So welcome to my most-played LP of 2017: Space, Energy & Light, a compilation of, and I quote the subtitle here*, ‘Experimental electronic and acoustic soundscapes 1961-88’ – if that doesn’t quite frazzle fry your frizzly bits then you’re beyond redemption.
I’m almost in the festive mood here and so I will bestow that rarest of gifts, copious 1537 bonus points upon Space, Energy & Light for having a friendly, warm yellow cover and including inner sleeve artwork featuring some of the earliest photographs of nebulae in the Pleiades. Space is very much the place here.
When the history of like the world and culture and humanity and stuff gets written proper, it will be recorded that between the years of 1961 and 1988** the principle means of space travel was via the synthesizer. There are 14 synthanauts here^ all gracefully circling up through the atmospheric layers and striking out boldly for whatever lies beyond, riding Silver Surfer style on a selection of vintage keyboards. Zoom!
What is equally cool here is that the particularly synths played by each artist are listed in the sleeve notes, I envy Steven Halpern his Polyphonic String Ensemble Synthesizer and Michael garrison his Arp Axxe and Moog synthesizer with Ribbon Control System (their capital letters, not mine).
One of the things that interested me about Space, Energy & Light was the remove that many of the contributors had from the music industry. There are artists here like the brilliant Carl Matthews, who were part of the 1980’s tape collecting scene and others whose work was sold only in new agey mediation centres and whole food dungeons. This is why unlike so many other scenes which get strip-mined ad nauseam, the music here still sounds fresh and unsullied to my tired old ears. There is something unusually and attractively innocent about these sounds.
Those clever beasties at Soul Jazz Records have sequenced Space, Energy & Light beautifully, unlike a lot of compilations that may contain nuggets of desirable greatness but some jarring juxtapositions, this album has flow, poise and grace throughout. Starting wonderfully well with Italian prog dude J.B Banfi ‘Gang (For Rock Industry)’, all phased zaps and gently wheeling circles, there is a seamless meld into Michael Garrison’s Jarre-esque flights of fantasy conjured ‘somewhere in the Cascade mountains of Oregon’.
There are enough changes of emphasis, tempo and tone between the tracks to keep even a very casual synthaholic happy. My own particular favourites are Carl Matthews ‘As Above, So Below’, which is truly interstellar and has a great sense of rhythm and space; Tim Blake^* ‘Midnight’ which is just pulsatingly ace music, period; Laurie Spiegel ‘Improvisation on a ‘Concerto Generator”, where Ms Spiegel, who developed compositional software for Bell starting in 1973 (!!), sounds like a moon shot and Richard Pinhas who was yet another synth dude to become obsessed with making a soundtrack to Dune.
I am only touching the surface here, of course and the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. This music ranges from musique concrete (Tod Dockstader), to much more mainstream synth soundtrack fare (Stratis). There are only two missteps for me and they’re much more down to my tastes, rather than any lapse in quality – I’m looking at you Iasos and Beverley Glenn-Copeland; although the latter gets big 1537 bonus points for working on the music for Sesame Street.
The Space, Energy & Light compilation performs its’ role as a bridgehead admirably well. The quality here is so good that I have already bought 3 LPs on the back of it, copies of Carl Matthews Mirage Tape Years, Tim Blake Crystal Machine and a pre-order of Matthew Stearns Planetary Unfolding (because I didn’t have £150 spare for an original). I can think of no higher way of praising a various artists’ compilation than by going out and buying into the individual artists concerned.
I cannot praise Space, Energy & Light highly enough. It functions as a useful introduction to the whole spacey synth scene of the 70’s and 80’s and is a wonderfully entertaining listen just in its own right. The ever-reliable Soul Jazz Records have done a bang up job in terms of the packaging and the research that has gone on and into this set too. If I had a single gripe it would be that this is a triple LP set and so the trade-off against giving the grooves breathing space is that you have to keep breaking your reveries and flipping the sucka over; still that’s outmoded formats for you!
Buy this compilation, now. You owe it to your ears.
This is my humble offering for Bruce Connection’s celebration of that great, great group who have given us all so much pleasure over the years, the Various Artists – long may they run.
*you simply have to love an LP with a subtitle.
**the 1961 is rather a misleading outlier, there is only piece here from the 60’s and the mean year for all 14 tracks here is approximately 1980.475.
^okay so there are three members of the, snappily named, Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company^^, but I’m only counting them as one here.
^^1973 was a very different world wasn’t it?
^*the ex-Hawkwind and Gong chap is pretty much the most established and industry-friendly fellow here.