Substrates: Ambient Works 1995-1999
nce upon a time in a faraway kingdom, handily existing outside the commonly anticipated framework of time or history expected by discerning readers, there lived a wise old king. As the kingdom was economically stable and not under any immediate threat of war, the king had many long hours to ponder which of his three sons should inherit the throne after he had passed on. Not that it was a particularly difficult job or anything, but such quandaries always serve as a useful plot device. Anyway. After months of maddening deliberation, the wise old king suddenly experienced a moment of fairytale clarity and settled upon the idea of a competitive challenge to grade his children in order of royal suitability.
The concept of cliché had fortunately not yet been invented in this faraway kingdom.
The three boys, who due to space restrictions had no detectable characteristics between them and will henceforth be generally treated as a single entity, excitedly tumbled into the room, keen to discover if one of them had finally been chosen to rule the kingdom. ‘My sons,’ said the king, ‘You will each be given access to the palace recording studios and the finest musical training our land can offer. Whosoever can record the best album will win the throne with my blessing.’
‘What the fuck?’ quoth the sons.
‘And you have to finish before I die, so no Chinese Democracy type shenanigans.’ The king paused for limited dramatic effect, impressed with his ability to speak in italics; ‘Now .. GO!’
Having watched his sons tumble back out of the room at his brisk command, the wise old sovereign settled stiffly back into his throne.
A wise old king, yesterday.
Days passed. Weeks turned into months, which subsequently turned into lazily paraphrased lines. Then, at long last, the sons returned with their claims to the throne and the king retired to his chamber to begin the lengthy deliberation process. Finally, the day of judgement arrived.
‘Frankly,’ said the king, ‘Two of these albums absolutely stink. Guards, take these boys away and behead them at once.’ The apparently-not-so-wise and now somewhat older monarch watched as burly guards led the failed spawn of his loins away to the chopping block.
‘Your album, however,’ he beamed, turning to his remaining son, ‘Was rather pleasing and easily the best. Allow me to slip completely out of character and offer a fairly lengthy exposition on why I believe this to be so.’
‘Do go on,’ encouraged the lad, confident now of his victory, ‘Because I’m aware that we are quite far into this review.’
‘Don’t sass me. Right... Your album was an intriguing instrumental work, filled with simple but impeccably placed synth washes and tones. It evoked the soothing state of half-consciousness experienced during a weekend morning, where silence mingles with distant birdsong and the rhythmic mechanical ticking of a downstairs grandfather clock. I especially appreciated the way in which tracks did not outstay their welcome, but conveyed what could have become a rather repetitive musical phrase over what must have been a carefully considered period.’ The king concluded his summary and thoughtfully stroked his beard.
‘Please continue,’ offered the potential heir, ‘For some peculiar reason I rather like hearing you describe my work in this manner.’
‘Very well... The gentle minimalism greatly impressed me. You have shown considerable restraint in choosing brief melodies to sit atop the rolling plains created by the undulating background ambience. I was also aware of a continuing theme of automation, as several pieces were reminiscent of the distilled sounds of industry—a snippet of gears and cogs working in eternal harmony—a regularity which appeared to continue throughout your work, yet without becoming overly predictable. A masterful achievement. Even though there was no discernible order to the proceedings it often seemed to flow as if it really were a single planned composition, which was quite remarkable. A shame, really, that I will still have to behead you.’
The king’s son turned a delicate shade of white.
‘Oh yes. You see, I know that every note of this album is stolen from a musician named Todd Gautreau. Or sonogram, if you will.’
‘Lies! Vile lies!’
‘You didn’t even take the original cover out.’
And thus ends the story of why most faraway kingdoms end up as faraway democratic republics; they have crazy kings, with the deadly twin obsessions of ambient albums and killing their heirs. Goodnight!