PRINT January 1995

Muzak of the Fears

IN BRIAN ENO'S ORIGINAL definition, “ambient” simply meant “environmental”—it was music as decor, a subliminal accompaniment to everyday life. Later, with Eno’s On Land, it was psychogeographic music, an evocation of real or imaginary landscapes. In the last four years, in Britain, Europe, and increasingly America, something called “ambient techno” has evolved out of the postrave phenomenon of chill-out music. A genre unto itself, it is based around albums more than 12-inch singles, and has its own stellar artists (Pete Namlook, The Irresistible Force, Future Sound Of London, Biosphere, The Orb). Whatever its stylistic debts to Eno, Jon Hassell, Harold Budd, et al., this nouveau ambient is closer in spirit to New Age. Swaddling the listener in a womblike sound bath, it means retreat from the environment, relief from the stresses of urban existence.

Inevitably there’s been a reaction against this dozy, cozy pleasance in the form of a sort of am bient noir. On his recent Selected Ambient Works Volume II, the Aphex Twin shifted from the idyllic, Satie-esque naïveté of early tracks like “Analogue Bubblebath” to clammy, foreboding sound-paintings. Aphex Twin and fellow ambient noir–ists like Seefeel and David Toop & Max Eastley have drifted away from rave and into the vicinity of “isolationism.” This term, coined by critic Kevin Martin, describes a loose network of disenchanted refugees from rock (Main, Final, Scorn, Disco Inferno, E.A.R.) and experimental musicians (Zoviet France, Thomas Koner, Jim O’Rourke).

In England recently all of the above, plus another 13 avant-rock and postrave units, were corralled onto a landmark, internationally ranging compilation, masterminded by Martin and titled Isolationism. It’s the fourth in Virgin UK’s best-selling series “A Short History of Ambient,” which, Ironically, has ridden the crest of the chill-out boom—ironically because isolationism breaks with all of ambient’s feel-good premises. Isolationism is ice-olationist, offering cold comfort. Instead of pseudopastoral peace, it evokes an uneasy silence: the uncanny calm before catastrophe, the deathly quiet of aftermath.

Musically, isolationism still shares many attributes with ambient. First, the emphasis on texture and timbre: many tracks on Isolationism are a fog of numinous drones, generated by effects-processed guitars, samplers, or, in Kaner’s case, the long decay of gongs. Second, the absence of rhythm: if there’s percussion, it’s either a metal-on-metal death knell (Null/Plotkin’s “Lost [Held Under]”) or a gamelan-style texture (Paul Schutze’s “Hallucinations”). Third, it adheres to Eno’s dictate that ambient music should be uneventful.

Instead of being lulling and reassuring, however, isolationist repetition induces a pregnant unease, an aura of desolation. Where ambient techno is melodious (sometimes recalling program music or the naïveté of a child’s music box), isolationism favors musique concrète, dissonance, and microtonality; where ambient’s sequencer bass patterns reassure, isolationism’s loops tend to be unresolved, creating suspense; In place of ambient’s halcyon reverb, isolationism uses an echo that is cavernous and metallic.

Toop, a critic as well as a musician, recently wrote of how certain strands of contemporary music reflect “the sensation of nonspecific dread that many people now feel when they think about life, the world, the future,” and argued that this sensation was the other side of the coin to a sensation of nonspecific bliss. This bliss/dread notion fits with the way isolationism turns ambient inside out, so that the sonic traits (hypnotic loops, amorphous drones) that elsewhere signify a plateau of orgasmic/mystic bliss (in techno) or serenity (in ambient) induce the opposite sensations: slow-burning panic, dissociation, disorientation. With isolationism, the absence of narrative signifies not utopia but entropy, paralysis. But there’s still a neurotic jouissance to be gleaned from this music; it’s a victory over what Brian Massumi calls “ambient fear,” the omnipresent low-level anxiety of the late-20th-century mediascape. By immersing yourself in the phobic, you make it your element.

Toop & Max Eastley’s “Burial Rites (Phosphorescent)” is one of the best tracks on Isolationism. Other isolationist artists withdraw from a paranoiac reality into a kind of sanctuary of sound. Unlike ambient techno (which models itself on that pseudowomb the flotation tank), isolationism’s idea of utopia is empty space. If this music evokes mind’s-eye images of unpopulated expanses, it’s because it’s purged of all the normal signifiers of “humanity” or “sociability” in pop (vocals, lyrics, a funky beat). Koner has recorded a series of albums inspired by Antarctica, while other isolationist pieces induce reveries of deserts, tundra, subterranean grottoes, postapocalyptic wastelands, or virgin planets. Typically, the music suggests extremes of climate or temperature—Zoviet France’s “Daisy Gun” conjures up the polar twilight in Siberia, Total’s “Six” is as astigmatic to the ears as staring into a blast furnace is for the eyes. The common denominator is inclement environments, hostile to human life.

What is the appeal of these morbid reveries, so different from the oceanic surge of “intimate immensity” that you get from cosmic rock or ambient techno? John Carey has diagnosed the tendency of Modernist writers to fantasize about world destruction or mass annihilation as a response to a verminously overpopulated planet.1 The empty landscape/soundscape seems connected to a heightened, fortified sense of individuality; it relieves the perennial avant-gardist anxiety about disappearing in the morass of the masses, about the purity of art succumbing to the mush and pap of an abject popular culture. In another sense, the isolationist impulse, and its accompanying “face the future, brave the unknown!” rhetoric, may be a redirection, into inner space, of perennial male longings for the frontier, for a harsh, bracing wilderness fit for a rugged masculinity, and far from the soft options of domesticity.

If rave and rock culture are about creating some sort of community in the face of atomization, isolationism, with its fetish for asocial spaces, is a renunciation of that wishful solidarity. This is music that embodies and embraces the “death of the social,” music impelled by a near-monastic impulse to flee pop culture’s noisy hyperactivity for a rigorous esthetic of silence and sensory deprivation. At its ultimate degree, this impulse becomes a kind of estheticized death wish. Perhaps the rock precedent for isolationism is Nico’s The Marble Index, of 1969, on which the Ice Queen’s nihilist hymns are framed in John Cale’s vistas of vitrified sound. Nico seems possessed by Freud’s nirvana drive, a longing to revert to an inanimate, inorganic state, free of the irritation of fleshly, animal desire. Devoid of R&B’s hot-blooded vitality, The Marble Index is one of the whitest albums ever.

Wide-ranging though it is, Isolationism also seems a bit Caucasian. Stretched just a little bit farther, it could encompass strains of modern black music with an aura of desolation and entropy, albeit reached via a different route: blues, dub reggae, and blunted rap. A burgeoning British genre of “ambient hip-hop” includes artists like Portishead, Massive Attack, DJ Shadow, and above all Tricky (just check the titles of his brilliant singles “Aftermath [Hip Hop Blues]” and “Ponderosa”). And there’s London’s jungle scene, drawing on hip-hop, techno, and raga for a sound and mood more like dub reggae gone ballistic. Jungle’s hyperkinetic drum ’n’ bass is designed, like dub, for ganja smokers.

But devoid of Rastafarianism’s utopian hope, jungle’s apocalypse is faithless: dread without Zion. One strand of jungle, “dark/ambient,” combines treacherous breakbeats and minefield bass with soothing heavenly textures: a mishmash that expresses, nonverbally, its audience’s divided impulses—to lose themselves in amnesiac bliss and to stay vigilant, to flee and to face down “inner city pressure.”


1. John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880–1939, London: Faber & Faber, 1992.