Something strange has happened to dance music. It's all the fault of The Orb, of course. Fannying around in the studio late at night, trying to get the drum-track on their second single to work properly, they suddenly decided to do the unthinkable: they took the drums off altogether. A classic was created, and The Orb's direction was changed irrevocably (just as well, if their first appallingly inept single is anything to go by). Thus was born the improbably-named A Huge Ever-growing Pulsating Brain that Rules From the Centre of the Ultraworld, the first real masterpiece of what was instantly called 'Ambient House'. Since then, of course, things have got seriously out of hand. At first, there were only a few curios, like the KLF's well weird Chill Out and the odd ambient remix hidden away on the back of a hard techno track. These days, you can't move for the bloody word. The Pet Shop Boys and Erasures of this world have ambient remixes on the flip of their singles; hell, even Paul McCartney has made an ambient LP (honest! check out Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest, his collaboration with producer Youth, as The Fireman, on EMI).
More seriously, the rise in interest in all things ambient has now got so out of hand that all manner of influences are starting to creep in. Musicians everywhere have been heavily name-dropping the Krautrock credibility mantra '...heavily into Can and Faust' in music press interviews, and are rushing to snap up and sample CD reissues of all those early Ash Ra Tempel and Popol Vuh albums. Among the latecomers, chancers and bandwagon jumpers are others who have been there all along, just waiting for fashion to get around to allowing them to release their music without having the stigma of being seen as dull, anorak-wearing Tangerine Dream clones. Of all the new ambience chasers, the greatest so far has to be Pete Namlook.
Some pertinent and not-so-pertinent facts: he lives in Frankfurt, where he has his own studio. He has his own label, which is called Fax +49-69/450464; as you might have guessed, this is also his fax machine number. The label started life releasing his experiments in hard techno dance music. He collaborated with others, and each collaboration was released under a different pseudonym; each time the pseudonym was used again, he stuck it out as a new edition in the series, numbered 2, 3 and so on. The numbers and labels were colour coded too: black labels were hardest; blue meant trancier; yellow were more atmospheric and ambient; grey were just plain weird. At first, these were released in pressings of only a few hundred. Since Namlook spent most of his time in the studio, there were always new tracks to release, and the best way to pay for the next record is to sell out of the current one quickly. At one point he was releasing a different single or two every single week, under names like Hearts of Space, Sequential, 4 Voice, Cryptic Corp., Limelight, Escape, Minimalistic Source, Sextant and Deltraxx (at least a couple of those should set off resonances in some synth music fans' heads: Namlook has always acknowledged his influences). Many of these singles have since been licensed for release in the UK, most regularly by Rising High and their more experimental Sapho subsidiary; I would especially recommend the hypnotic trance tracks released under the names Sequential and Escape.
The format of most of these singles is simple. On the a-side is the catchiest, most (relatively) danceable mix, or two, of the main theme. On the back, though, things get weird: the drums are stripped off; sequences were run at half speed or less; sound effects proliferated: in other words, there was an ambient remix. By the time of the third Escape single, Trip to Neptune, he was including half hour bliss-outs like Atmosphere Processor. It is remixes like these that have now proved more popular than the a-sides. More importantly, perhaps, it is the longer length which the gradual switch to CD for most of Fax's output has provided which has allowed Namlook's ambient tendencies to go wild.
At first, Namlook used the new format to compile all of the singles released by a particular pseudonym, a massive series which continues to date, but which lies outside the scope of this piece. Soon, however, he was creating new works specifically for CD. Among the first, and still unquestionably the best, of these, is his collaboration with Dr Atmo, under the name Silence, which was reissued in the UK by Rising High last year. Over the space of four lengthy tracks, Namlook and his collaborator go a very, very long way towards recreating the classic drifting ambience of the early 1970s synthesiser greats, while at the same time adding new touches, particularly the use of samples. The twenty-two-minute opener, Omid/Hope, is an astounding piece of work. Slow, dramatic chords surge like waves over a wash of delicate noise for an eternity, before a hypnotic voice begins to lull the listener beyond sleep, into a real dream state. Later on the disc, Santur recreates more dreams through the use of tinkling chimes that sound like a half-heard musical box, set amidst a sea of drifting echoes. It's the exact polar opposite of the ultra-furious techno dance music I usually blather on about in this column, but it is equally powerful in its effects on the body. If you want to sample Namlook, I can think of no better place to start.
Hot on its heels came another stunning collaboration, this time with Mixmaster Morris (aka The Irresistible Force, whose own Flying High album on Rising High is an ambient house classic), as Dreamfish. Here, on what is unquestionably a (whisper it!) concept album, the emphasis is on recreating the feeling of drifting underwater. Of course, such things have been done before, but never, I would argue, as successfully as on this superb record. The sound is submerged in distant liquid echoes; every edge has been removed, allowing tones to drift as if borne along in water. By the time the last of the epic four tracks, Under Water, seeps slowly in on blurred waves of eliding samples, you will feel like the ends of your fingers have gone wrinkled. In common with most of Namlook's music, it sounds as though little is happening, that one is doing nothing but drifting amidst washes of sampled tones. Listen harder, if your blissed out state will allow you, and you'll notice a morass of details, which dart beneath and above the waves like tiny fish. Again, a must-hear record.
The third Rising High reissue in as many months was the first album credited to Air. Here Namlook, working alone save for occasional guest flute, has allowed his early Krautrock influences to seep directly into the music, which is far more percussive and tribal than on other discs. Much of this music would not sound out of place on a particularly experimental mid-period Pink Floyd track. Here Namlook uses a great deal of space amidst the musical notes, opening up the sound, making it seem light, almost transparent at times. A second volume, Air II, is due for release on Fax shortly.
In the light of rave press reviews of the three previous releases, and interest in Namlook, and in ambient house in general, Rising High have recently rounded off their Fax reissues with two volumes of Pete Namlook: The Definitive Ambient Collection. For the most part, unfortunately, these have been compilations of ambient b-sides from Fax singles and, with the exception of only a brace of tracks, they are only partly successful. The first volume, in particular, has little to recommend it. The second is far more listenable, as it is plain that Namlook has recently been making true, specifically-directed ambient tracks for his singles rather than merely taking the drums off and slowing the pitch down on the tape of the flip side.
Far more interesting are the newest releases on Fax, and its range of subsidiaries like Fax World which release records from Namlook collaborators from around the globe. The label has just announced that it is doubling its pressings for all new releases, for both ambient works and techno single collections, and they will at last be getting proper UK distribution through regular dance and indie outlets. Judging by Fax's recent titles, it's plain that Pete Namlook will continue churning out ambient classics for some time to come. Among many, many notable releases, I would mention here: Namlook II, which is one dreamy 74-minute track improvised live at the Dutch ambient club, the Melkweg; the ringing chill winter landscape of his audio Christmas card, Season's Greetings: Winter; and the two starkly cosmic Zeit-style synth explorations in the company of Tetsu Inoue released as 2350 Broadway and Shades of Orion.
Some critics have balked at the sheer productivity of the man, arguing that such ridiculously short shelf lives and incessant releases are surely debasing the market. For me, however, I like the idea that Namlook has taken on dance music's essentially ephemeral nature, and applied it to ambient, an area of music which seems equally, if not more suited to such a treatment. It seems ridiculous that it is taken as the right way of doing things for a musician like Brian Eno to release one ambient album every five years or so, especially when they still sound like he sat down and improvised them for as long as it took to fill a tape. Namlook just plays it and presses it up, and throws it out for his audience to buy. If you don't fancy this one, if it doesn't suit your mood or create the exact environment you want to chill out to when you get home tonight, don't worry; there'll be another one along very soon.