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Ambient techno/trance, spacemusic, environmental
50 Years Of Sunshine (1993, Silent)
From Here To Tranquility vol. 1 (1993, Silent)
From Here To Tranquility vol. 2 (1993, Silent)
Unidentified Floating Ambience (1994, Silent)
From Here To Tranquility vol. 3 (1994, Silent)
From Here To Tranquility vol. 5 (1996, Silent)
Oscillations aka From Here To Tranquility vol. 6 (1998, Halcyon Recordings)
Did ambient techno have a golden age, and was it the early-to-mid 90's? Tricky questions both. If you understand ambient techno in a broad sense to include the many shades of trance I'd say there has been a creative resurgence in the 21st century with the diverse and exotic downtempo coming from the global psy-trance scene. If you regard the term more narrowly, however, then those heady days may certainly seem idyllic, particularly if you feel alienated by the cold digital-glitch aesthetic of artists who now make make the music tagged ambient techno.
The birth of ambient techno
Golden age or not, there is no denying that the first wave of experimental chill music to emerge from the afterglow of early rave, techno and acid house in the early 90's did have a special warmth and sense of wide-eyed wonder. Silent Records captured this spirit beautifully and listening now to the best music from that era is to witness the thrill of discovery. The music was inspired by many things: advances in digital and studio technology, a shrinking global village, the optimism of rave and (ahem) consumption of assorted mind-expanding substances. Some of it sounds naive or technologically dated today - indeed Silent Records released its own fair share of rubbish - but the best examples still rank among the finest ambient chillout music.
The San Francisco-based Silent grew from the same post-rave creative ferment which across the Atlantic was fueling the likes of the classic Artificial Intelligence series from Warp Records, ambient label Fax Records, the wonderful Chill Out Or Die series from dance label Rising High, and Instinct Records on the U.S. East coast. Silent's best releases often reflect the label's West Coast origins and San Francisco's history of alternative culture, with themes ranging across psychedelia, space travel, consciousness expansion, spiritual ecology and renderings of imaginary and alien worlds.
Founded in 1986 by experimental musician Kim Cascone (who became best known via his Heavenly Music Corporation pseudonym), Silent Records began life as an old-school ambient label releasing darkish, abstract and industrial sounds including several of Cascone's own projects and collaborations.
By the turn of the decade, however, underground electronica in America and Europe was changing dramatically. This was reflected in the demos Cascone was receiving of the strange and beautiful new sounds some were calling techno. Cascone was turned on to the idea of ambience as something transcendent and he soon broadened the label's scope. Silent's peak years then followed, fed in part by the chill rooms of San Francisco's rave scene and the creative communities that gravitated towards it, both locals and like-minded musicians from around the world. By the time of its demise in 1998 the main label had issued around 70 releases (plus nearly 100 more on various sub-labels covering club music, dark industrial and other experimental electronica).
From Here To Tranquility
Silent's main compilation album series was From Here To Tranquility. It totals five outstanding volumes and just one ordinary one (Volume 4 from 1995). Among these is Oscillations, the unofficial sixth volume released by fan Michael Halcyon on his own label after Silent had closed down. In every other respect it belongs with the Tranquility series and features many Silent artists, so it is included here.
These varied, adventurous and layered ambient excursions are sometimes busy and percussive, sometimes beatless; at times quite minimal, at others drenched in ethereal atmospheres and rich synthetic harmonies. The technology inherent in the creation of those tracks which feature percussion (most obviously the sound of Roland 909 drum machines) may today sound a tad primitive. But as has always been the case since the development of the synthesiser, talent, ideas and passion tend to transcend any technological limitations.
From Here To Tranquility Vol. 1 sets the standard and is notable for lots of creative improvising based around single drones. Tracks by Spacetime Continuum and Heavenly Music Corporation, for example, use long tonal arcs that rise and fall beneath layers of arpeggios, slowly morphing, building and spiraling ever deeper into the surrounding space. Spice Barons "Spice Of God" samples dialogue from David Lynch's Dune and creates an extraordinary mystical effect with simple major-minor chord changes. A few abstract moments like doom-laden percussive tracks or a twisted piece of dub provide an effective contrast with the surrounding prettiness, a light-and-shade approach that is repeated on all subsequent volumes in the series.
By the time of Volume 2 artists from outside the USA are making significant contributions; Pelican Daughters and Transcendental Anarchists (both from Australia) and the always quirky Legion Of Green Men (Canada). Volume 5 is Cascone's personal favourite and contains Makyo's towering Vedic epic "Devabandha", an example of the exotic ambient dub style which to this day remains passionately championed by Waveform Records. Oscillations is technically not a Silent release but is part of the same family, a beautifully judged mix of new music from Silent artists such as Transcendental Anarchists and Heavenly Music Corp with old-school ambient names like Richard Bone and Vidna Obmana.
Several other Silent collections also rate essential listening. Unidentified Floating Ambience contains almost no percussion and emphasises rich, ethereal drones and smooth cascading sounds ala The Orb at its spaciest, with occasional bubbling Roland 303 acid lines rising to the surface. Consisting entirely of music co-composed by Cascone and his prolific associate Don Falcone under various pseudonyms, this album is perhaps the most beautiful and euphoric Silent compilation of all.
Completely different is 50 Years Of Sunshine, the label's strangest various-artists collection and one the more original concepts to come from an independent label of any era. This double CD celebrates the 50th anniversary of the discovery of LSD, kicking off with a specially recorded four-minute introduction by ye olde acid guru Timothy Leary. It's a remarkable and often outrageously surreal collection of techno in the Silent mould alongside spacey prog rock with swirling guitars (Closedown), mystical folksy pop (Kykean), edgy industrial synthpop (XKP) and indescribably bizarre moments like "Beetle Crawls Across My Back" which is more sound collage than music. Usually weird and downright menacing at times, 50 Years Of Sunshine is a completely involving mix of songs and instrumentals but I wouldn't recommend approaching it in anything other than a completely sober state of mind.
End of an era
Silent sadly folded in 1998.
The end was precipitated in 1996 with a crippling blow dealt by a new distributor which changed ownership and then promptly forgot about a deal to distribute Silent releases to the big music retailers. At this crucial juncture Silent suddenly found itself with a huge quantity of returned stock that had been manufactured for this planned expansion. Kim Cascone considered dissolving the label so that he could further pursue his interests in the industrial and avant-garde computer music. As it turned out, he sold the business to a willing colleague who took the label in a more dub, trip hop and drum 'n' bass direction over the following two years but ultimately to no avail.
Cascone sensed that a segment of Silent's market was moving on anyway. As he told AmbientTrance e-zine in a 1998 interview: "The biggest problem for ambient music was that it had been reborn as a sub-genre of techno and hence experienced a short life cycle due to it riding the back of dance music culture...[and] because this music wasn't tailored for the dancefloor the economic base wasn't there to support it". These same conditions contributed to the demise of America's other significant ambient techno/trance label of the era Instinct Ambient, which abruptly shifted to nu-jazz and dub shortly before being terminated altogether by it's parent label.
With the label now defunct you'll have fun finding the releases but there is some truly fantastic music to be uncovered if you're determined. Beyond the compilations look out for any artist albums on Silent by Heavenly Music Corporation, Spice Barons, Makyo and 23 Degrees among others. A few albums have been re-issued on other labels since Silent's demise; otherwise check sites like Discogs and Amazon.com's Sellers Marketplace where you'll find some original Silent stock selling at quite reasonable prices. Filesharing networks are another good source - sometimes the only source - for Silent material.