I get a bit bored with ambient albums. There might be one or two tracks on them, but generally I don’t find myself coming back to them very often. This one is different.
I had a few from Eno’s Ambient series and Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, but first heard this when I recorded Underrated Silence with Ulrich Schnauss in 2010. We spent much of that summer working through the night and whenever I hear ‘A Stream With Bright Fish’ or ‘Lost In The Humming Air’ I’m transported back to somnolent discussions in Ulrich’s kitchen as foxes whined at each other in his neighbours’ gardens. It’s easy to attribute the late-night atmosphere to recordings of crickets on ‘A Stream…’ but it goes much deeper than that. Heaven in a wild flower…
Eno, it has to be said, is the master of converting the micro into the macro. Does he even play on this? His fingerprints are indelible, though. You can tell that Budd’s improvisations where born in response to Brian’s treatments, not the other way around. I love how each piece seems to be more about the capturing of a mindset than a composition. Like it was maybe 3am after a two-hour discussion about whether whales might have geographic information built into their genes when Daniel Lanois turned on the H3000, Harold wandered into the live room and gently improvised ‘Their Memories’ in one take. Maybe.
I once witnessed how that production style doesn’t always go to plan. Engineers recorded strings and some other bits in RAK Studios for our first album where Brian was simultaneously producing a session for Travis. We dined with them one night, but to our disappointment Brian remained aloof, chatting only in hushed tones to Bacon and Quarmby, the production duo helming our session.
We later learned that the reason Fran Healy was looking so dejected and could often be found lying around the studio corridors was that someone had decided they needed to be conceptually overhauled and that Bri was the guy to do it. Apparently there was mic-ing up of stomping chair legs occurring and a sample-based stripping back of their songs. Needless to say, it never came out.
I recently started to watch the concert film Almost Fashionable in an ill advised attempt to tap into some ‘Travs’-style lightheartedness, but promptly switched over after it became apparent that the premise of the documentary was a group therapy induced examination of why they are perceived as perennially (and annoyingly) cheerful. I immediately thought of that session…
Anyway, the disturbing aspect of The Pearl shouldn’t be ignored. I think that’s why it stands out against other albums in the genre. The previous album by the pair (Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror) is another favourite, but that feels more composed, as though Harold wrote much of it before they got together. There’s a tone of sadness in the writing on that one that is more subverted here, like you’ve arrived at the philosophical part, beyond grief or whatever is making you sad. I always feel that many of the tracks have a ‘questioning’ quality and the title is perfect… searching for something precious in a sea of nothingness.