REVIEW: Axiom Ambient, Lost In The Translation (Island)

- Al Crawford

I've never been much of a fan of what's currently known as ambient. While I've always appreciated the *real* ambient work of people like Brian Eno and Bill Nelson, and have a definite soft spot for ambient industrial, I've found it impossible to really get into the particular brand of ambient that has risen from the rave/dance boom of the last few years. This is due to a number of factors - the production line mentality that sees certain prolific individuals release vast amounts of low quality material, the redefinition of Eno's original ambient concept to include music that possesses a whomping bass beat capable of cracking concrete, and the whole eco-friendly, new-age flotation tank mentality that permeates the scene.

When I first read the liner notes of this CD my heart sank. Not that it had been particularly high beforehand - any CD that includes "Ambient" anywhere in the title or group name automatically sets off alarm bells. However, when I read "An unbounded musical intelligence weaves the Ambient fabric, for like the true world itself its entire atmospheric essence is just one incident springing forth out of a larger, limitless reality" and spotted references to "new aeon rituals", "cyber-psychick [sic] mythologies" and "empowering experiences" I began to get *really* depressed.

However, never being the sort to write off an album before I've actually listened to it, I tossed another dolphin on the blazing tropical hardwood fire and settled down to listen to Lost In The Translation.

My first impressions seemed to confirm my feelings of dread and foreboding. "Aaaargh," thought I, "it's another bloody babbling brook". Gritting my teeth and preparing myself for an onslaught of rainforest noises, I plowed on determinedly, praying to whichever deity looks after music reviewers that I wouldn't be subjected to any gratuitous whalesong in the process.

Someone up there (or down - it depends on your opinion of reviewers) must have heard me, since Lost In The Translation turns out to be one of the most interesting ambient albums I've heard in a while. It's certainly in possession of its fair share of ambient cliches but the variety of people working on it drags it out of the ambient quagmire, giving it rather more character and range than the typical ambient release. Many of those involved are familiar names (Bill Laswell, The Orb) but a number of the contributors are unassociated or only peripherally related to the ambient scene, such as Ginger Baker, Jah Wobble and a wide assortment of Funkadelic/P-Funk related individuals (George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Eddie Hazel). The end result is often surprisingly full and rich in sound - far removed from the ethereal noodling that characterizes so much of the genre. This, according to the press release, is the general idea - that the listener should be involved not as a passive spectator but as a direct participant.

It's certainly true that much of this music is difficult to ignore and downright meaty, but isn't the whole *point* of ambient that it's supposed to be passive, to be listenable or ignorable at will? Oh well...

The two discs contain a total of eight lengthy tracks with the only common factor being Bill Laswell. This comes as something of a surprise, since the album as a whole flows together quite nicely, with themes emerging, disappearing and re-emerging. This is particularly true of the distinctly Eastern tinged "Aum", which has a strong Indian flavor (hardly surprising considering the musicians involved on the track) that re-emerges on "Dharmapala", the first track of the second disc which involves...none of the guest musicians who played on "Aum".

My main complaints with this disc are the tendency for what was previously a restrained, genuinely ambient track to suddenly sprout a rock guitar solo straight out of the worst excesses of the 70s progressive scene. On those tracks where this doesn't happen, something similar occurs involving the violent mugging of the track by a heavy dance beat. In fact, only two of the eight tracks don't feature one of the above and both are on the dull side.

So, all in all, a mixed effort. Too solid and meaty to be ambient, but too repetitive and occasionally dull to be anything other than background music. I've found myself developing a definite tendency to fall asleep while listening to this one. In some ways this is good - it's relaxing stuff - but those pleasant snoozes were regularly interrupted by sudden bursts of WHOMPWHOMPWHOMPWHOMP or squealing guitars. Fans of the current ambient mainstream, or of Laswell's other efforts, might find this worth a listen.


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