Gas and Stars of the Lid: Where Have All the Space Cowboys Gone?

The uneasy return of ambient music

"As ignorable as it is interesting." Brian Eno's liner notes to 1978's Ambient 1: Music for Airports did two important things for ambient music: First, they drew a through-line between Erik Satie's so-called furniture music to the musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer, and on to the actual furniture music of Harry Bertoia and Eno's own experiments in sound. Second, they neatly justified how boring Ambient 1 really was.

The first was more important, of course. Eno finally gave a name to the shapeless set of avant-garde sounds that, with the arrival of German groups like Cluster and Tangerine Dream, was in serious danger of being labeled "Muzak" and written off completely as fluffy wank. As someone who has spent more than $50 on an Ash Ra Tempel LP can tell you, Eno's ploy worked. Today, ambient is a genre with a number of famous and semi-famous purveyors: Moby, Aphex Twin, the Orb. Funny thing about that list, though? None of those acts has released a proper ambient album in what seems like an eternity. Which isn't to say that there aren't plenty of records being released in the genre. As someone who spends more than $50 on Pete Namlook records every month can tell you, there are. It's just that, à la Paula Cole, I've been wondering: Where is my Brian Eno? Where are my melancholic synthesizer tunes? Where have all the (big-name) ambient producers gone?

We know where Wolfgang Voigt went, at least: The man behind Gas (perhaps the most famous of his more than 30 pseudonyms, each exploring separate styles and aims) left ambient music in 2000 to run one of the most successful electronic-music labels in the world. As co-head of Cologne's Kompakt imprint, Voigt is now too busy filing invoices and processing payments to make much music of his own. But as listeners continue to sift through the piles of vinyl he released in the '90s, Voigt's most beloved material—the swirling, nebulous forest symphonies of Gas—remained out-of-print for much of the '00s. (2000's Pop, his most popular title, currently goes for $75 on Amazon.) Later this month, Kompakt will change all that, releasing Voigt's quartet of full-lengths in a box set entitled Nah und Fern (Near and Far), while the Raster.Noton label will put out Gas: Loops, a book of Voigt's nature photographs and a CD of previously unreleased material. Broadly speaking, Gas can be boiled down to two elements: genetically altered samples from classical music and a muted bass drum. The alterations, of course, are the thing—Voigt twists Wagner, Berg, and Strauss into unintelligible versions of themselves, transforming them into thrilling and deeply immersive works whose loops evoke lapping waves. As Voigt once told an interviewer: "I had an image in my mind of . . . an exhilarating streaming music which literally flows over, which has no beginning or end, no hard edges, only softness . . . An elegiac sound . . . held together by an invisible bass drum that comes marching by somewhere hidden in the woods, coming closer and fading away again. It was an acid experience. Basically, it's drug music."

Late Friday night at Good Shepherd-Faith Church on the Upper West Side, Adam Wiltzie—one-half of the Texan ambient duo Stars of the Lid—told a seated crowd of 250 that they should "take drugs, if you've got 'em." (Presumably, he didn't mean to include the members of Face the Music—the 21 Kaufman Center students, ages 10 to 15—that had performed right before them.) The request was met by laughter, but by the final strains of "December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface," I'd wished I'd taken them up on the offer. Judging by my friend, whose head stayed lodged between his legs for the entirety of the track—which came after four lengthy songs that mined similar territory—he had the same thought. Stars began making music in the mid-'90s, after meeting at the University of Texas. The two shared a radio show on the local campus station, in which they found more pleasure layering soundtracks and field recordings than in the local boogie-rock fare. They took a lot of drugs together, watched a lot of Twin Peaks. And when they started recording, they tended to work quickly, providing Kranky Records with a new album almost every year. That stopped, though, after 2001's double-disc epic, The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid. It took them six years to finish their next one, Stars of the Lid and Their Refinement of the Decline. Brian McBride, the other Star, will tell you that it's a reaction to the world around them. "To us, too many artists are caught up in this political economy of keeping in the spotlight," he recently told the LA Weekly. Wiltzie now lives in Belgium and also spends a lot of time in Greece, about as far away from the media glare as possible. Both circle around the idea that the project is now—or maybe it always was—an oasis of patience in a hyper-speed society. Perfect for late-night headphones listening.In light of that, I feel awkward saying that Stars of the Lid reduced my friend to holding his head between his legs. It wasn't that they were bad as a live experience. It's just that Eno was right: I wanted the chance to ignore them just as often as I wanted to focus entirely on the music. Sitting in a church, frozen by the fear that a mild cough is going to ruin the experience of everyone around you, doesn't seem to be the best way to experience something like this. A crowded indie-rock club surely isn't either. Perhaps ambient music is simply better consumed at home, alone. Regardless, it's hard not to be bummed out looking forward. Now that Nah und Fern will mummify Gas and make Voigt's work a museum piece—while Stars of the Lid will presumably take another half-decade to produce a follow-up—there's not all that much to look forward to in ambient, which is suddenly far more ignorable than interesting. Moby? You busy?

 
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