Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Higher Intelligence Agency - Colourform (Original TC Review)

Waveform Records:1994

(2012 Update:
I wrote this over five years ago now. At the time, I figured Mr. Bird's brand of dubby electro-ambient was all we'd ever hear from that particular sound. Lo and behold, there's been a minor resurgence of it in recent years, the most notable I've noticed being ASC's occasional dabblings. Mind, none of these producers quite capture The H.I.A.'s quirkiness, but at least there's some attempt to keep the sound alive. More please!)



IN BRIEF: A different sort of downtempo.

Once, long long ago (well, maybe just one ‘long’, but it sounds more dramatic this way, eh?), ambient music with a house or techno rhythm underneath was all the fashionable rage. Compilations filled the EDM market with a mature take on dance music, offering a soundtrack for when the raving ‘mah’sive’ needed to unwind. Many producers were given the green light to show off their creative mellow side without alienating their core audience. In short, it was a good time to be a fan of downtempo.

But that was in the past, and a good chunk of what was considered groundbreaking concept music hasn’t stood the test of time too well. Looking back, it sometimes comes off rather self-indulgent and directionless. However, there are those who’s work sounded so alien to everything else, even their noodly excursions can grip your imagination.

Bobby Bird’s ambient project The Higher Intelligence Agency was formed around the Oscillate Sound System, a collective of music producers and promoters with an affinity for those downtempo techno sounds of the early 90s. The H.I.A.’s profile grew in prominence as word of these events spread, and Bird's tracks were even held in the same regard as Aphex Twin, The Orb, and The Future Sound Of London. Unfortunately, a lack of promotion after the initial ‘ambient dub’ surge relegated him to the underground. And although he’s cropped up in collaborations with similar space ambient names like Pete Namlook and Biosphere, finding new material with the H.I.A. tag has grown increasingly difficult. And now it seems getting his old material is tough as well.

The album you are reading a review on is H.I.A.’s debut, and appears to be out of print now. Being no longer available from its initial label Beyond isn’t surprising though, as it’s been defunct for some time now (although its legacy certainly persists to this day). However, it is quite surprising to see Colourform no longer available on Waveform Records, its American distributor. In fact, it’s the only release that’s ever been deleted from their catalogue, probably due to some sort of legal complication holding it up in limbo. Although this wasn't a terribly rare album at the time, its age has caused a slight inflation of its price through eBay. The question, then, is whether fans of ambient techno should spring those extra few bucks for this release should they be in the market for it.

Frankly, that can depend entirely on how serious you take this kind of music. Although Bird does ambient music as well as anyone, he also has a tendency to allow a quirky sense of humor into his works.

Probably most apparent of this is the breakout track Ketamine Entity. Throughout the entire track is a silly 808 bassline that bobbles about; it does drop in a few some wonderfully thunderous booms as well, but still lends the track to a goofy tone. Throw in tongue-in-cheek spoken dialogue (“This is from the Higher Intelligence; We have concealed the vital evidence; Of the reasons for your existence") and chirpy bleeps and bloops in the background, and you have an ‘anthem’ that’ll make you giggle. That’s probably the most extreme example though. Other tracks like Delta and Speedlearn, while lighthearted, aren’t quite as thick on the stoner humor.

There are those who take their ambient music very seriously though, and have no interest in such tomfoolery. Fortunately for such folks, most of the tracks on Colourform tend to stick to ambient’s strength: easy-going, unassuming, and quite calming. The middle section of the album dwells on such themes, where flowing pads, subtle melodies, and hypnotizing loops glide on gentle rhythms. Of course, this all sounds like any kind of typical ambient, so what makes The H.I.A. noteworthy? Aside from the odd vocal sample, all of Bird’s arrangements rely on the most synthetic of sounds. Most chill music, especially these days, attempts to keep an organic texture in their atmosphere; it keeps us feeling human in our moments of downtime. Bird thought differently though, figuring even the most cold-hearted sounds of technology could bring us the same feelings. And tracks like Influx, Conoid Tone, and Orange make a strong argument in his favor.

A couple of other tracks round out this album with something a little more uptempo, and while they bring interesting variations on the H.I.A. sound, you can tell such tracks really weren’t Bird’s strength. Opener Spectral sounds just like that, an opener putting most of his eggs into the same basket: it has all the trademark synthetic texturing that you’ll come to expect on Colourform, but with a tighter arrangement than the wandering tracks you’ll encounter later in the album. Meanwhile, Re-Echo is Bird’s go at more traditional techno. It’s quite good for what it is, with nifty trancey sounds and bubbling acid; however, it’s not really that different from what you’d hear from any number of similar acts of the era: H.I.A.’s uniqueness is noticeably absent here.

That overall uniqueness, though, is what makes Colourform the intriguing album that it is. There really isn’t much out there that sounds like H.I.A., and despite some of the patchiness on here, this is still a recommended release. One can hope we’ll eventually see a re-issue, but even at slightly inflated eBay prices, fans of ambient techno will be satisfied with Colourform.



ACE TRACKS:
Conoid Tone
Re-Echo
Ketamine Entity (Axiom Mix)


Originally Written by Sykonee for TranceCritic.com, 2007. © All rights reserved.


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