Friday Night Tune: Biosphere – Phantasm

When I wrote about Gkahn last week I was discussing the way techno differs from country to country, as if there is something in its basic DNA that is rewritten by elements of whatever scene and culture it ends up in. I guess this is true enough for others styles of music as well, even going as far back as the first explosions of Jazz. It’s certainly a natural enough impulse to take an art form and rework it until it makes sense to you and reflects something of your experiences and life. It’s these experiences and their reflection in other people that give rise to the various scenes that are out there just now; each similar in many ways but each providing something unique to the overall body of techno.

It gets more abstract when you talk about the role the environment, the physical and psychic landscape of a place, has in the creation of the music. Some modern productions are entirely about the environment. German multi-media artist Thomas Köner has released several albums built entirely from field recordings taken from distant corners of the word that are rich with the pulse and rhythms of nature. But this is a very pure example of what I’m talking about. Some modern producers, like Scottish techno artist Lord of The Isles, are less direct. In Lord of The Isles’ case, the combination of evocative titles, like Timber Lorries Emerging, and music that captures something of the mood of wild Scotland – a place largely devoid of man and yet so heavily touched by it – is used to create something with a powerful sense of place. Mind you, I wonder whether it would have quite the same feel to someone who, unlike myself, hasn’t spent a great deal of time in the more desolate parts of Scotland?

Biosphere’s second album, ‘Patashnik’, was heavily defined by the environment it was written and recorded in. Released in 1994, and now regarded as one of the best ambient albums (although exactly how ambient chunks of it were is debatable), ‘Patashnik’ had the fairly rare distinction of being a techno album that was picked up and embraced by the mainstream music media – particularly impressive at a time when, if you weren’t Orbital or The Orb, the NME and Melody Maker didn’t really want to know. It certainly had something. The following year a track from it, Novelty Waves, was featured in a Levi’s advert. How many techno bods does that happen to?

Part of the album’s draw – and the element the indy rock press seemed most excited at if the interviews were anything to go by – was that the album was created during the long winter that falls above the Artic circle in Northern Norway. Even without knowing this, though, you wouldn’t have been surprised. Even the tracks with beats are in shadow, punctured only by a brief glare of light in the nothingness. ‘Patashnik’ feels like it was recorded whilst under the real and almost physical weight of endless darkness and isolation. It’s a record where the need to be conscious battles the desire to escape into yourself – a mental hibernation that can only really end in the spring, and where the commonplace and everyday are distorted by the months of emptiness until they take on new and disturbing meanings.

Phantasm, which opens the album, unites that distortion of the everyday with touches of sci-fi influences that permeate ‘Patashnik’. It is a stark and desolate track, formed by those almost discordant bleeps, the weirdly hollow and unsettling strings and a rumble like distant pack ice grinding. The one touch of humanity, of something sentient in the half-light and vastness of the empty world, is provided by a sample from ‘The Krays’ of the brothers intoning ‘We had a dream last night – we had the same dream’. It doesn’t give any warmth, though: it makes everything stranger. This detached humanity seems unwelcome and unwanted. In fact, it seems alien. It doesn’t belong.

It’s this juxtaposition between the physical world and the world of the mind that makes the idea of the environment as a muse – willingly or otherwise – so interesting a concept, and it’s one that techno, with its brilliance at turning abstracts and emotions into frequency – is so good at realising. Hell, in some ways it’s the reason techno exists at all.

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