Twenty years ago, critics my age might boast about when they first bought a Walkman. Try to imagine the wonder of that – the wonder, the magic, of carrying your own personal background music outside the household and the car. After Ian Craig Marsh and Martin Ware had been booted out of the Human League, they tried to tap into that magic with a mini LP (for that was the Walkman’s predecessor) of instrumentals, Music for Stowaways. The idea was to enhance the experience of the mundane, to enrich it with the loaded semantics of movie soundtracks.
In lieu of cassette players, critics of my generation recall with relish the rise of the MP3 player, and especially the iPod. I first spotted earbuds on my peers back in high school, often at times when such delinquents should have been listening to someone else. And in those cases, when brash and strained guitar riffs spilled from their ears, I thought of these iPods as no more than distractions, diverting attention away from the environs rather than enhancing their ambience.
Obviously, though, I was wrong. Portable music players have never lost the magic that injects semantics into atmosphere – the listener only needs the proper spell book. Or reel of film. Or, in the case of trio MJ Guider’s debut album, a reel of scorched film that fills the theatre with bruised light and a fog-like hush.
To listen to Positive Systems is to submerse yourself in a city of mist. Drones swirl and shine, like luminous vapor; bass lines tremble through the shadowy floor; vocalist Melissa Guion sings from the starry rafters of the cosmos’ cathedral. Certainly, instruments of plastic and chrome create these sounds – but so much void hangs between wavelengths, that the traveller can easily forget their earthly origins. Ordinary genre tags may spring to mind – post-punk, dreampop, ambient – but no single one captures the overwhelming dusk that lingers throughout. The drooping sunset glow of 'Surfacing First' and 'Former Future Begins' evoke more the credit roll lull of Ulver than the bliss of Cocteau Twins.
Now, cities of mist on parallel planes of existence being what they are, travellers can easily lose their way among the haze. The morning fog shapes of songs like 'Their Voices Clear Now', 'Fiction Control' and 'White Alastian' melt into one vivid daydream. Distinct shapes do emerge, though – the imposing gates, 'Lit Negative'; the shuddering trail, 'Triple Black'; the ocean shore, 'Former Future Brings'.
But one landmark, 'Evencycle', towers over the rest: ten-minutes-long, the velveteen drone that curls like a blanket ‘round other songs unfurls to its full length. I’m reminded of the onyx obelisk that Plastikman showcased at his gigs two years ago, alongside the space station techno of EX. There, as here, all complexity and nuance dissolves into one harmonious pulse – the sum seems so simple, as natural as a breath, even though the plotting of patterns could have taken hours or days. This is the magic of ambience at its strongest, where real environs expand into the city of mist and shine even brighter than before.
Though 'Evenclea' towers the highest over the traveller/listener, the rest of Precious Systems remains a world worth sinking into. Words do flicker and fade, and the hazy landscape only extends so far. But MJ Guider do succeed at the sort of ambience that Marsh and Ware strived for, the type that enriches our day-to-day transit instead of pulling us away from it. This is music for epiphanies, not distractions.
7Lee Adcock's Score