Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Science fiction ambient mix (Xenomorph director's cut)

WARNING: Contains spoilers.

The idea for this mix came about in Melbourne, in January, about the same time as Josh and I were starting to talk about the Japanese ambient mixes we prepared in parallel back in April. Whereas the Japanese mix was built by hard work scouring for new labels and tracks, as well as revisiting the archives, this mix was built almost by itself with only a few exceptions. Like many occasions in life there just seemed to be a number of signs and signals pointing which way to go with ideas and tracks just falling into my lap.

The basic idea was for it to be a science fiction inspired ambient mix with no other conditions. However, from the start it was always going to be a homage to the movie Alien. One reason is serendipity and the other reason is psyche.

In terms of serendipity there were several releases that came along that made it impossible that the mix would go any other way. First up, while I was in Melbourne with Josh, Belgium’s Aguirre label rereleased Joel Vandroogenbroeck’s “Biomechanoïd” album which originally came out in 1980 as the first release on Munich’s celebrated Coloursound Library label, arriving at the peak of the success of the movie Alien. Consequently, the album artwork features a cover painting by the late H. R. Gieger of a female Xenomorph-like “biomechanoid” performing felatio on a gas bottle while apparently bound to it or forming part of the same device. Vandroogenbroeck may be more known for his role in the Krautrock group Brainticket, whose first album “Cottonwoodhill” is one the genres most fried and freaked out albums, but here the instrumentation all electronic and the textures are all metallic and nervously restless on the surface.

Not long after I was back in Barcelona I saw a review of Stephan Mathieu’s “Before Nostromo” in The Wire. “Before Nostromo” came out on his Mathieu’s own Schwebung label and is a set of stark ambient pieces, one for each character in the movie, including Jones the cat. Each track is meant to be the character’s dream before they awaken from the hypersleep. The longest track is “Anamorphosis” which also ends the album and effectively opens the mix. “Anamorphosis” is not a biological process somehow related to Xenomorph biology, but is instead a process of distorting an image so that it can only be viewed using a certain lens or angle of vision. This might be an appropriate way of describing the music on “Before Nostromo” which at times seems haunted by the original soundtrack and sound design, creating the illusion that you are hearing something from the movie, but it is really something else, a trick of the mind (whenever I listen to the track “Anamorphosis” I am convinced I am listening to a processed version of the opening sequence and can hear orchestral instrumentation). This is also an observation dutifully noted by The Wire’s reviewer. Just by using the character’s name in the track name allows a certain association with the sounds which are also carefully created to reflect the individual narrative of the character during the movie. This is also how the mix is intended to work. It is not meant to be a literal recreation, but familiarity with the film helps to make sense of the loose “story” of the mix.

When I was moving house in March, the two tracks that effectively bookend the mix came along almost simultaneously and out of the blue. At the time I was listening to a lot of hip hop as I carried stuff from place to place and I listened to Dr. Dre’s 1992 album “The Chronic” for the first time. A genuine classic, of which the best track for me is the first one “The Watcher”, which is deep and dark, almost dubby at times. But before that there is the cheeky “Intro” sequence which starts the mix and which sounds like the THX noise you hear in cinemas. I confess that I also thought it would also be great, even if a little bit arrogant, to start an ambient mix with one of hip hop’s greatest artists just to show off a bit. Second up was Polar Inertia’s outstanding track “Major Axis” which originally came out in 2012, but which I hadn’t heard before. I remember listening to it as I trundled wearily up the hill again to Ikea thinking: “this has to be the ending of the movie”. The bleeping hysteria and relentless charge brings to an urgent climax the bleeps and pings that are so critical throughout the movie and also sampled for the mix.

Finally, also coming out at the start of the year, was the second compilation from the Echogarden “dub techno community” label and radio station which featured the track “Inside their Minds” by Asphalt Layer which features a sample of Ripley from Aliens.

In terms of psyche, I have a very long term and close relationship with the movie. Alien is maybe an obvious reference for electronic music, although not as much as Blade Runner, and holds powerful sway over the minds of many. I feel entitled to interpret and reuse freely from the film since it often forms an integral part of my subconscious. Alien is definitely one of the films I have watched the most in my lifetime. The first time I saw it, or any of it, was probably in the early 80s when I was around 10 years old. My mum’s then boyfriend must have been watching it on TV or VHS and he called me up from my room and said “watch this”. Next thing I know poor John Hurt is exploding from the inside and all these people dressed in white are covered with blood. As the alien raced off I was ushered away again as clearly this was not suitable material for my age. Despite being terrified I was determined to see that again. It was sometime later before I managed to rent the VHS, somehow sneaking it under my mum’s radar for the parental rating it carried. Later I recorded it from TV, carefully editing out the adds, and watched it relentlessly, especially when home alone sick from school. Having watched it so many times allowed me to sink in to the detail, especially the music and sounds. I remember always being fascinated by the opening sequence, that dark planet passing by as the word ALIEN appears and the evil electronic music that pushes its way through the orchestral arrangement. The celebrated oscillating musical motif of the opening sequence is legendary and as distinct and as important as the Star Wars theme. Of the sounds, the threatening clink of chains, the closing ten minutes of panic and sirens with almost no dialogue, the computer switching on at the beginning and above all the death scenes of Dallas and especially Lambert always stuck in the brain.

The fact that the film is so sound-dependent is critical. I always loved that you never quite saw the Xenomorph until the very end, where it was disappointingly so like a man in a suit (not like todays special effects-driven movies which are just a mindless saturation of hyperactive effects and battles). But the major alien scenes are essentially played out in mystery with only audio clues to guide us. Dallas is pulled into the shadows by the creature in a sudden flash of light and a stab of feedback and white noise as his transmission is severed. Lambert’s demise is more shocking. In the only visual part of the sequence, the Xenomorph does not hide its desire for her as it slowly slips towards her an erotic looking appendage (in the original Necronom IV painting from which the film took its design, the end of the Xenomorph tail is a penis as is the extension at the back of the head). How she actually dies is unknown, all we hear are her shuddering convulsions, terrified cries and then a piercing scream of fear and pain broadcast from the Nostromo’s internal communication system. Pure sound (but not quite the Lost Boys' “death by stereo”).

Even now in the mix listening to the sound of Lambert’s death seems horrific and sends chills down my arm, especially coming at the end of that incredibly cruel and brilliant Puce Mary track “The Spiral” from her recent album of the same name. This track is almost made perfectly for Alien. The analogue purring is eerily like the real alien sound effect from the movie, whereas the agonised/pleasured cries in the background are horrifying in their mix of animal, human and machine, just like the Xenomorph itself. The tom drumming is also wonderful, evoking a hunter closing in on its prey. And then the blast of noise comes in…

But there is more. So much is Alien part of my psyche that it also forms part of my dream landscape. One of the most consistently recurring dreams I have is of Xenomorphs and scenes inspired by Alien. I probably dream at least 6 or 7 times a year about Alien related scenes. Last year, for example, I dreamed of the full opening sequence, including the sick yellow planet and the title music, passing in real time across my mind.

Frequently there is a Xenomorph or the threat of one near in a dream. Perhaps most intensely, in several bad periods of insomnia and lucid dreaming over the last 18 months I have started to dream/think of a recurring sequence where I am writing scenes for a new franchise movie set between Alien and Aliens on the alien planet. The movie will tell the story of how the colony there came to be overrun by aliens leading up to the arrival of the marines in Aliens. Part of the premise of the story is that you know how it will end (i.e. badly), but the art will be to show a progression/transgression or even a progression as the aliens go from one to many in a wave of accelerating fear and hostility. I have had this dream three or four times, each time repeating the previous developments and trying to add a new plot twist or scene.

Indeed, as well as the sound and visual design, progression/transgression is also one of the mesmerizing features of the original film that sets it apart. Fantasy it may be, but it plays out more like a strange theatre play, with a carefully curated cast of seven characters allowing a lot of room for subtle changes of characterization. It is fascinating to watch Parker go from a relatively irresponsible hack with mercenary aims to being a brave and resistant companion. Ripley is almost annoyingly straight at the beginning, but this clear sightedness is what she needs to become the hero and survive. Lambert too breaks down from being a disinterested, but cool and sassy co-worker to a hysterically petrified and nervous wreck. Ash, meanwhile, doesn’t change at all, but nonetheless, the first time you see the films, there is always the doubt about his actions, did he do it intentionally or not until you know the truth? These types of characterization are rare in modern science fiction and horror films, where the characters seem two dimensional and as psychologically resistant to horror and carnage as they are physically indestructible. Despite all the trauma and violence that modern “heroes” may experience, they never change. There is not enough dynamic range. Part of this may also be to the more artificial nature of the design of modern films as to the way films are made. Firstly, Alien has a gritty realism because it has an integrated and consistent audio/visual style that was, importantly, made using real sets and models, so the actors are actually more “integrated” into the world around them as opposed to standing in front of a green screen being unable to see their world or where the creatures are. Modern fantasy and sci fi films are generally all digital and hyper real. Consistent with this more realistic psychologic characterization is that the seven crew of the Nostromo are relatively mature characters (and actors) over 25 years old and are actually working, not like in so much modern sci fi where there is just a bunch of beautiful (mostly white) kids standing around a control room speaking meaningless scientific space jargon and looking every bit like they never worked a day in their life. The first scenes of the film are brilliantly executed. Not only do they give great characterization (Lambert’s snide comeback “I know that” to Ripley’s “It’s not our system”) and plot development (“What the hell are we doing out here?”), but they create a sense of work and “normality” (especially the engineers Parker and Brett, but also the coordinated crew effort during the wake up and landing sequence; it’s almost like The Office in space). This mundane atmosphere makes it feel more real and is essential to provide the contrast for the later atmosphere, in that classic notion of tragedy, which requires something to be built up so only to watch it fall.

There are other differences with other aspects of modern film. In the documentary about the score for Alien, the editor Terry Rawlings mentions that part of the success of the film was that it was “slow”, in contrast to modern films. This is also a massively important feature of the film and critical for its longevity. The film is essentially ambient, it asks you to move in closer, to come out from the inside with your senses (sic) and look into the depth and darkness to find more substance and detail, to look at the Gieger designs. It teaches listening, patience and tension. So many modern films suffer with ADHD. There needs to be an explosion every few minutes, a sudden acceleration or explosions and action to apparently keep you interested. Consequently there is little tension, just action and distraction.

The sound design on the original film is much celebrated as is the music by Jerry Goldsmith. It is worth noting too that the soundtrack to the sequel Aliens by the late James Horner was nominated for an Academy Award, was recently made available on acid blood green vinyl, and has been widely copied and imitated and reappropriated. Yet, despite the success, both composers apparently had several difficulties with their respective productions and directors. Horner’s score was apparently not finished satisfactorily and was collaged substantially in the final film version. Goldsmith too also did not seem eye to eye with Ridley Scott and both parties harboured a certain sense of disappointment at the collaboration, despite drawing from it outstanding results.

It is interesting to note that one of the producers wanted something “haunting and weird and strange” from Goldsmith’s score, which they found too “lush”. It is almost surprising then, given the actual purely electronic nature of the sound effects and the visual design, that Scott did not go for something electronic like he did on his subsequent film Blade Runner. It appears in any case that he might have been thinking of this at some stage since there is a lot of industrial, ambient and noise elements used in the film, whereas the original trailer was pure proto-industrial noise music and not far removed from the Puce Mary tracks in the mix. This was also the same period as David Lynch’s seminal Eraserhead with its industrial soundtrack. But science fiction music has almost always been betrayed by Hollywood who seem to find it eternally difficult to get away from that schlock orchestral music, especially for futuristic movies. The late seventies was, after all, the heyday of the Kosmische side of Krautrock (Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze especially; they had shortlisted tracks for the mix, but did not make the final cut) as well as David Bowie’s “Low” (inspired by the science fiction film The Man Who Fell to Earth in which he appeared and for which Low was, in a certain way, meant to be the soundtrack for), not to mention the rise of Throbbing Gristle and other pioneering industrial and electronic acts. There are still many who lament the conservative and intentional classicism of the Star Wars score, which codified the classical style into science fiction films in many ways. To many the Star Wars score should have really embraced the future and been electronic. Perhaps the studios feel that having a classical score adds a certain level of credibility to otherwise low-brow “entertainment”. Maybe electronic music is still too hard for most people to really get?

While preparing for the mix I started to watch some old sci fi for potential samples and one of the films I watched was Lifeforce. I never saw the film as a teenager, despite always wanting too, probably because of the naked women more than any other aspect.

Watching the film now was painful for the plot and effects, but also for the sound design. Looking for samples and sound effects was impossible due to the continuous scoring throughout. There is almost no moment where the ambient sound is allowed to play out and consequently it was essentially impossible to cleanly sample anything (the dialogue and plot are also terribly corny there is not much left). The only exception is the Dallas scene in the mix which is actually lifted from Lifeforce (not even from an astronaut in the film, but a suited scientist about to perform an autopsy on the naked vampire girl). The astronaut-like breathing is combined with the real sound of Dallas’s death. The same segment in the mix also features some extra samples from the original score from other scenes.
The idea of the samples in the mix was therefore to create the atmosphere when necessary and to emphasise the ambience and give plot clues rather than tell the story through dialogue. Some sentences are kept intact intentionally for cohesion, but most are included as far as possible for atmosphere. For example, the tech jargon and the radio call. The opening sequence is also a kind of “joke”. The long still, hopefully subtle, intro is broken by John Hurt suddenly saying “Hold on, there’s movement…” as if to say al that droning ambient music is alive after all.

There are several other parts of the mix that deserve a bit of extra explanation as there are several (perhaps subliminal) messages and musical jokes, as it were.

Firstly, after the introduction, the “real” story gets underway with Silent Servant’s “A Path Eternal” from his 2012 album “Negative Fascination”. This was also the first track on Sandwell District’s Fabric mix CD, which is still one of my favourite mixes for that deeply dystopian build-up at the beginning. My idea was for this track to try and say a few things. Firstly, coming off the evil intro sequence it should try to signify that “this is going to be the beginning of a really bad time”. Coming in alongside the wind noise from the planet, it should also be a sign of a setting, a physical place, a dystopia. Layered over it is a sample from the movie Flash Gordon in which they discuss Ming’s Palace as a police state. At the end is another sample from the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica movie in which a gullible senator laments his mistake of pride in leading the human race to ruin. Originally I had wanted to make a more political edge to the mix to try and give a more metaphorical motive to the Xenomorph. More specifically, the idea was to perhaps relate the “danger” to the current rise in right wing extremism and hate-based race and religious conflict. After all, in the Epilogue/Coda, Ash is heard to mumble “I admire its purity. A survivor... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” This is followed by a sheet of harsh noise. This is almost an apt description for modern populist capitalist politics. Ash could also just be talking about the purity of the noise which is in any case another potential political metaphor. It is, after all, the death scenes all occur in a blaze of noise. Finally, we should not forget the real masked evil in the film franchise is “The Company”, capitalists who betray the crew for commercial gain.

Speaking of noise, Puce Mary’s tracks almost carry the same sense of military foreboding (the toms again), but her track used for the final “Slow agony of a dying orgasm” is perhaps more related to the original’s undercurrent of female sexuality (the ship conscience called Mother, the smaller landing ship detaching from “umbilicals”, the alien part-tamed by Ripley’s undressing at the climax, the vulva-like pods opening, the oral sex suggestiveness of the facehugger, Gieger’s original erotic designs for the alien and of course a female hero on the silver screen at the time of strong activity among the Women’s liberation movement).

There is a sequence that is dedicated to Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember and Jason “Spacemen” Pierce which includes the track “Liquid intentions” from Spectrum’s 1997 classic modular synth album “Forever Alien” (sic) and Experimental Audio Research (EAR)’s “Spacestation”. As they merge into Valanx’s (Arne Weinberg/Onmutu Mechanicks) exceptional “Copper I” there is a cheeky sample from Spiritualized’s “Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating In Space”. Clearly this is also meant to make a sly reference to Spacemen 3 as well, one of my favourite groups of all time.

Not long after this comes a small show of respect and solidarity with African Americans, not only some of the great electronic music pioneers like Jeff Mills, Underground Resistance, Drexciya, Model 500, Cybotron, Hieroglyphic Being and many more. There is a long tradition of African Americans looking to the future as a sign of hope for a more equal existence. Indeed, one of the included tracks is a lesser known, but seminal track from Cyboton’s Richard “3070” Davis that came out in 1978, the same year as the film. The words of the track are inspired by Davis’s post-Vietnam torment and the Jonestown, Guyana mass murder and are also in the tradition of Sun Ra, Funckadelic and Gil Scott-Heron, projecting a future and a peace and happiness for African Americans in space. It is important to note that Yaphet Kotto who played Parker did a lot of political work, whereas the main actor inside the alien suit was also African American actor Bolaji Badejo. Perhaps like casting as Darth Vader’s voice James Earl Jones, there was a slight undercurrent of racism in the choice? Let’s hope it really was because he was tall and skinny.

In the take-off sequence there is a sample from the movie Aliens which is a special dedication and joke to my friend Nick (“In the pipe, five by five”). It might also be odd for many to see Queen’s name in the track list since they are hardly ambient, but there are some interesting synthesizer moments on their soundtrack to the 1980 film Flash Gordon. Apparently the film was a bomb at the time, but to me and my sisters back then it was one of our favourite films and was always on rotation during summer holidays. I personally think that, despite the obviously racist (anti-Asian) undertones (that derive from the original comic book) and the light and hammy comic book feel, it stands the test of time. The set design and ambience of the palace of Mongo is superb, Max Von Sydow is perfect as always, whereas the Italian actress Ornella Muti, who is made impressively to look part Asian and exotic, is eternally sexy. Importantly, this part of the mix also changes the tone to something lighter that makes the dark sequences seem worse and highlighting again the fall from grace necessary for tragedy.

The mix was made in Audition as always with a lot of micro edits, samples and often up to four tracks playing at once. This explains the crowded track list with 42 tracks plus samples for a mix of only 68 minutes or so. Some tracks come in and out for several minutes, whereas others play out completely so you there is a lot of overlap at times. It was easily the hardest mix I ever made with many, many final versions and even now there are some imperfections I would like to address in future versions. In particular, the last sequence with Polar Inertia was very difficult as I have no real way to beat match, so Puce Mary layered on top of Polar Inertia was hard to get to work and it may not be perfect and drag out too long for some (apologies). In any case, I tried to add as much dynamic tension as I could, but Audition kept red lining, so what you hear is at the limit of noise levels. This isn’t supposed to be a techno mix anyway, the beats are more for urgency and momentum than dancing. It was nice to “play” the ambient sounds from the movie over the top. It is amazing how much like straight noise music they sound out of the visual context. Again, if only the system could have taken a bit more noise as I would have loved to floor it a bit more. It is always nice to be able to combine unusual genres or periods together. For example, the Canadian group Lightdreams’s track “Voiceless in Space” from their sole self-released 1981 folk rock album “Islands in Space” (found by trawling through Wah Wah Records downtown), the Orb, Queen, Dr Dre, a barely audible Boney M, dub techno and more.

There is a lot of dynamic range so I recommend listening to it in one hit in a dark, quiet place.

Dr Dre
Lolo (Intro) feat. Xzibit & Tray-Dee
Death Row Records
Alfred Newman
20th Century Fox Theme
20th Century Fox records
Stephan Mathieu
Jerry Goldsmith
Alien – Main title
20th Century Fox records / Intrada
1979 / 2007
Kevin Drumm
Hospital Productions
Northern Electronics
Silent Servant
A path eternal
Hospital Productions
Three segments
Mental Disorder
Kareem, Ligeia
The Borromeos Arrival
Global Communication
Origo / Biophon
1994 / 2016
ASC and Sam KDC
Block 4
Global Communication
Voiceless voice
Got Kinda Lost Records
1981 / 2016
Count Backwards (Marcel Dettmann Vocal Edit)
Ninja Tune
The Orb
Earth (Gaia) / Supernova At The End Of The Universe
Big Life
Earthen Sea
Days are getting shorter
Lovers Rock
In the space capsule (lover’s theme)
Liquid intentions
Space Age
Experimental Audio Research (EAR)
Space Age
Copper I
Stephan Mathieu
Stasis 5 (Ripley’s dream)
The Mondrian Part II
Hospital Productions
Body Sculptures
Breath of wind sows the seed
Posh Isolation
Joel Vandroogenbroeck
Galaxy recall
Coloursound Library / Aguirre
1980 / 2015
Jeff Mills
Flickering Alderbaran #3
Bubble Metropolis
Underground Resistance
Richard Davis
Methane Sea (Prelude)
Deep Sea / Spanish Mission
1978 / 2016
Asphalt Layer
Inside their minds
Israel Vines
Repose in dub
Eye Teeth
AMP Studio
Slip two
AMP Base
Roger 23
L o W Reshape
Ilian Tape
Ostgut Ton
Wa Wu We
Kontra Musik
Puce Mary
The Spiral
Posh Isolation
Stroboscopic Artefacts
Puce Mary
Slow agony of a dying orgasm
Posh Isolation
Polar Inertia
Major Axis
Dement3d Records
Rafael Anton Irisarri
Fear and Trembling
Hover over
Frozen Border
Kevin Drumm
We all get it in the end
Hospital Productions

Features additional samples from:
Alien movie (1979)
Aliens movie (1986)
Lifeforce movie (1985)
Battelstar Galactica movie (1978)
Boney M - Night flight to Venus (1978)
Spiritualized - Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space (1987)