The Black Dog The Black DogMusic For Real Airports
I’m sure my personal adventures don’t mean much to you, if anything at all, but to start off this text, I couldn’t think of anything better than to relive a few personal memories. It was the year 2000 or 2001, the month of August, in the Brussels airport, and the silence was absolute, even in the early afternoon—a silence so thick that it seemed more sinister than calm, sort of like a hideout for wickedness and evil. Even the children were quiet! You might think for a moment that this sepulchral, unnatural silence in the Brussels airport was a reflection of city’s most grey, bureaucratic air, but over time, the best thing is to think that this was an anomaly fitting for a Stephen King story. The silent airport is a glaring contradiction in terms—you know, it’s also one of the noisiest places that one can be, especially during rush hour and in an international airport, like that one. It seems that The Black Dog, Ken Downie and the Dust brothers, reviving the laurels of the old “Bytes” (Warp, 1992), have gone through something similar, consisting of not giving into the glamour and the hullabaloo of the airport in an abstract sense and, especially, in perceiving a strange halo in them. In its historical relationship with electronic music, the airport has always been a place for relaxing and dreaming—thanks to “Ambient 1: Music For Airports” (1978), by Brian Eno. But this album appeals to a very different logic: airports are treated as something else. Something disquieting, we might add. Or, as Douglas Adams said in his novel The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul, “it can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as an airport.”
So we have to read the title “Music For Real Airports” with an emphasis on the word “real ”. It isn’t a tribute to Eno’s album, as it may appear at first sight, glancing at the cover or partially understanding the epigraph. On the contrary, they start —and I would say that they are right—from the idea that airports don’t need music that naturalises them, like relaxing piped music, but rather just the opposite—music that emphasises the artificialness of their architecture and design. Of course there are many kinds of airports. Heathrow, in London, is a chaos of green carpet and an unbearable smell of mould. New York’s JFK is a blue floor and cement blocks, and since the inauguration of the new terminal, the old part of Barcelona-El Prat is a deserted, lifeless expanse of copper. As places to pass through, they are inhospitable and tedious, not to mention expensive, and nobody in their right mind would want muzak like Eno’s, a fragile piano tapping with the beautiful, gentle constancy of a spring rain against a window. People want to leave an airport quickly, without looking back, without treasuring good memories. At least, this is my opinion. It also seems to be The Black Dog’s.
“Music For Real Airports” is an ambient album, and it could be no other way. It is also sound art, as in reality it is the material extension of a multimedia installation that picked up the whole idea expressed above: that airports are an ugly architectural abstraction without mysticism, and that the music that best serves them as a soundtrack is disquieting music that leaves you breathless. Musically, it is perhaps the most conventional in the entire history of The Black Dog, including the first phase, when Downie was teamed up with the two boys from Plaid, and the second phase, well focused on the revival of Warp’s old intelligent techno. It’s conventional because it limits itself to being a white sheet on which they weave—or unravel—sounds from very diverse sources, and textures that are basically free of percussion. When the beat appears— “Future Delay Thinking” is the album’s first abrupt section– it turns into a techno 4x4, highly polluted, not at gallop speed, but energetic enough to lift up an album that was speculative and spectral in the previous minutes. But if instead of a techno beat The Black Dog had opted for the constant, cardiac beat of dub, the result wouldn’t be too far off from that mid-90’s New York illbient scene – DJ Spooky, Byzar, We™– because “Music For Real Airports” also has that sound pollution taken from the urban bustle. Here we have not the honking horns of taxis or the sounds of gates going up and down, but rather phantasmal fragments of voices over loudspeakers, suitcases that thud against the conveyor belt, and flocks of people wandering the halls, coffee shops, and escalators. This airport in peak operation is familiar to us, but it is also a hostile space.
So the album is conventional because it reminds us of familiar sounds, but this doesn’t mean that it is not exceptional. Because it is. At a time when the word “ambient” is associated with chords and pianos, or a gentle flow textures, cascading noise, such a subtle, disquieting ambient—both in form and in sound—is unusual and worthy. It is not the reinvention of ambient-house like The Orb and Global Communication, but it is a skilful shift a few degrees in the opposite direction. It is ambient music full of spirit, of fears and impressions that aren’t what they seem, an album so full of familiar, undesired noises—whether modular synthesisers or families eating—that it coincidentally seems both unknown and attractive to us. If it had come out fifteen years ago, it would be a classic. Having come out now, “Music For Real Airports” should aim for another title: the definitive anti-Eno manifesto. Because we respect Eno, of course, but somebody had to turn his thesis around and tell us that when it comes to choosing between taking an airplane and staying at home on the sofa, the answer is so obvious that even the doubt is offensive. Javier Blánquez