The line between brilliance and indulgence is rarely finer than it is in ambient music. For the most part, it’s a genre of milquetoast adequacy; all sweepy, swoopy soundscapes perfectly suited to run at the top of a podcast about mattresses. And sometimes that’s enough. It’s ambient music, after all. But then there are the albums that spit in the face of their own genre, cursing the background and demanding the fore. LAGEOS, the collaboration between Actress and the London Contemporary Orchestra, is just such an album. It’s seductive and abrasive, its more eccentric tangents often justified by a thematic thrust of the sort rarely seen on ambient album. Unfortunately, the substance often outpaces the style, resulting in a record that feels a bit like homework: edifying, but arduous.
LAGEOS is a strange cyborg of an album, part-electronic (Actress), part-organic (London Contemporary Orchestra) and part-garage sale (bowls, plastic bags), riveted together into a whole irreducible to its parts. Which sounds were made by whom (or what) is often impossible to determine, which is precisely as it ought to be. This is an album about our slow synthesis with all things technological, and where that leaves us in a cosmic sense. At times the digital and analog components produce something beautiful (“Chaos Rain”), at others they bicker like a married couple arguing about directions (“Chasing Numbers”). This isn’t an album looking to provide answers, or even ask questions; it’s about pure observation from two hundred miles up, providing the raw data from which conclusions might be drawn.
The album title and the eponymous track derive their name from that of a satellite designed to study the earth. “LAGEOS” is a sparse track punctuated by irregular bursts of static, like synapses firing in slow motion. At the other extremity of the record is “Hubble”, so named for the famous satellite pointed in precisely the opposite direction of LAGEOS: away, out into space. This concluding song is very nearly that, a song, with a beat and hints of melody. That the examination of humankind should be substantially less confident than that concerning the entire universe is, to me, the key to making sense of what LAGEOS is getting at. These bookends very wisely put some shape on an otherwise formless album, and invite the listener to craft a narrative from, even find themselves in, the noise.
Which brings me to the point around which I find myself dancing, the weakest link in LAGEOS which is the music itself. The album is genuinely fascinating, yes, but it’s fascinating the way a dog born with three heads is fascinating. It’s cool, attention-grabbing, slightly grotesque, and seems like it should probably be put in a laboratory to be poked with expensive machines that go ‘bleep bleep bloop’ (bonus: Actress can provide his own). For as much fun as I had vivisecting each track to find its meaning or purpose, I was partially compelled to do so because I didn’t actually have that much fun listening to the songs themselves. Once each track has settled into its general mood it never really budges, and those stubborn vibes tend to be too aggressively herky-jerky to allow the listener to sink into them, yet too sparse to wholly command the attention for which they seem to be agitating. This is fertile ground for the introspective listener, but that’s just a pretty way of saying LAGEOS frequently lapses into being a soundtrack for distraction.
LAGEOS is an album about the conflict between confidence and caution, humanity and the cosmos, the technological and the organic. Fitting, then, that it should embody that aforementioned dialectic between brilliance and indulgence. Actress and the London Contemporary Orchestra have achieved both here, producing an album that is without a doubt one of the most innovative and purposeful entries into the mixed-bag canon of popular musicians collaborating with orchestras, yet one that’s just not as interesting to listen to as it is to think about. Is it possible for an album to be unforgettable, yet the music that comprises it emphatically the opposite? Call that one more conflict to ponder in one of the album’s less engaging moments.
Notable Tracks: “LAGEOS”; “Chaos Rain”; “Voodoo Posse, Chronic Illusion”
FFO: ensemble et al., David Lynch, Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra