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Ambient/exotic dub, ethno-ambient, trip hop, psychedelic
One A.D. - Ambient Dub vol 1 (1994, Waveform)
Three A.D. - Ambient Dub vol 3 (1996, Waveform)
Frosty (1996, Waveform)
Slumberland (1997, Waveform)
Voodoo Roux (2001, Waveform)
Voodoo Roux Deux (2002, Waveform)
Smooth Chill: The Radio Singles (2005, Waveform)
Waveform Transmissions vol 1 (2008, Waveform)
Waveform Transmissions vol 2 (2009, Waveform)
Waveform Transmissions vol 3 (2010, Waveform)
Reviewed by Mike G
Waveform Records founder is ambient icon DJ Forest, host of the long-running American public radio show Musical Starstreams. His amazing label is the surviving offspring of now defunct UK label Beyond Records which in the early 90's pioneered an exotic strain of downtempo called ambient dub.
The rise of ambient dub
Although the product of the same new-generation music technology that figured in the rise of house, trance and techno music, ambient dub's relation to clubland is only marginal. Much of Waveform's output is instead anchored in slow, seductive bassy grooves influenced by the studio techniques of 70s' Jamaican reggae producers like King Tubby and Lee Perry. Relaxed and spacious with deep basslines and gently hypnotic loops, dub reinvents the idea of trance music by stretching out the basic components of a track using echo, reverb and delay effects.
That said, Waveform's brand of downtempo exotica has taken dub a long way from where it started. This is richly coloured and often deeply psychedelic music, drawing on trance, techno, world fusion, science fiction literature and film soundtracks. The generally glowing, positive vibe harks back to Beyond founder Mike Barnett's original aim to offer an alternative to what he winningly described as "the dark miserablism of an industrial, isolationist agenda". The reggae link is rarely obvious, something I pointed out to Forest in an 1997 interview. "We're not a reggae label. Ambient dub is merely a descriptive phrase to let listeners know that it isn't minimal wallpaper or heavy industrial techno", he says. "We try to be in the middle of those extremes for our albums, so they necessarily fall into a groove, often dubby." The influence of Jamaica, then, is more one of studio technique than composition even if it does remain cloaked in a colourful haze of familar-smelling smoke.
Waveform in the 90's
The One A.D. and Three A.D. compilations from the A.D. series remain superb summaries of the Waveform ethos, featuring both artists who've released full-length albums on the label and those who've contributed occasional tracks. Most are UK or European, with Higher Intelligence Agency, Banco De Gaia and Coldcut the most well known. Among the many highpoints on the first volume there is one track that still stands out above all others: the breathtaking "Black Mountain mix" of Banco De Gaia's "Shanti". A simple progression of two minor chords with a wailing Mid-Eastern vocal, deep bass and richly detailed atmospherics, it's one of the most gorgeous, haunting, rapturous pieces of rhythmic ambient ever made (note: the inferior original mix also appears on one of Banco de Gaia's own albums).
The Frosty compilation comes with extra flavourings courtesy of trip-hop and acid jazz: lots of vibraphone, wispy vocal bits and hypnotic breakbeats. Those clockwork snare/bass hip-hop drum loops come to the fore on Howie B's splendid "Birth", a track embellished with jittery strings that give it a weird cinematic feel. There are plenty of "live" sounding instruments on Frosty but this is still unquestionably electronic music, with the artists using hip-hop style sampling and various other studio techniques to shape their dreamy, expansive soundtracks.
Different again is the muted sounds of Slumberland. It's often exquisitely beautiful, designed to evoke a state that is equal parts dreaming, sleeping and being awake. It may well achieve that, being far less rhythmically instant than the other compilations listed above. "Generic Actress" by Lucia Hwong has a distinctive oriental sense of stillness, it's pristine synthetic surface gently rippling with what sounds like plucked notes from a Japanese kantong and a bouncing marble being dropped on the string of a hammer dulcimer. "We Rest" by Witchcraft is a song of sorts, sung through a vocoder while synthetic waves and winds swirl around its slowly throbbing pulse.
21st century exotica
In the 2000's and beyond Waveform's output has remained generally progressive, melodic and stimulating. It's to Forest's enormous credit that Waveform escaped Beyond Records' shadow long ago and is continuing to thrive; many compilations released post-2000 are among the label's very best.
Voodoo Roux and Voodoo Roux Deux are outstanding. Both are less rooted in dub than the A.D. series, reaching into the soundworlds of techy lounge and slow-motion electro. German duo Deep Dive Corp are a stunning find, featured on both albums. "Imagination" sounds like chase music for a movie set in some exotic, futuristic cityscape but without any reliance on obvious hi-tech sounds or effects. Also from Deep Dive Corp is "Relaxer", a minimal, floating lounge groove with a subtle psychedelic edge, spiced with voice samples that dip into your consciousness with beguiling lines like "...wave upon wave carried me over, beyond the peripheries of hope and fear". Equally fine are the contributions by X.I.S. and Bjorn Fogelberg on Voodoo Roux Deux, two tracks with their own distinct downtempo takes on the sounds of trance and electro meshed with lush keys and gliding euphoric strings.
Also excellent are the more recent Waveform Transmissions volumes 1-3. These albums seem to pick up where the best of the A.D. series left off, breathing new life into the label's bedrock sound with some current flavours from the psy-trance scene.
Finally, there's Smooth Chill: The Radio Singles. Reading the insert notes makes you realise what a huge and wonderful entity public radio is in the United States. This 2005 release contains 11 tracks "that have got the biggest audience response" from airplay on nearly 200 FM public radio stations across the country. There's some real gems including the early classics "Autumn Leaves" by Coldcut and "The Cut" by Sounds From The Ground alongside more recent fare. It's not a bad introduction to the label at all.
All up, Waveform's catalogue of some 50 releases to date also includes some brilliant individual artist albums. If you enjoy the sounds on any of the above compilations then also check out solo releases by Sounds From The Ground, Loop Guru, Pitch Black, Zero One, Higher Intelligence Agency and Phuture Primitive.