CARBON BASED LIFEFORMS: HYDROPONIC GARDEN (2003)
1) Central Plains; 2) Tensor; 3) MOS 6581; 4) Silent Running; 5) Neurotransmitter; 6) Hydroponic Garden; 7) Exosphere; 8) Comsat; 9) Epicentre (First Movement); 10) Artificial Island; 11) Refraction 1.33.
There is nothing particularly revelatory about this album, but for once, this actually works in favor of the music rather than against it — Hydroponic Garden is not an exercise in technical innovation, where the listener spends more time trying to «get» the music rather than enjoy it, but just your old-fashioned attempt at creating a vibrant musical landscape. No wonder the opening bassline of ʽCentral Plainsʼ immediately reminds you of Pink Floyd's ʽOne Of These Daysʼ: Hedberg and Ringström persist in drawing more influence from classic progressive rock and «vintage» electronica than from their modern day inheritors.
The record has been described as belonging to the «psybient» genre, whatever that means, because, honestly, if that's a contraction from «psychedelic ambient», then most ambient music is psychedelic to some degree; and beyond that, there is nothing particularly «psychedelic» about Hydroponic Garden — «psychedelia» essentially means opening up an extra dimension of perception, usually through various studio trickery, and there's very little actual trickery here, just the standard array of tape loops and samples, all of them handled in a very straightforward manner. But the results are actually better than psychedelic — they're just... beautiful. Well, at least some of them are.
ʽCentral Plainsʼ is constructed out of that relentless bassline, which sounds like a thick, crackling electric wire caught in an eternal wind blast, and a limitless wheat field of synthesizers stretching across the horizon, with breezes and crickets and an occasional snow shower and no signs of man's presence — not a lot of ingredients, really, but the ones present suffice to build up an atmosphere of lonesome natural elegance and ominous tension at the same time. I could actually do without the percussive trip-hop rhythms that «enliven» the track towards the end, but I guess the genre somehow demanded that, even if it somehow detracts from the general ambience, unless you want to picture a robot-driven combine harvester rolling across the field as well.
Everything that follows largely falls in two classes of soundscapes — slightly dryer sci-fi abstractions like ʽTensorʼ and ʽNeurotransmitterʼ, clustering around staccato blips and bubbly bass, and warmer «naturalistic» panoramas like ʽExosphereʼ or the title track, with cloudy synthesizers, ghostly vocal harmonies, and nature sounds a-plenty (wind, water, chirping birdies, you know — everything in one's power to produce a convincing balance between manly digital and godly analog). My personal preferences clearly lie with the second kind of tracks, but even the first kind has its merits — particularly impressive is the expert way in which they build stuff up and tear it down, so that the music is static and dynamic at the same time: ʽNeurotransmitterʼ is a great example, with an exciting bass crescendo that gradually rolls upon you and then just as gradually fades away, like you've been lying on an imaginary railtrack and a steamroller was passing above you, inches away from crushing your skull into the ground.
There is, of course, the length issue — 76 minutes of this stuff might seem like overkill, but then we should all be accustomed by now that there is nothing unusual about a modern album sounding like a small chunk from some classic album thrown under a microscope and stretched as wide as it can be stretched. It's a perfectly acceptable length for contemplators of the minuscule and admirers of the little pimples and pustules on the belly of each individual note. It's not really «minimalistic»: despite the lengthy running times of individual tracks, most of them have themes that undergo development, usually by means of additional sound rings slowly penetrating the mix (ʽRefraction 1.33ʼ) or the appearance/disappearance of rhythm tracks. Which is nothing new under the sun, but Hedberg and Ringström make this «sonic plant growth» the primary focus of their art — indeed, the whole album is like one huge hydroponic garden, where meticulously generated artificial conditions cause luxuriant natural growth.
It's not immediately gratifying, and most people will hardly want to spend so much time trying to focus on all the minor details — but even as background muzak, Hydroponic Garden will still be creating a certain atmosphere of classiness, and, furthermore, this is the kind of electronic music that you can very safely play around people who have little tolerance for electronics, so ultimately traditional and emotionally accessible are its melodies and harmonies. For the lovers of microsound degustation, it might turn out to be a masterpiece; for everyone else, it might turn out to be boring, but not in the boring kind of boring, more like a moody, «there's-still-something-to-it» kind of boring. Personally, I prefer this by far to, say, almost anything by the far more popular, far more overrated Boards Of Canada, and give it an unflinching thumbs up (not that there's any real reason for flinching — the whole experience is as aurally smooth as can be).