Ambient not ambient
The end of the year. Back when I was still working in advertising agencies I would always look forward to it, and to the Christmas parties, and then, when everyone was drinking way too much way too fast I would usually just sit there and sip on a glass of wine, watching not watching the inebriated frolicking around me, looking back at another year in an industry that was inspiring not inspiring. I wasn’t miserable, I’d be friendly and would even not decline to take the mic when the dreaded karaoke part of the evening started. Tired and empty, that’s what I usually was. At 0, I guess.
I didn’t listen to Ambient back then. It might have been a good idea. I could have just slipped some earphones in and pressed play on what would have been a portable CD player back then, wishing the year farewell by listening to something totally serene and soothing while watching the colleagues laugh and joke and plunder the buffet.
Coldcut and Mixmaster Morris’ mix and compilation “@0” would have been perfect for that moment. It’s one of these albums that lets you be somewhere else when you feel like not fully being where you are. Which is quite an achievement for a compilation as it does this amazing trick of compiling a wide range of different flavors of music and still creating a coherent and harmonious flow, especially for the 76 minute mix that comes with the download.
It’s an ability that I truly admire and appreciate – when someone knows what it takes to curate and doesn’t just use the word to stick a fancy tag on a random selection. I can probably even imagine how much work this must have been, searching and searching, mixing and matching, brooding over track lists, constantly quarreling over balance and coherence, range and variety.
Of course it helps when there is a clear concept behind all of it. In this case, the name is the concept as Matt Black explains: “‘@0’refers to that liminal state experienced many times where my mental and emotional stability was not solid and it felt like teetering on a zero axis about to fall into depression, or more rarely, mania. I found that ambient music, by making no psychic demands, often opened some space and with its soft fascination, subtly raised the energy, helping to avoid that downward spiral and navigate slowly up and out. @0 is a balance point.”
What I find interesting about this album though is that a lot of what you find on it would probably not be classified as Ambient. Much of it is much closer to Modern Classical. And that’s really fortunate. This may be labeled as Ambient but it is much more characterized by Matt Black’s definition of the album’s purpose. It is all about the Why and not about the What or the How.
“@0” comes along at a perfect moment. The end of yet another year that has been incredibly challenging for many among us. The things we had to endure. Losing loved ones to a nasty virus, losing jobs, businesses, income, trading it in for fear, uncertainty, instability and often times even poverty. Yes, mankind has seen thousands of years that have been way more devastating – but 2021 was a real train wreck of a year. And there is no doubt that it had its impact on our mental stability.
When I first dropped the needle and let it start its journey playing Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Aqua (From Playing Piano For The Isolated)” I immediately got this comment, something like oh, since when do you play Christmas music? That isn’t exactly the kind of remark that you get when you decide to play some Ambient. It wasn’t really wrong though, this beautiful piece of music does have an air of consolation and contemplation – an almost sacral translation of what Ambient is able to do, bringing all the busy restlessness and agitation to a stop the moment Sakamoto touches the keys.
It’s the ideal opening track for lots of reasons. Thematically because this music was recorded to help people cope with the psychological burdens of social distancing in times of Corona. Regarding the curators’ definition of Ambient because strictly speaking this just really isn’t. No, this is not Pop Ambient 2022, it’s not an hour of Drone variations or a collection of glacial soundscapes. It’s immensely much wider than any of that – simply because it has a completely different purpose.
And, of course: come on, it’s Ryuichi Sakamoto. That’s a statement in itself. There are some other interesting contributors with names that let your ears ring. Sigur Rós for example, with “Rembihnútur” in an Ambient “liminal” re-work by Paul Corley. Skee Mask is there, A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Mira Calix, and even some legends are part of the mix like Laraaji and Future Sound Of London (in collaboration with Daniel Pemberton).
But in case you were going to say yes of course, the Coldcut guys know all the big names – this is absolutely not what it’s about. Many of the tracks featured here have been newly recorded, and most of them come from artists that are at the beginning of their careers or far from famous, probably only known by real insiders of the Ambient music scene. A few names even pop up for the very first time. It’s one of the many virtues of “@0”.
Cedar Lewisohn is almost a little too thick when his liner notes claim that “this is a place where art and science meet to create a positive state of mind”, pointing towards scientific evidence that music is able to “help with dementia, anxiety or post traumatic stress, to name a few.” But nothing less than this is the intention of the album, and he isn’t afraid to just say “put the record on and let your brain and the music do the rest.”
Well – he’s right. If you just put the track list aside, along with the names and titles, the conceptual talk and the liner notes and just do what Lewisohn says, if you just let go, you can fell the calmness that follows take away some of the heaviness and anxiety that undoubtedly will have built up over the course of this troublesome year. A little more peace of mind goes a long way in 2021.
The initiators even take this a step further as the label has stated that they will be donating their share (50% of net receipts) to three charities: CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), Mind and Black Minds Matter. Which obviously means that listening to this album not only helps our own mind, having bought it in the first place is improving the health of other people’s minds as well.
Thirty pieces of music make up the mix that Coldcut and Mixmaster Morris have created – and it’s such a deeply pleasant experience that it feels pointless to disassemble it for a track-by-track inspection. It’s such an effortless and natural flow that it doesn’t matter who is who and what is what. Famous not famous, Ambient not ambient, when it reaches your brain it all does the same thing. It soothes.
The vinyl edition features seventeen of these thirty tracks – still a real treasure. The accompanying download gives access to both the mix and all thirty titles – that’s a lot of wonderful music.
I thought about the last twelve months and it would have been easy to just say it was a terrible one. It’s hard not to think like that. All the things that happened. And the things that didn’t happen. It all creates this state of mind that seems impossible to step away from, it surrounds you, consumes you.
This album can’t turn a bad year into a good one. But it sure has the power to let that murky bubble that has built over the course of the year dissolve just enough to understand that this is just a year, not your existence, the good hasn’t gone, it has only been obscured for a while.
I can only recommend to follow Cedar Lewisohn’s suggestion to just put the record on and let your brain and the music do the rest. It does have healing powers.
Release for review:
COLDCUT & MIXMASTER MORRIS – @0 – AHEAD OF OUR TIME – AHED032