As I wrote in my previous post, my introduction to ambient music wasn’t via ambient music directly, but rather through a variety of other sources. This nascent series isn’t intended to be chronological (from an autobiographical point of view). I’ll attempt some organization, but we’ll see. For this entry, I’ll begin with what I think may be my “patient zero,” at least as much as my memory is concerned: Smashing Pumpkins.
About three years ago I briefly wrote about SP as being a musical “primary source” of mine. Among the band’s many musical layers and nuances is the use of sonic ambience. Although it’s not a crutch, Billy Corgan‘s (and James Iha’s, etc. – but, primarily for studio recordings, Billy’s) guitar is often made many through overdubbing. Beyond that, the group has always featured two guitarists live (2+ via studio magic), and the added chordal layer is part of what gives the band’s music such sonic weight. Aside from weight, the additional guitar allows for layering in both the foreground and background. This is quite prevalent throughout Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and album that left a profound impression on me. (After all, I was 12 when it was released and I first heard it.) The album is mammoth in scope and sonic breadth – alternately intimate and epic. Some songs include layers that I would now consider to be ambient-friendly, though at the time it wasn’t in my vocabulary. One example is the lush and often soaring layers atop the core band in “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans.” The song itself is good enough, but that layer greatly enhances the sonic depth and I’ve always been very attracted to it. Of course, such layering is different from the symphony orchestra employed in “Tonight, Tonight” (bravo Chicago Symphony Orchestra!), as the orchestra plays defined parts and lines. “Porcelina,” on the other hand, includes additional layers meant to simply add sonic presence and/or weight. If you eliminate the core song – vocals, rhythm & solo guitars, bass, drums – the remaining layers would themselves, to me, provide an enjoyable listening experience. While I may not have been able to precisely put my finger on it as a preteen, I know that part of the attraction to this song has always been my wanting to listen to and enjoy that layer in a vacuum.
Another SP song to do this, released a year later, is “Set the Ray to Jerry” from 1996’s MCIS b-side box set The Aeroplane Flies High. “Jerry” is nowhere near as grandiose as “Porcelina.” It’s a chill, contemplative, midtempo number – one of the band’s hidden gems. (The box set, originally printed as a limited edition, has now been reissued and I encourage SP fans without it to correct themselves.) The song begins with a quiet arpeggiated ostinato before the full band enters, and it remains throughout most of the song. And while its nowhere near the piece’s focus, like “Porcelina,” it dramatically improves the listening experience. Towards the end of the song, additional soaring-but-subtle guitar lines are added to drive – or, in this case, coast – things to a close.
There are many other examples from the entire Pumpkins catalogue from which to choose, but these are early examples that stuck out to me at the time, especially considering that Mellon Collie was the first full SP album I dug deep into. But many other SP songs can be argued to have either ambient-, space-, or drone-/noise-friendly qualities. Some are: the outro in “For Martha” (…and much of the rest of the drum machine-laden Adore), “Soma,” “Glissandra,” “Owata,” “Silverfuck” from Earphoria (utilizing pure noise in a live rock performance blew my early adolescent mind), the 23-minute Cage-ian “Pistachio Medley,” and much of MACHINA: The Machines of God, including the fabulous outro of “This Time.” And of course there’s the seemingly ubiquitous EBow…
Beyond the Smashing Pumpkins, Billy let these tendencies run rampant as well. An easy go-to would be his digital-heavy solo effort TheFutureEmbrace, which I described here. Also, Zwan, with its lineup featuring three guitarist, offered a richer sonic palette live than the Smashing Pumpkins, particularly on the epic “Mary, Star of the Sea.” In fact, droning nature of that song’s intro is something that, even now, my mind quickly goes to when in an ambient mood.
Interestingly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t that about a year ago Matt and I briefly discussed Robert Fripp, after which he sent me a video clip of him performing live. (A big name in ambient and non-ambient music, of course.) I don’t recall what it was specifically, but it instantly reminded me of Billy Corgan. I don’t know how much Fripp influenced Corgan specifically, but it’s interesting to somewhat reverse-engineer that lineage now, even if I’m largely speculating. (I know Billy likes David Bowie, but I’m unsure of King Crimson or Fripp alone.) And it was less than two months ago that I purchased Travis & Fripp’s Thread, an ambient album featuring guitar and sax/flute. Talk about coming full circle…
VIDEO: “Set the Ray to Jerry” live at Detroit’s Fox Theater 10.07.07. (I was there and pleasantly surprised that they played this one…)
(Photo: Smashing Pumpkins logo)