough to have cable or own a radio? Maybe they’re perfect, the result of an alien experiment or a hybrid of god and man like those pesky Nephilim; perhaps manage to carve out an existence between textured wallpaper and “active listening” because they’re perfectly balanced.
Substrata is an all-natural cupful of a bathtub of gin and barbituates.
Substrata is a Sunday morning mainstay that goes equally well with Tai Chi or silent porno loops.
Substrata is a desert island disc to help you forget you’re going to starve to death, sunburned, alone and thirsty, on an isolated strip of beach.
Screw the beat.