Ambient House: “This was the sound of that future”

Among other things, including presenting a radio show (The Mystery Lesson) Daniel Spicer will be doing a book on Turkish Psychedelia for Repeater. This is his review of the Ambient House: The Compilation by DFC. — P.J.


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How often does a compilation album change your life? It happened to me very early one morning in 1990 when I was a first-year undergraduate living in halls of residence in Manchester. Towards the end of an LSD trip, just as dawn was beginning to grey the sky, an LP I’d never heard before ended up on my friend’s cheap plastic turntable, squatting like an oracle on the carpet of his tiny box-like room. It stayed there for the rest of the trip and, as we played it over and over, it completely and irrevocably rewired everything I thought I understood about the potential form and function of music.

The album was – and remains – an enigma to me: Ambient House, a 10-track collection, compiled and released by a benignly anonymous pan-European body calling itself Dance Floor Corporation. The sleeve notes, in a cheerfully translated English, promised “a revolutionary new form of dance music that mixes moody atmospheric sounds of new age and ambient music with pulsating house beats.” This wasn’t what I was used to at all. I was a white teenager from suburban South East England, brought up on rock and folk, with a nascent interest in jazz. To me, the recent explosion in dance music meant flimsy radio fodder like S-Express and Black Box. It was something you heard in shopping centres and fast food outlets. I’d never even for a moment considered that anything to do with house music might be worthy of attention. But here, as the sleeve notes proclaimed, were audio concoctions designed to live “in your hearts, not the charts.” In the hours that followed, those sounds beamed new information directly into my brain, like the revealing purple light of Philip K. Dick’s toothache delirium.

The KLF’s “Last Train To Trancentral” collages field recordings of rumbling freight trains, clanging bells and bleating sheep with soaring, sci-fi synths; The Orb’s “A Huge Ever-Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules The World From The Centre Of The Ultra-World” swirls together wafting choral vocals, ascending heavenly chords and an impossibly incongruous sample of Minnie Ripperton singing “Loving You”, all somehow oblivious of and unconnected to the tough electro rhythm shoving it on like an unstoppable, intergalactic engine. These two tracks have since become well-known examples of the genre but, to these ears at least, still sound fresh and otherworldly. If some of the other selections have aged less well they were, at the time, equally mysterious. “Transparenza” by Extreme builds a humid exoticism around a circular three-note keyboard riff and repeated samples of a droplet of moisture plopping into a pool and a single, sensuous human exhalation. Sueño Latino’s self-titled track samples Manuel Göttsching’s minimal electro-kosmische prototype, E2-E4, adding rainforest canopy chatter and Balearic piano, as though soundtracking a lost afternoon in some mythical jungle cocktail bar.

But it was the timeless perfection of “NYC Smile On Me” by Aqua Regia that took me furthest away from any psycho-cerebral situation I’d ever encountered before: an endlessly repeating orchestral sample of unfolding sun-burst joy, riding a gentle acid thump and the quintessential, toe-curling 303 wibble. A female voice, squirming in distraught ecstasy, exclaims “Oh, God, please, oh God, I can’t stand it, 24 hours a day.” It felt like a slice of eternity, something that had been happening forever, something that was always happening, never-ending in some untroubled plane of existence, to which we were simply allowed access for a few minutes at a time by dropping the needle on the record. As the dawn strained through a milky, overcast sky back in 1990, my friends and I narrowed the album down to this one track, constantly repeated as we clung on to an inexorably evaporating high. Even now, almost a quarter of a century later, it still sounds like boundless optimism.

For me, this album did something that all great compilations should do: it provided a glimpse of a whole new world of sound and adventure, an alternate reality that was already there, fully-formed, ready to be passionately embraced, given over to, completely immersed in. I’m talking specifically about a special moment in the early 1990s when the counterculture seemed to be experiencing a surge of bright, fresh, optimistic momentum; when the present seemed about to collide with a glorious, inevitable utopian future of designer drugs, smart drinks, cybernetics, neuromancy and virtual reality. It’s absolutely right that the gatefold cover of Ambient House is bursting with lurid Madelbrot Set fractals. Scientific hedonism was going to blow our minds and there was nothing we could do to stop it. For me, this music was the sound of that future beginning to happen, of the great transformation made manifest, right there in that small room in Manchester. It encouraged me, invited me, compelled me to throw myself with utter conviction into the swiftly coalescing vectors of UK rave culture. I didn’t waste any time.

Daniel Spicer