The end of 2005 marked the 25th anniversary of the influential British label 4AD. Ivo Watts-Russell is the mastermind behind the company, and a masterful artist in his own right. Besides providing an outlet and home for the music of such diverse bookend acts as Bauhaus and TV on the Radio, Watts-Russell started two landmark acts, the dreamy This Mortal Coil, and its sequel, the ambient Hope Blister. The Hope Blister’s first album, released in 1998, was called …Smile’s OK and was a project that found Watts-Russell, guitarist Laurence O’Keefe, vocalist Louise Rutkowski and cellist Audrey Riley covering some of their own 4AD favorites including songs by Brian Eno and John Cale. Underarms was released in the same year, being a mail-order / internet only project that consisted of outtakes and even more ambient original music that sprouted from the …Smile’s OK sessions. Due to its elegant beauty and limited numbers, Underarms became something of a lost cult classic that many hoped would resurface. Not only are we now treated to the original in all its glory, but we get it in a two disc edition that features a reinterpretation of the work as envisioned by Markus Guentner, one of the stars of the Kompakt label, called Sideways.
As in a lot of ambient releases, it is not quite accurate to call the tracks on Underarms / Sideways songs. Each track flows so smoothly into one another that it is difficult to know where one ends and another begins. The mix of cello and guitar (and very light percussion) makes for an interesting, if intentionally droning, composition. One could imagine an undersea adventure as seen on an old educational filmstrip, sunlight coming through the fluid in rays, aquatic wildlife floating in and out of view, through reefs and vegetation. You could think of it as Finding Eno. Last track “Happiness Strings,” somewhat of a cover of David Sylvian’s “Let the Happiness In” is the most traditional and straightforward strings piece as opposed to the steady looped ambient drone throughout.
Whereas the original Hope Blister tracks range anywhere from two to almost fourteen minutes, Guentner’s `songs’ all even out at an average of six minutes. Sideways, the second disc filled with Guentner’s extracts from Underarms is on even more of an even keel than the original. White noise fills the minute spaces between lingering notes and everything takes on more of a synthy hypnotic feel. If Underarms is an educational undersea filmstrip, then Sideways is the digital IMAX version, complete with new technology and surround sound. One can even hear sounds that resemble metal underwater as the pressure builds on a submarine in “Sideways 4- Extracted from Dagger Strings.” And just like its first disc companion, Sideways saves the best for last with “Sideways 7- Extracted from Happiness Strings” resembling the most beautiful works by both Eno and Moby.
I could wrap up my feelings about Underarms/Sideways with a bad pun that is otherwise deeply relevant. The music of the Hope Blister fills me up with so much beauty that I feel I could pop.
Moby- Everything is Wrong
Aphex Twin- Selected Ambient Works, Vol.2
Brian Eno- Ambient 4: On Land