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Ambient music in the 1990s: The excursions that defined the decade
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A quick dive into Brian Long’s influential ‘Excursions in Ambience’ compilation CD series.
In 1993, Brian Long, a New York-based music freak who’d recently left Los Angeles and punk label SST Records for opportunities on the other coast, released a collection on his fledgling imprint Astralwerks. Called Excursions in Ambience, it introduced a generation of rave-focused listeners to the beauty of gentle beats and cosmic synthetics.
Over the next three years, Long and his team at Caroline Records, which financed and owned Astralwerks, turned the influential “Excursions …” compilation into a four volume series. Each had a subtitle — Second Orbit, Third Dimension, and Fourth Frontier — and built on the sonic ideas presented in that first volume.
The artists represented in the series include both high-profile creators and one-and-done flashes: Aphex Twin, The Future Sound of London, Moritz von Oswald, Locust, Seefeel and Third Eye Foundation.
The Excursions series was released during the peak CD years, so the easiest — and cheapest — way to track down these excellent collections is to go plastic. About $20 will get you all four.
Below, a few highlights from the series (and one bonus Skylab tip).
Tranquility Bass – Mya Yadana
The first track on the first volume typifies the sonic approach of many of the Excursions producers: a mesmerizing synthetic rhythm, layers of explorable texture, samples, a beautiful extended break and an overall sense of relaxed trippiness.
Ultramarine – Saratoga (Remix)
Unsung electronic producers Ian Cooper and Paul Hammond combined as Ultramarine in 1990, uniting over a mutual affection for Roland 808 beats, dots of catchy melody and many, many samples. Best in this track is the use of the “One of These Nights” bass-line, which transforms a few measures from a blah Eagles song into a funky mid-track diversion.
Locust – Prospero
The deep, menacing beat that drives Prospero, the producer’s epic 1993 track for Excursions in Ambience: The Second Orbit, seems to exist underwater, with rhythms that echo far beyond their point of origin. Locust, a.k.a. Mark Van Hoen, has been producing tracks ever since, most prominently through his The Revenant Diary for Editions Mego and 2018’s Invisible Threads, which came out via Touch.
Maurizio – Ploy (Battersea Was An Island Of Mud Mix)
An early track by German producer Moritz von Oswald, best known for his work as one half of the dubby production team and label Basic Channel, “Ploy” opens with a four-minute wash of beatless synthetics and samples before the rhythm kicks in. Across twelve deep, psychedelic minutes, Maurizio offers a lesson on the plaintive possibilities of ambient house and techno.
Seefeel – Charlotte’s Mouth (Avant Garde mix)
An ISC favorite, the music of luxurious ambient group Seefeel seems to exist in a whole other galaxy. The band’s 1993 album for Too Pure, Quique, has been reissued by Light in the Attic, which has helped draw new listeners. One listen to the eight-minute remix of Charlotte’s Mouth, which appeared on Excursions in Ambience: The Third Dimension, proves why.
Skylab – Ah Ee Hu
Finally, though they didn’t appear on the Excursions in Ambient series, Astralwerks is responsible for one of the great unsung ambient experimental albums of the 1990s, Skylab’s #1. The product of a cross-continental collaboration among producer Howie B. in New York, Mat Ducasse in the U.K. and Toshio Nakanishi in Japan, the record is as tranquil as it is dynamic.
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