When Brian Eno released Ambient 1: Music For Airports in 1978, flying was still a relative luxury and airports were gateways to holiday destinations that didn’t involve candy floss and sandcastles. Eno’s four-track suite of delicate piano and impressionistic vocal treatments may have conjured up images of pinstripe suits in departure lounges in Charles de Gaulle and JFK, but The Black Dog reckon the album’s minimalist beauty reinforces “the false utopia and fake idealism of air travel. Eno had updated Erik Satie’s concept of ‘Furniture Music’ for the four-album Ambient series; barely-there compositions “intended to produce calm and a space to think”.
A few decades after Eno gave ambient music a name, The Black Dog dragged it on a long-haul slog through modern airports, where such a ‘space to think’ is itself a luxury. While not wholly a dystopian rebuke of Eno’s vision, a quick glance at some of the track names (‘Passport control’, ‘Wait Behind This Line’, ‘DISinformation Desk’) could bring on the cold sweats, as you scramble for your boarding pass, or try to find whatever it is in your pocket that’s making the machine beep.
The Black Dog are no strangers to the ‘concept’ album, and the founding trio of Ken Downie, Ed Handley and Andy Turner were among the most deserving of the so-called Intelligent Dance Music tag after their pioneering Warp albums in the early ’90s. Handley and Turner have since took their Plaid project to new heights, while The Black Dog is now Downie with brothers Martin and Richard Dust, who’ve transcended the long shadows cast by LPs Bytes and Spanners, with arguably the most consistent quality control filter of all their early Warp peers — whether that’s deep, politically-charged techno or hypnotic ambience.
Their 2010 album Music For Real Airports is ‘ambient’ in the loosest sense, composed and written over three years in airports while on tour. The hour-long continuous piece uses samples culled from 200 hours of field recordings to construct a nervy skeletal narrative, from the slamming doors, sirens and passing traffic on M1, to the grating Tannoy announcements on Terminal EMA and beyond. Like Global Communication’s masterpiece 76:14, and their own Further Vexations and Radio Scarecrow, the album is awash with lush synths and a meticulous thread of abstract human input – although 76:14′s hushed whispers are taken to the nth degree on ‘Lounge’, with the inhuman hive mind emitting a mere din.
The mood on Music For Real Airports ebbs and flows between detached reality, claustrophobia and occasional moments of sweet reprieve. Near the album’s centrepiece, the chattery metallic breakbeats on ‘Striplight Hate’ and the tinnitus hum on ‘Future Delay Thinking’ are absolved by the lone echo of a piano and elegiac strings on ‘Delay 9’, even if the milling voices and beeping phones recall the giddy time-lapse scenes in the movie Koyaanisqatsi. ‘Passport Control’ goes even further, the tense monotone bass pulse giving way to an audible exhaled sigh of relief after getting stamped. The respite is short-lived however, as the lumbering dub techno of ‘Sleep Deprivation’ caves in and embalms the listener in sleep paralysis. The disorientation lifts when the journey terminates at ‘Business Car Park 9’, a contemplative coda washed over with delicate synths, emerging into the hazy sunlight with a scrunched up face and a longing for your own bed.
It’s hard to say whether The Black Dog’s intention is to rage against the airport experience or to merely document it. Maybe it’s impossible to inject romanticism into the experience of modern day flying. Even transport fetishists Kraftwerk have always ignored airports, while their manifesto eulogises cycle paths, Autobahns and railways – you can even meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie while waiting for the Trans Europe Express. When Music For Real Airports was just released, I looped it on a 24-hour trip from Hamburg to Vancouver via Paris and London, with hangover and flight delays galore – and the resulting hallucinations weren’t as pleasant as seeing Iggy and David. I suppose we don’t really need The Black Dog to tell us that airports are shit.