Astral Industries are something of an enigma. In 2014 they announced themselves to the world by releasing an LP by none other than Deepchord, ‘Lanterns’, which for my money is the best thing Modell has made in a number of years. ‘Lanterns’ was released on a vivid and luscious red and blue vinyl double pack and immediately sold out, now changing hands for upwards of £100 on Discogs last time I checked. The artwork for the release was something to behold as well: a kind of ridiculous, absurdist vision of anthropomorphised lanterns that could have originally visualised one of Stanislaw Lem or Jorge Luis Borges more mind-bending short stories. The artist in question, the immensely talented Theo Ellsworth, has since provided the artwork for three more Astral Industries releases: a wonderful live recording from noted German composer Wolfgang Voigt, two ‘reinterpretations’ of Peter Michael Hamel’s ‘Colours of Time’ LP by Voigt and Deepchord, and finally a reissue of a set of the ‘Original Recordings’ by a Dutch band called Chi. With regards the Chi release, the story is that Deepchord found a battered old cassette tape at the bottom of a bargain bin in a record store in Detroit, sent it to Astral Industries, who were so stunned by what they heard on it they immediately set about getting the necessary permissions to reissue it properly on vinyl. And now, for their fifth release, Astral Industries are putting out another remastered Chi record, this one called rather seductively ‘The Bamboo Recordings’.
To understand this release, you need to understand something of Chi. Founded in 1984, they released only one self-titled cassette in 1986, followed by the aforementioned ‘Original Recordings’ in 1996. And that was it. It was the latter which was found by Deepchord in a bargain bin, and to my knowledge the original 1986 cassette is rarer than blue steak. However, before the splitting of Chi sometime in the late 1980s, they were seemingly working on another album which ultimately never saw the light of day. It is this unfinished album that forms said ‘Bamboo Recordings’. It has been extensively remixed and remastered by one of the original members of Chi, one Hanyo Van Oosterom, and there are apparently a couple of brand new recordings on there too. The package presented to us in 2016 is therefore a little bit different from the original, yet it retains the overall aesthetic. Available now on a single 12″ with the standardly beautiful presentation and packaging from Astral and Ellsworth, it contains two uninterrupted slices of music, one on each side of the wax. And although these two tracks are uninterrupted, they are really continuous mixes featuring the tunes that would presumably have comprised the original album had Chi finished it. In other words, what we have here are an unknown number of individual tracks woven together and presented to us as two continuous 17minute long recordings. Which, to be honest, is properly intriguing and exciting. For some time now I’ve been in reviewing exile, but the prospect of listening to and writing about this one was enough to bring me crawling out of the woodwork.
Now, when doing what in crime dramas they call ‘background checks’ on this LP, I must admit I did something I wouldn’t usually do. Given that I’m reviewing it relatively late, a lot of the websites, distributors, and blogs I occasionally lurk on had already published reviews of the ‘Bamboo Recordings’, and I couldn’t resist a little peek. Typically this is bad: it subconsciously skews your opinion on something before you’ve even listened to it. And the reviews for this so far haven’t half been glowing. Juno, the respected online record store, describe it as “a beautiful and endlessly atmospheric set with incredible depth”, and the smattering of other pieces I read on it were similarly impressed. Comparisons to Brian Eno, which given the pedestal that the great ambient conceptualiser occupies in my own mind will always be tenuous, were made on more than one review I looked at. The words ‘forgotten ambient pioneers’, or things to that effect, were written frequently when discussing Chi. Every review I clicked on seemed to be overwhelmingly positive, and I looked pretty hard to try and find a negative one. After a while, I was forced to conclude a negative review of this LP simply does not exist. Which, for the lowly amateur reviewer, presents an opening. What better way to create a bit of controversy around yourself than to go against the tide and shoot down ‘The Bamboo Recordings’ as a waste of wax? Declare all the other reviewers wrong and myself right? Wouldn’t that be the daring and opportunistically self-promotional thing to do?
Alas, I can’t, for having listened to this LP on loop for a little while there is really no conclusion to be reached other than that it’s fantastic. Both sides are a mixture of field recordings, chiming woodwind instruments of all kinds and kin, dense ambient soundscapes, tribal scatterings of lo-fi drums, and dollops and dollops of indescribable mysticisms, spiritual auras, and intangible emotions. They are sometimes intimidating, sometimes uplifting, but always intoxicating. There are parts which summon images of campfires and setting suns; parts which could accompany the immanent departure of a conquering army; parts which take sinister, more droning and industrial tones; and parts which are – yes – reminiscent of the genius of Eno. Immediately, after one listen even, I think I understood the decision to release this group of tunes as two continuous tracks. Yes you’re aware when a transition occurs but it’s more like the slow, unpinpointable transition between each the four seasons: you’re aware when the transition is in the process of taking place but can’t put your finger on exactly when the moment happens (if, indeed, that moment exists). Same thing here, and the result is a musical story that changes frequently but which still retains the overall narrative arc. It’s a heavenly thing to sit and listen to this in the dark, with some decent headphones, swaying involuntarily and enjoying the simultaneously relaxing and invigorating sounds it provides you.
It’s hard to pick favourites from such an offering, but I’m going to have a go anyway. ‘Part One’ begins slowly and contemplatively, and around the 3.30 minute mark it morphs gently into what you could crudely call ‘spa music’; the sort of blissful, relaxing, meditative tones that waft from all directions when you’re sitting in a sauna or steam room or having your back pressed gently from above by a pair of simultaneously soft and firm hands. It’s lovely. Around halfway through, though, ‘Part One’ then changes into a dusk; a slow, tribal drum pattern accompanying some increasingly ominous throbs and wobbles moves gradually into the foreground and immediately you’re out of the spa, drying off and gazing at a horizon made to dance and glimmer by the continuously burning embers of a campfire. There’s an unmistakable ‘non-Western’ influence throughout; I would call it ‘Eastern’ or ‘Oriental’ if I didn’t have Edward Said’s book Orientalism lying around somewhere silently threatening to judge me if I did. The slowly stepping lo-fi percussion returns towards the end of ‘Part One’ but then immediately fades away around the 14 minute mark, replaced by an even more sparse and ominous nocturnal landscape which kinds of melts away continually into the most nothing of silences. It’s difficult to do to justice to in words, but suffice to say that each stage of the recording transports your mind somewhere strange and exotic, and that for being 17 minutes long it doesn’t half fly past and fade away into nothingness before you realise what’s happening.
If the vinyl was big enough I expect ‘Part Two’ would have been blended just as seamlessly into the end of ‘Part One’. Alas, it is not, so you’ll have to briefly dredge yourself out of the trance-like state this LP induces to flip the vinyl over and experience it. If you took a hacksaw to the fence I normally like to sit on I would say ‘Part Two’ is my favourite of the two, probably because overall it has a more melancholic feel to it than ‘Part One’. The gradients of gloom are less pronounced and less frequent, so I guess if you prefer the more edgy textures you’ll prefer ‘Part One’. The intro to ‘Part Two’ is truly glorious, more ‘spa music’ yes but spine-chillingly layered and composed. It’s the sections like the first five minutes of ‘Part Two’ where you realise just how much care and attention has gone into the remixing and remastering. At first glance these five minutes are pleasant enough without really being too complex, but on repeat listens you glimpse the tiniest of ephemeral sounds that you completely miss first time around. Microscopic echoes and sounds appear briefly and then disappear as if you’ve simply imagined them, causing you to go back just to make sure it’s actually there and wasn’t an intrusion from the outside world into your headphones. This happens consistently across both sides of the vinyl, and I expect that as I listen to this in the future even more snippets or samples will unconceal themselves to me at unexpected moments. Anyway, once the first five minutes of ‘Part Two’ are over, some more liminal and tribal percussion presents itself and a faint analogue hissing structures a kind of underwater submergence for the next couple of minutes. Silence then announces itself again around seven or eight minutes in, before introducing you to the best part of the entire release for my money. The whole ten minutes from then to the end are majestic, particularly the wonderful teases of chirping birdsong that come into play shortly afterwards.
I always think that it’s some feat, creating (in this case) over half an hour of music that is so softly ambient but which at the same time grips your attention so fervently. When I work in my office, I can sometimes listen to the hardest of techno or the most pounding of drum and bass or the most sub-heavy of dubstep and still completely zone out of it, focusing on the screen in front of me while the music seems to go in one ear and out the other without so much as feathering any of the receptors in my brain. I can sometimes listen to entire playlists, look back over them, and have no memory of four or five of the tunes having played at all. ‘The Bamboo Recordings’, on the other hand, is actually an impediment to working, because it constantly prods, caresses, jolts and harasses your brain into actively (as opposed to passively) listening to it. It forces you into thinking about this or that sound or dwelling on one whisper from a particular field recording long after it has vanished into the aural distance. Like any good spa, it is relaxing and invigorating in equal measure: music for mindfulness and mediation. It is, in my opinion, not quite up there with Eno’s best (‘New Space Music’ will never be surpassed for its opulence), but it is nonetheless a wonderful listening experience that I recommend to you without hesitation. I will certainly be listening to it for quite a while after you have read these words.
All of this brings me back to Astral Industries, who deserve thanks for having taken the effort to ensure these recordings see the light of day. It also makes you wonder how much beautiful music from time gone by is lying discarded and desecrated at the bottom of bargain bins around the world. I guess next time you’re in an alien city and come across a random record shop, fight that urge to continue walking and instead go in and have a rummage through their cassettes. You never know what you might find. A forgotten gem, a long-lost recording – hey, maybe even that original 1986 self-titled Chi cassette. If you do, make sure you send it to Astral. But even if you don’t you’ll almost certainly find something interesting, intriguing, thought-provoking and charming; something featuring sounds that if you weren’t listening to them you wouldn’t know existed. Which, at the end of the day, is what searching for and buying music should be all about.