“IT’S TIME to lie down and be counted”: so goes Mixmaster Morris’s brilliant call to very relaxed arms for the 90s’ British ambient scene.
It was a manifesto banner that he jointly flew with The Orb’s Alex Paterson in that era, 1991-95, when the appetite for strange interweavings of found sound, Krautrock washes, environment recordings, world music influences, dub, even Steve Hillage, fused into a melting pot of psychedelic bliss; a period when the chillout room was the creative forefront of thinking in the dance sphere. Anyone else recall nights like Manchester’s great ‘Ambidextrous’?
But Morris Gould’s journey towards ambient greatness would be a winding one. Brighton-born, Lincolnshire-raised, Somerset and London-educated, the future mixmaster’s first recorded dabblings came off the back of the punk explosion: he was in The Ripchords who, as a listen to “Peace Artist” from their sole 7” shows, were at the ramshackle and home-cooked end of the punk rock spectrum. They got backing from John Peel but as with so many bands that fired out like shrapnel from that first detonation, a sole single release would be their legacy.
After uni, he began DJing on a London pirate station with his Mongolian Hip Hop Show, also handily coming by his Mixmaster Morris epithet at that time. Now, at that time I was down in rural Cornwall, but I’d absolutely love to know what kinda sets he was throwing down back then; what he was beginning to weave to make the music that would begin to emerge off the back of the second summer of love in ‘88. Electro cut with Ash Ra Tempel, perhaps? Pierre Henry meets Grandmaster Flash meets Eno?
His first release as The Irresistible Force came in that year, with the spacious, spoken-word sampling 12”, “I Want To” / “Guns”. It’s a real curate’s egg of a track to 21st-century ears: some of those early acid sonic textures are fully present and correct, such as that synth horn sound, the scratching, the bottom end burbling in sequencers; but the sampling, stripped-back gunfire and even what we’d now call broken-beat elements, percussively, are looking somewhere else; somewhere quite distant, perhaps, but sights firmly set on a destination. It’s a really odd tune in that really, it’s perhaps too interested in the playfulness and possibilities of the samples to really work as a rave tune; it loses its focus on the floor as it plays with all the other things it might decide to be.
Morris really began to cut his teeth in his role as tour DJ with Scots psychonauts The Shamen – famous perhaps for Es being good, but who had been a quite seditious psychedelic guitar band before the arrival of ecstasy as a culture as well as a drug.
He recalled what a baptism of fire that had been in a 2014 interview for Music Radar: “I’d never seen a band that took drugs as seriously as them. I actually got disciplined for not taking enough, and that’s never happened before.” A chillout was probably a good idea.
All the building blocks are properly in place three years later, with the two-mix 12” “Space Is The Place”, borrowing its title insouciantly from Sun Ra: it’s got groove in spades, big, discorporeal voice samples fed through reverb, lifted from sci-fi films and other such intergalactic doings (and as Public Service Broadcasting showed us with 2015’s The Race For The Space, with crackers such as “Go!”, space and space-age vocal sampling is always, always, always a total winner). It unfolds at a leisurely, magisterial pace – content in its lily garden.
The A is cohesive, bleepy, layered, trippy, entirely stuffed with peaking 1am brilliance; but it’s the flip, the ambient mix, which you can hear below, where the gold is.
Light-touch percussion keeps a very gentle sense of propulsion evident; big, wide, synth washes drape like soothing silk over the mid-ground; there’s rising bell motifs, phasing sequencer chattering, a little dubby bass, disciplined and solid, to anchor your feet to while your body and mind are busy elsewhere.
There’s so many layers of sound, all shifting and flowing past one another … you’re adrift, free, and there’s moments when you can entirely conceive that this musical river may never end, it will keep shifting and tickling your senses and bewitching you sonically; and that that also may just be a very fine thing to occur.
Which is kind of entirely the point. By this time, Morris had evolved something of a brilliant other string as probably the country’s, if not the world’s. go-to ambient mix … well, master. He’d been quick out of the blocks with his compilation for CND, Give Peace a Dance 2: The Ambient Collection, and the excellent, genre-defining and expanding Chillout or Die mix series for his Rising High Records home.
He was finally picked up by the majors for The Morning After, which drew together Harold Budd and Hector Zazou, Plaid, Photek and others for EMI’s dance imprint Positiva in 1997.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves chronologically here. The Irresistible Force’s debut full-length slide into bliss was ’92’s Flying High, and a very pretty thing it is too: unashamed to go for the full meditative voice sample, allowing the whole spacious palette of rise and fall, tone sweep, space-redolent swoop as much time as it likes to flower. Actually, let’s set time aside in our investigations of The Irresistible Force; that would really help. It’s all different in there.
My caveat with regards to Flying High?: to our perhaps jaded 2020 ears, it sounds quite bare in places. We forget, I think, just how layered and complex music has become; how many channels and tracks of lord-knows-what space and granularity and micro-percussion sit deep within the whole. We’re sonically spoilt these days.
The hologram cover-sporting Global Chillage followed in 94, featuring that banner line, ‘It’s time to lie down and be counted’, on the rear sleeve; it’s lovely too, but let’s not delay, let’s get stuck in to the real mastermix meisterwerk, his sole full-length release for Ninja Tune, 1997’s It’s Tomorrow Already. You’ll find a Spotify embed down bottom to aid you in your journey.
….and why this one, you ask? Well, this: everything from the previous two is present and correct, but even more so. There’s sampled vocal hooks adrift in the technicolor ether, refracted back through psychoactive substances and reverb and echo, and they’re judiciously well chosen, especially on the two rather ace singles which Ninja lifted for the cream of beats-splicers to have a crack at remixing (DJ Food, Fila Brazillia and Amon Tobin for “Nepalese Bliss”; Jimpster, Plaid, Fila Brazillia and Frédéric Galliano for “Fish Dances” – the CD single of this one was fully album length, at about 58 minutes).
There’s more layers of cyclical retro synth bleep and squelch and burp and oh, every onamatopoeic inversion you can find, which gradually interweave and slowly, slowly, politely make way for each other, giving every element a little time to foreground and have a tug at your occipital cortex; the beats, it being Ninja, are more robust, but skipping, light, jazzy, unhurried even where they are comparatively uptempo. There’s strings that interject in sweeps; and, if you’re lucky enough to possess a vinyl pressing (more of which later), it’s actually really, hugely, frickin’ loud. The dub element is up to the max; “Nepalese Bliss”, in particular, has proper skeleton-shuddering boom.
It’s gently political, as per Morris’s aphorism, quoted at the top: to chill out, to step back, to reject the headlong consumerist rush – but his thesis is being showed, not told. Opener “Power” cycles on a two-chord pseudo-organ tone, over which a distant voice gently intones at intervals, “Nobody should have that much power”. Highly-tuned snares rimshot, oceans of sound swirl.
There’s also real humour – and I think that’s something that’s really missing out there in modern postrock/ambient/post-classical/drone.
Take the second track, “The Lie-In King”, which announces itself in the final lapping wave on the shores of “Power”. It begins with an oh-so British voice announcing: “At first hearing, it’s like listening to the wallpaper,” reflexively acknowledging the ambient cliche.
In this, it sits along the lip-burbling of The Orb’s “Perpetual Dawn”; the ‘Hello, I’m rags’, Woody Allen’s The Sleeper-excerpting “Towers Of Dub”, also by Alex Paterson and co; the “long-haired layabouts should be in the bloody army!” of Orbital’s “Are We Here?”. “But it doesn’t get monotonous,” the same voice concludes at the end of “Fish Dances”, stepping back out a few tracks down the line.
It might be a very British thing; but it’s an acknowledgement, I think, that ambience and bliss and relaxation and really losing yourself in music can also be very much intertwined with joy and rapture and absurdity and silliness; fun, in short.
And maybe that just goes a little bit astray in the modern, rarified world of the Erased Tapes stable and A Winged Victory For the Sullen, et cetera. Don’t get me wrong: these artists are potent and powerful and precise, layered and astonishingly moving; but there’s maybe something just a little detached, a little distanced there that just pauses what is incredible beauty on the curated side of heart-stopping. A smile, some laughter, can also be a very powerful release in music.
It’s also deeply trippy, multi-layered, funny as it’s busy about being deadly serious in its intent to bliss and feed your head; it’s upfront and loud and spacious and great. It’s got one foot firmly in the excitement of cruising the provincial ring roads on the way to the rave, looking for the balloons tied to a phonebox. It’s wide-eyed, open-minded, excited about itself.
And in that, m’lud, I conclude that It’s Tomorrow Already might just be the final crest of the wave of a certain stripe of very British ambient.
Ninja Tune carefully curate a certain amount of classic back catalogue on vinyl: it’s very much still possible to pop over to their shop and pick up current pressings of label highpoints by the likes of The Cinematic Orchestra, Amon Tobin, Kid Koala, Skalpel and the like. Alas, a decent-nick vinyl pressing of It’s Tomorrow Already will currently set you back about £30ish, plus shipping from abroad; £40, domestically.
Ninja, if you’re reading, do the world of recumbent musical digestion a favour and repress It’s Tomorrow Already, already. It’s an absolute gem. We wish to lie down and be counted, too.