Names like Brian Eno or Steve Roach may most readily come to mind where classic ambient recordings are concerned, but there has never been a shortage of similarly fascinating material floating around under the radar, quietly and unobtrusively waiting to reach the right ears. The pair of late-80s LPs by David Sylvian and Holger Czukay make a defining if too-little-known example, a complementary yin and yang in immersive soundscapes. These are compelling pieces that flow and drift with the unexpected yet intuitive logic of dreams.
Grönland Records' excellent reissue presents both albums vividly remastered with wider, fuller sound than ever before. It could have all been on one disc, but that would have really made it a schizophrenic propositionthey're two very different sides of the same coin. So were the artists, come to think of it. Czukay had provided hypnotic bass and tape-splicing for Can's unique brand of out-there, yet (mostly) grippingly accessible Krautrock. Sylvian was best known for fronting the clever art-pop glam outfit Japan, meanwhile, though he'd also been exploring worldly influences and minimalist textures on a string of stunningly beautiful solo recordings. Pure abstract sound-sculpting made a superb sweet spot for their musical voices to meet.
Plight & Premonition (Venture, 1988) grew out of two winter nights in Köln, and it's an experience just as chill and bleak as that origin suggests. Czukay had invited the singer to Can's old studio for the recordings that would become his solo album Rome Remains Rome (Virgin, 1987). Sylvian didn't appear on the album in the end, but at least it set their collaboration in motion. Things simply grew in the most natural of ways; Sylvian began idly coaxing drones out of a pump organ during some free time, some natural improvisations followed, and their unplanned session kept drifting through the dark hours. For spontaneity's sake, Czukay would simply cut things off if the playing started getting too deliberate. The goal was to pursue something always elusive.
The ghosts are restless on this disc; while they're not the evil or monstrous kind, there's always an undercurrent of something otherworldly and unsettling. Piano and vibraphone notes drift forlornly through the air. Stray rattles and sprinkles of percussion skitter in and out of hearing, with the random fleetness of small animals darting into hiding. Sylvian's chilly synth evokes the sound of life frozen under ice, numb and removed from the world, while Czukay adds light organ and the distant static crackle of radio waves. A little light shines in through some harmonized piano lines toward the end, though it's still the cold light of winter sunshine. There's a surprising number of sonic elements in the mix all told, but open air and silence still come out most prominent of all.
Any real relief in tone would have to wait for the follow-up. Sylvian actually began the pair's next session in a downbeat mood after a disappointing tour, and yet the resulting Flux + Mutability (Venture, 1989) is as warm and pleasant as the first day of summer. Any ghosts here are now at peace. Can mates Jaki Liebezeit and Michael Karoli drop in, and their percussion and guitar offer the faintest shadow of their legendary rhythmic grooves without ever disrupting the calm.
The lifebeat of the album's first half is reassuringly steady and organic, while the ambient synth-and-flute drift of the second creates an aural cocoon to sink into like a downy mattress. This time everything is green grass and sunshine. Again not much happens, but it happens beautifully, unhurried as a flowing stream and with an impeccable ear for the beauty of quietude. From disturbing spookiness to inviting serenity, these albums are as fresh as the time they were made and always just waiting to be rediscovered all over again.
CD1: Plight (The Spiralling of Winter Ghosts); Premonition (Giant Empty Iron Vessel).
CD2: Flux (A Big, Bright, Colourful World); Mutability (A New Beginning Is In the Offing).
Holger Czukay: radio, organ, sampled piano, orchestral and environmental treatments,
guitar, bass, dictaphone, voice; David Sylvian: piano, prepared piano, harmonium,
vibraphone, synthesizers, guitar, keyboards; Jaki Liebezeit: infra-sound, percussion,
African flute; Markus Stockhausen: flugelhorn; Karl Lippergaus: radio tuning; Michael Karoli: guitar; Michi: voice.