No. 37 in our Top 100 Electronica Albums of the 1990s
Now come the emperor penguins. Released on Nottingham’s experimental Em:t label, Paul Frankland’s unassuming Woob output combined non-Western instrumentation, field recordings and state-of-the-art electronica into a meditative classic, 1194. The dark ambient emperor of 1994, and beyond, it is a fascinating combination of quiet reflection, uneasy exploration, mazing sonic koans, and amazing sonic splendors. Equivalent to a great film, from Amazonian expeditions like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo to horror film hysterias like Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, Woob’s cartographic hallucinations whisper bleak but beautiful worlds into being.
The record label that hatched 1194 was its own kind of emperor, a bastion of naturalistic ambient and techno, much of it processed using the Roland Sound Space RSS 3D sound imaging system to give records a deeper and more spacious character — the “Em:t sound” — Em:t Records being praised as THE ambient label of the 1990s, drawing comparisons with Brian Eno’s 1970’s ambient phase and his Obscure Records label, which similarly championed more obscure artists. The trademark of the Em:t sound and roster was not only the artists it supported, but also its commitment to nature sounds and themes, every record by policy featuring cover art with photography of animals like chameleons, jellyfish, geckos and frogs.
Frankland took emperor penguins for his album’s talisman.* Living in Antarctica and swimming its cold surrounding seas, they are small durable creatures yet massive in their mythic impact on human imaginations. The tallest of penguins, they loom large, traveling great distances to breeding colonies, the males incubating their mate’s one egg, the two parents hunting and caring for their offspring, diving as deep as 500 meters or more for fish, killer whales and leopard seals lurking for their own meal. None of this is necessary to process 1194, but even unconsciously, the emperor penguins in their snowy environs communicate to us alien landscapes with the universal will to explore and survive.
Which makes 1194’s opening movement the perfect sonic parallel to our romantic wonder about life and the universe. ‘On Earth’ is an over-thirty minute journey that enthralls to the very end. Its circadian tabla drums and mystical chants evoke our ancient beginnings in what today is called the Global South, in hotter desert and coastal realms, followed by a woman’s lilting aria, calling to mind minarets and mountains; the jungle with its tree-wreathed stars above seared into our early collective imaginings. Animal vocalizations follow: birdsong, cicadas, guttural thrumming throats of nocturnal beasts, and even primate murmurings.
Lulling but never sleeping, Woob slowly pulls us back into the open, the sound of horns answering the animals, its rich high tone climbing us up into the moonlit sky. The drums grow in power, a jazz-like groove building with the whoop and whoosh of more watery drums, or one wonders, almost sounding like the calls of some bird or monkey just over in the next pond or deep valley in the bush. At the 17-minute point ‘On Earth’ grows into ecstasy, a kind of worship, the heavy English accent of what sounds like a mumbling man transformed here into a kind of liturgical paean, reminding and returning the Global North to its forgotten migrations and austral origins.
On it goes into its next phase, the drums ‘On Earth’ running round and round. Its rhythms invoke a meditative trance, a dream-wandering in the unseen hills of memory and futurity. Seabirds seem to flock as we enter a clearing at a fjord or an inlet sea, an old man’s chanting and the girl’s lilting mix in the rich mysteries of Central Asia, synths once again flowing through, moody Woob taking us into a place beyond time. Whorls of wind roll high overhead, and then Frankland plays live in the clouds, echoing the soaring synths of the Yamaha CS-80 as played by Vangelis, and yet entirely in a magical mode all his own. It’s a love letter to film and the transcendent power of dreaming far, far into the unknown.
The Em:t office and artists circle was in fact deeply influenced by the Russian films of Andrei Tarkovsky and his acolytes like Sergei Parajanov and Dodo Abashidze. Perhaps most famous in the West for his Solaris sci-fi classic, based on the book by the Polish author Stanislaw Lem, Tarkovsky’s films were deeply surrealistic and symbolic. In ‘On Earth,’ many of the samples are in fact Azerbaijan in origin, adjacent to Armenia, and inspired by Parajanov and Abashidze’s film Ashik Kerib. Frankland studied film in graduate school, so his affinity for the darkened theater of the human spirit was pronounced. One can hear not only the influence of film scores, from The Last Temptation of Christ by Peter Gabriel — Passion — to Vangelis, but also in how Frankland helped elevate electronica into a deeply narrative form.
Seamlessly flowing from ‘On Earth’ to ‘Odonna,’ a song truly deserving of the word “ethereal,” its archetype glides through the circuits and the waves — a ghost in the machine as well as the heart. With just the right hint of the romance that Tangerine Dream summoned on films such as Ridley Scott’s Legend, Frankland once again brings in clever voice samples: this time cellist Yo Yo Ma and later dialogue from episode “The Mark of Gideon” from the original Star Trek series. Exploring the emotional universe of sound, the infinite variability between tonal intervals, an astonishing sweep of choral joy greets despair with an ardent Captain Kirk.
Into ‘Amoeba,’ Woob takes us into a harmonica solo and a chorus of frogs, along with footsteps echoing in the darkness, a shift from a Western to something more noir-ish. (The frogs are reminiscent of Woob’s masterful ‘Fourteen Thirtythree,’ a song that did not appear on 1194 but the compilation Em:t 2295, one of the great gems of organic electronic chill-out with its soulful guitar and booming bass kick.) Yet the mood from ‘Amoeba’ forward is not whiskey and jazz clubs, but something wicked this way comes: ‘Wuub’ samples the horror film Night of Dark Shadows, from 1971, with touching beauty accenting the creeping darkness.
We’re in Frankland’s hands now, as he takes us deeper and deeper into the world of Woob, an empire of light and shadow, of illusion and confusion, of reservations and revelations. ‘Strange Air’ is both the scariest and most beautiful ambient track ever written, caressing the frontal lobes with its mowing waves of mournful bliss. Some Discogs reviews have claimed its shocking film samples are cheesy, perhaps the 1970s filmic aura and the earnest acting of the characters in danger seem too situational, but it is in fact that dissonance of horror tropes bathed in the high immersive reflections on death — Frankland’s synths doing all the talking — a heartbeat (or is it a hand pounding on the door?), that makes ‘Strange Air’ a profoundly moving scream, from a screen, into a prayer for peace.**
This “ambient noir” is what makes 1194 so brilliant. The greater the darkness, the brighter the dawn blazing over the horizon: the deep throbbing of what sounds like a spaceship landing washes over us as the chatter of emperor penguins seems to have taken us to the edge of the world. Are those sea beasts under the ice we hear? Or is it a slowed down penguin’s purr, perhaps a baby waking in its shell? And then the sound of regulators in a scuba dive, bubbles, and again, the communication of a calm yet wild life — the penguins of ‘Emperor’ emit a final message: breathe, deep down.
“The way I wrote the tracks back then, was like a live performance and so I never heard the track complete or knew the length till it was over,” Frankland explained to Matt Jarvis in 2009 (Jarvis was Em:t’s other flagship artist, having recorded as Gas), who asked him if the ten-minute-plus length of most of 1194’s tracks was intentional. “But yes it was a conscious decision, although 25 minutes into mixing ‘On Earth’ there was a heart pounding moment when I improvised a synth section. It’s probably my favorite bit of the whole album now though.“ ***
Woob’s 1194, along with Gas’ otherworldly 0095, loom like two gateways to Em:t’s strange and beautiful world of sound, which included other standout artists: Qubism, International Peoples Gang and Miasma. But Woob’s 1194 through perhaps its quality and legend, stands on its own. (Recording also as Journeyman, Frankland also made his mark on dance floors and chill rooms — ‘Woob’s Sunrise Dub Mix’ of his own ‘Latneiro’ as Journeyman, played a starring role in Coldcut and Strictly Kev’s wonderfully imaginative DJ mix classic, Stoned…Chilled…Groove.)
Frankland’s repute and fame in ambient circles has only grown since and is now firmly ensconced in the ambient intelligentsia. Even as time must fade some memories, new generations of sonic explorers have rediscovered his magical universe of microscopic and epic sonar-ations. Returning to form in 2010, Woob started making big waves once again with exquisite albums like Ultrascope and Ambient Disaster Movie.
Like his music, he has simply drifted in the deeps. Let your attention drift a little and suddenly nothing is what it seems. The slow submerged dub-pulse of Woob returns. And a secret door opens to the deepest reaches of the psyche and the Earth.
1. On Earth
5. Strange Air
*Frankland did not actually choose the cover image for 1194. It was a coincidence, he believes. Em:t’s team chose it, not knowing that the album’s last track, ‘Emperor,’ used samples of emperor penguins for its sound bed.
“The label managers (Chris & Dave) said to me that they would really like to use penguins for the cover and what did I think,” Frankland told Jarvis. “I’d just written the track Emperor and was going to suggest the same. It was a very strange coincidence.”
Perhaps Chris Allen and David Thompson also perceived the little honks that appear in the midsection of ‘On Earth’ as emperor penguins. It is, perhaps, just a little bit more of 1194’s dreamlike synchronicity. One other minor note: Em:t actually uses lowercase “e” for its label, but I have gone with “Em:t” to avoid general reader confusion in the context of extended writing. That is, “em:t” is a proper noun.
**Frankland’s favorite tracks on 1194 are ‘Odonna’ and ‘Strange Air’ — it’s not surprising given the emotional range of both tracks, but proves in particular that ‘Strange Air’ is indeed a very personal and unique achievement. It also impresses the importance of enjoying 1194, and ‘Strange Air’ especially, on headphones, alone, and if you’re brave enough, in the dark. Don’t worry, it will only renew your lust for life.
***Jarvis’ Gas project is not to be confused with Wolfgang Voigt’s highly influential ambient guise, Gas. Both are distinctly different approaches to the more ethereal side of electronic music. Gas’ 0094 is not in our Top 100 Electronica Albums, nor is Voigt’s Gas, but both are deserving of high praise and attention, and could be included on any other day or year in my own contextual re-accountings.