Brian Grainger – The Ambient Tapes

Rain Records (rain 012), 2005

With hundreds of releases (literally) to his credit since 1997, Brian Grainger is one incredibly prolific recording artist. Best known for his IDM/ambient project Milieu, as well as his Milieu Music label and Second Sun Recordings (run with David Tagg), Grainger has also launched over one hundred releases under his own name. The first of these is The Ambient Tapes, a four-track album of experimental and melancholic analog drones that provides the briefest of glimpses into an artist who has had a hand in a truly titanic number of collaborative and standalone releases.

With such a vast discography to his credit, one may very well assume that not every release reaches the same level of inspiration. While clearly driven to produce as much material as he apparently can, Grainger does show a good level of talent on The Ambient Tapes. While the release itself doesn’t contain much variety in terms of concept or structure, it does succeed at providing a pleasing and well-formed series of lengthy, slowly moving, warmly tinted drones that fall somewhere between calming and haunting.

The four tracks are named for specific dates, which hints at intrigue: are these the actual dates Grainger produced them, or are they excerpts from some incomplete narrative, leaving us to fill in the blanks and figure out the puzzle in true Nick Bantock style? Unfortunately, I assume the former, but Grainger isn’t telling; perhaps these are tracks lifted from some unknown location, set at certain times.

“November 21st Tape Two” is the iconic centerpiece of The Ambient Tapes. Over its thirty-minute playing time, the calming and simplistic layered drones slide slowly into one another, creating an organic sense of gradual motion and atmosphere. The drones don’t vary much, and there’s little to no additional samples, but the way in which Grainger manipulates and moves his endlessly drifting minimalism is more appealing than it should be. The tone doesn’t waver, but sticks unobtrusively to a palette that fits a wide range of moods: it can be isolationist, beautiful, depressing, or a highly effective sleep aid, depending on what you feel, and how much you want to lose yourself in it. The track doesn’t really call to any kind of detailed identity or concept; it just floats along, waiting for you to give it meaning and substance. There’s an odd, tinnitus-like whistle at the track’s closing moments, providing something bordering on progression, but it really takes its time arriving.

Two of the remaining three tracks use the exact same method; it’s just that the pitch and meshing of the drones are slightly different. It’s baffling how well The Ambient Tapes dips into your listening brain in spite of how little actually happens over its hour-plus length; it must tap into some primal urge to lose oneself in a bath of repetitive and soothing ambiance. You’ll hear rare samples of speech, which stick out like moldering gravestones, but with one exception, these islands are a rare thing to encounter in Grainger’s peaceful ocean of muted light.

This exception is “September 22nd Tape Three,” which breaks things up with pulses of distorted noise, muffled orchestral dabblings, and pitched mumblings of unintelligible speech. Grainger drinks a deep draught of darkness here, and it’s quite a change of pace, given the floaty tendencies of the bulk of The Ambient Tapes. It’s here that the fiction becomes a stronger possibility, and the way you’re drawn in is much different; it’s the unexpected and the mysterious now, as you strain to interpret the thickly reverbed voices and assign meaning to whatever you can. From my perspective, I’d like an entire album in this mold; Grainger is a skilled ambient tactician here, and I’d be most intrigued in his expanding on the themes explored on this most thrilling of tracks.

If you get the idea that Grainger is putting out every single bit of work he’s ever done, I wouldn’t blame you. The Ambient Tapes seems random, unfinished, and without identity despite the odd attraction of its half-dreamy, half-nightmarish mood. Grainger may have more focused releases scattered throughout his astounding catalog, but it may take some time to uncover them. There is some interesting content here, and during its lengthy soporific stretches, The Ambient Tapes is more magnetic than it has a right to be.

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