On Land

Brian Eno, 1982

Brian Eno’s landmark series, Ambient 1-4, is the perfect introduction for a young sprout testing the ambient waters but also and confusing to the uninitiated. I now view this series very much as an extension of Eno’s work running the Obscure label in the 70s. While he’s a major presence on each of the four records, only two are proper ‘Brian Eno’ records. One is a Harold Budd LP and another is by new age pioneer Laraaji. In that sense, these records are a great introduction to a broader field of ambient music, but confounding if you think you’re buying Brian Eno LPs, specifically.

The series starts with the much lauded Music for Airports—perhaps the most famous ambient work, ever. For my money though, it’s the last in the series: On Land. As much as I love Airports, it’s not as engrossing as Discreet Music, before it—or as sonically mysterious and rich as On Land, after it. As someone who came of age in the late-80s / early 90s, I immersed myself in the electronica renaissance of the post-rave era, and to my ears, 1982’s On Land sounds not only modern, but advanced. It’s structurally obfuscated, making its amorphous movements unpredictable. The sound palette is subtle, but profoundly deep, lain like layers of a drawing on successive sheets of vellum.

I don’t often worry, terribly, about which edition of a record I have, but I chose to upgrade my copy just recently. I had a used EG Records copy from the 80s and I couldn’t resist the new remasters cut at half speed / 45rpm. On Land is an album that actually promises rewards with better clarity.

fermentation and fruition

A particular brand of liminal music, which I like to call drift pop is… having a moment. You can see it cresting all up-and-down the pop culture ticket. Follow it from the up-and-comers Kaitlyn Aurelia-Smith and Ian William Craig, to the well-established acts like Grouper and Benoît Pioulard, all the way to the old-guard, like Brian Eno. Hell, even Kevin Martin (best known for his ballistic dancehall productions as The Bug), made some drift pop with King Midas Sound, sourcing material from Fennesz. 

What, exactly, is it, though? Drift pop is a particularly gaseous song form, steeped in hazy ambience and unmoored by any conventional rhythm section. There's a heavy emphasis on sound processing and sonic texture. It still features vocals—both traditional and wordless—that (vaguely) resemble pop structures, but they're often lost in a fog of reverb. It's drone music that's learned to sing. Of late, it's been crossed-pollinated with a modular synthesis revival and the North American tape ambient scene, creating a fertile seam of musical pathways.

While it has many roots, it's longest and greatest champion has been Kranky Records. From their very inception, they've pioneered the style—almost as it is known today. In 1994, Kranky's first release was Labradford's Prazision LP—which is so fully formed it feels wrong to label it 'proto'. They were also early champions of Grouper, the styles' first breakout star, earning rave reviews in high profile publications.

Even though it's steeped in our pop culture for a decades now, 2016 feels like the year drift pop went from fringe sub-culture to a fully acknowledged category. The sheer number of albums being produced has spiked dramatically, and plenty of them are getting reviewed and promoted on pretty mainstream sites. The new release lists I follow feature at least one-a-week, lately. Drift pop is competing heavily to dominate my best-of-the-year list. When I go these shows—to my surprise—it's often packed houses.

Which begs the question, why? It's easy to say it's the flavor of the month, but I subscribe to the belief that even our artistic consumption is guided: culture, as a whole, moves for a reason. We look for art to explain the world around us, or to help reflect on and examine ourselves—or to escape all of the above. I find a fractured, lonely beauty in drift pop: yearning voices cut loose in a sea of sound. There's beguiling mystery, getting lost in an ambient fog. Does this appeal more, now, because we are in fact more isolated in our new digital lives? Is it  more aspirational—a refuge and retreat from a world that seems universally intrusive? Does this kind of expression sound more authentic in a space as ambiguous as emotions themselves? 

It's easy to understand one appeal of drift pop to me, personally—so many of it's earliest modern incarnations happened while I was coming-of-age, musically. At first, this recent uptick just seemed like a run of good luck. About the time Brian Eno announced The Ship, it was clear I was just surfing the zeitgeist along with everyone else.

This may be drift pop's moment. While it was here before—and will likely continue—2016 will likely represent some sort of apex. In a few years, pop culture will have moved on and all this will be processed and catalogued—largely shorthanded, remembered and referenced by a few key records. That is the way of things. For now, though, you can drown in the drift pop swells.