Artists-on-Albums: AOA # 7 (Mark Lesseraux on the “Ambient Paradox” with a Review of Avec Laudenum)

Mark Lesseraux on…

Stars of the Lid - Avec Laudenum

“The Ambient Paradox” with Stars of the Lid’s Avec Laudenum (Sub Rosa, 1999/Kranky, 2002)

In the early 1970s music critic Richard Williams wrote a now infamous review of a John Lennon and Yoko Ono album. The lion’s share of the piece focused on the “experimental” side two of the record. What Williams was not aware of at the time was the fact that the early test pressing he received for review did not have a side two. Instead it contained a twenty minute long test tone (a continuous sine wave) put there by the record company as a means of monitoring equalization levels. Of course Williams was subsequently lambasted in the music press for his error, being accused of all kinds of gullibility and pretension.

In 1996, in his book “A Year With Swollen Appendices”, Brian Eno (who better?) defended Williams saying that not only was it logical to assume that John and Yoko could have released such a track at the time, but also that there was no reason Williams couldn’t have had a legitimate, even a profound listening experience on said day.

Which brings us to the question of the oft-disputed legitimacy of a particular genre of music; a genre whose name was coined by Eno himself: Ambient music.

If rock music consists primarily of decades of variations on an early twentieth century blues progression, then could not ambient music be the product of several decades of variations on something like…a test tone? Ambient’s detractors would have you believe so for sure. I would go them one better though, by asserting that the best ambient music doesn’t shy away from its kinship with sounds like test tones, and that in fact it draws its strength from such kinships. For musicians and listeners who hold a more fundamentalist definition of what proper music is, such an assertion equates to a kind of heresy. “Where is the technique? Where is the melody line? Where is the soul?”, they quip. The trick with ambient music is that in a sense it blurs the line between picture and frame. It functions primarily as an ambit for a diversity of subjective thoughts and imaginings to take place rather than as a dictator of objective scenarios and melodramas. Ambient’s diametric opposite would be pop music, with its lyrical content and emotionally telegraphed melodies, which very definitely aim to particularly define what a listener thinks and feels in its presence. Where pop, rock and classical music are usually linear and illustrative, ambient is always non-linear and impressionistic. If one were to compare ambient music to a particular state of consciousness it would most resemble the semi-sleep state. Semi-sleep being the intermittent state between sleep and waking; that hazy, not quite vigilic realm where dream images co-mingle and vie for dominance with real-time sense perceptions.

Avec Laudenum by Stars of the Lid (Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie) puts the listener in this realm as effectively as any record I have heard. The record’s opener “Atomium Part One” begins with a series of what appear to be open chord synthesizer flurries, although they could just as easily be treated guitar emissions. About a minute into the piece the approach gently morphs into a series of hazy, overlapping legato guitar swells; the dark grey and muted blue/green tones swapping spatial positions from background to middleground to foreground, creating a landscape of undulating hues and shifting vantage points.

The pleasantly vertiginous nostalgia of Part One then gives way to a more ominous, foreboding mood, with the slow encroachment of a repeating, distant, siren-like guitar figure in Part Two. This mood continues through to the middle of Part Three, by which time Wiltzie and McBride have constructed a brimming litany of urgent tones that build to a sudden rug pull-out into silence.

And then from the ashes, the slow-motion, phoenix-like one-two punch of “Dust Breeding (1.316)+” and “I Will Surround You” envelop the landscape in a seemingly incongruous, yet ultimately (somehow) symbiotic mix of deathly post-apocalyptic drones and pastorally calm textures.

Throughout the course of the record’s forty-two minute duration, one gets the feeling that the music is playing itself. At the same time one is also aware of SOTL’s keen sense of restraint and their respect for the beauty that ensues when sounds are allowed to flesh themselves out with minimal intervention.

It is this paradoxical interplay of craftsmanship and seeming non-interference which makes Avec Laudenum such a fascinating listen. Perhaps this is the central paradox of ambient music in general: From a technical standpoint, anyone can do it, but very few have the restraint and respect for sounds in and of themselves, to do it well.

Notes on the Artist:

Mark Lesseraux

Mark Lesseraux is a busy, busy man. In addition to his main band, The Citizens, which has released two full-lengths and an EP, Lesseraux has also released a solo album (Low Cool) and recently an ambient CD called Point of Cows under the name The Good Science. Mark Lesseraux’s substantial vocal abilities and keen songwriting make him an artist to watch – whether solo or with one of his projects. Lesseraux is one of those musicians that make you feel there’s even more brewing right under the surface, but there’s plenty of music to sink your teeth into right now:

The Citizens

Mark Lesseraux – Low Cool

The Good Science – Point of Cows