The timing of this release and subsequently the considered listening required / desired for a write up is really quite neat actually. Sitting between summer and the frosty months is of course mushroom season*, where the mysterious mycelium networks underfoot offer their rich wealth of caps, domes and brackets to our eyes, tongues and for some, our brains. Even more neatly so come the very clear links Lawrence English’s newest album makes to fungi (there is an image of a mushroom on the cover) and, rather more crucially, John Cage (a known fan of mushrooms), who forms a basis of inspiration for the sonic material contained within.
Weirdly the atmosphere created seems to pay the respect intended to Cage – this being released in the year where he would have turned 100 years old – somehow making a connection not only to his Zen rooted philosophical concerns, but also his endearing playfulness and sense that his work perhaps avoids potentially self-destructive esoterica. For the beauty of English’s work here is just that: beyond any academic, technological or musical framework that may underpin For / Not For John Cage, it’s just really good at appearing simple, an unfussy and welcoming work of background sonics. It has the ability to exist as it is for the sake of what it sounds like and it can be left at that.
Opening in a fashion that remains so for pretty much the entire duration of the album, it doesn’t so much fade in from silence; more like tones flow in from non-existence, filling a dead air space with a lush and woozy ambient fog. There is sense of wonder and restlessness that does indeed evoke a psilocibin haze, or perhaps the nature induced calm in a relaxed mushroom hunting jaunt through the woods, treading over moss and lazily hobbling over long fallen trunks.
Brian Eno’s well cited (so much that I won’t repeat it here) definition of ambient music is well and truly fulfilled as there’s no nagging element to the tracks – only gentle, sometimes slightly eerie soundscapes that languidly whirl their way around the listening space – think Gravitational Pull vs The Desire For An Aquatic Life era Stars of the Lid or the more subdued side of Belong. Part of this album’s incubatory period involved a relationship of evolution with Cage’s Opus11, a lengthy audio-visual piece that features manipulations of light and a minimal and abstract orchestral score. It is almost as if themes of music and texture have been extracted from various sections of this original work and gone on to become or inform a much more cosmic and arguably contemporary counterpart. Whatever the case, the similarities are present in the pace and sparsity that keep the work restrained, graceful in not needing to be overblown. There’s a difference between being genuinely, pleasantly lost in an ambient work and simply ignoring it. English has the balance right for this to be firmly placed in the former, parallel with decision and structure-dissolving approaches that defy compositional / experiential conventions.
There is an interesting emotional ambiguity that sets it rather apart from others operating in a similar field. Or, perhaps rather than ambiguous, the emotions are stirred in a completely different way. For there is no real extreme positive or negative effect to any of the tracks, the otherworldliness is instead at the forefront and thrusts the listener into a strange, exotic mental space where such psychological concerns are skewed and thrown into a rather more mysterious abstract. Not to say there’s little dynamic here – by the fourth track Naematoloma Sublateritium, the graceful, resonant wonder has entered something more sinister and almost threatening. Further on from this an icy wind permeates the atmosphere and everything goes rather distant. But there isn’t much to deflect one from the strange calm evoked in the very beginnings of the album, and this simultaneous journey-like narrative and sense of stasis works very well. Those predisposed to appreciate a Cagean approach to patience and simplicity will be interested to hear this. Those that also have an interest in ambient music that evokes trippier landscapes, even more so.
* As this bit was written, mushroom season was definitely in full bloom. Apologies for this not being the case at the time this review is published.