It was always misleading to call Woob an “ambient” artist (even though he became the poster boy for the genre in the mid-nineties with his stellar em:t album 1194, whose Emperor penguin cover became the very personification of the respected-unto-veneration, short lived series), as ambient is intended to be absorbed distractedly, not devoured passionately. Which one does with Woob. Englishman Paul Frankland is the Cecil B. DeMille of electronic music, directing a cast of thousands. Cueing up his music is like that moment in The Wizard of Oz, when the world turns from black and white to technicolour. Or maybe he is the Pieter Bruegel the Elder of electronica, painting sprawling, panoramic canvases wriggling with now strange scenes of 16th-century peasant life. He fools time all the time, by making Middle Eastern music played on ancient instruments the perfect accompaniment to a story set in the distant future, and having digital digressions evoke cavemen around a campfire.
Woob´s definitive appeal lies in hybridity – the sheer breadth of sounds and ideas unexpectedly interposed, the simply awesome journey each long-player takes you on. And yet the craftsmanship lies in the details, like his looping of dialogue samples (ranging from sci-fi and horror TV and film sample dialogue to language instruction tapes and even an interview with Yo-Yo Ma) into leitmotifs, utilizing field recordings, synthesizers, cargo cult percussion and judicious beats (and similarly-judicious no beats). The rhythms, the patience of assemblage, the spaciousness of the phantasmagoria, and no user´s manual to guide you. A loose, quasi-narrative shifts the listener’s mind through different, unimaginable environments.
In the past few years, Frankland rebooted Woob with a vengeance, beginning with Repurpose, about which I wrote in a now-defunct online rag, “The title is frank and honest, since Frankland has chosen to resume trading as Woob (or “Woob 2.1″ as suggested in the accompanying booklet) by heavily borrowing from its back catalogue.” The final track of Woob´s 4495 was combined with new material; live mixes were puzzled together with new looks at compilation contributions; the seventeen-minute finale was wipeclean, brand-new material.
November 2012 saw the release of the first installment of the ´Have Landed Trilogy´. The album that lent its name to this project was released first as both a Woob album and an album by Max & Harvey, a now-retired pseudonym. Frankland’s website gave this explanation: “Have Landed encompasses some of the best recordings previously released under the Max & Harvey moniker along with a plethora of new material including a few surprises. With musical styles from the time periods of 1899, 1969, 1999 and 2099 in an H.G. Wells inspired time travel extravaganza.” Adding further perplexity to the Woob 2.1 era was the number of limited editions on offer, with different CD covers and associated “artifacts” available, from sticker sets, USB flash drives to a model rocket ship. However, Frankland also made known that he was phasing out physical editions in favour of digital downloading, purely based on advances in sound technology. The move is a logical one, as any faithful listener can attest – sound quality has always been a hallmark of Woob´s recordings.
Have Landed, Ultrascope and Ambient Disaster Movie make up this ambitious trilogy. So many sounds, so many colours, so many verticals and horizontals. And in the case of the premiere disc, so very acoustic, featuring many live contributors (guitars, horns, celli) and lush arrangements. It opens with ´If I Don´t Make it Home´ featuring vocalist Siobhan Lynch, who rather than sing flutters by twice in an overture that musters strings, acoustic guitars, and a phalanx of percussion. It´s big, very big, and unfolds like a triptych. In fact, the first third could be a tale of flight through empty vastness, ´The Giant Divide´ conjuring a sense of unseen wonder, ´Sleep´ (featuring wonderfully somnabulant bass by Riad Abji) and ´Finale´ a slinky, upbeat arrangement presaging the feel of the next movement.
The second leaf of the triptych is jazzier: Sailing through a cloud of Byzantine perfume, ´Spine´ is driven by ´Let My People Go´-slave drums passing through The Third Man´s noir scenography, via the bothering of a cello into the slow, stinky jazz combo of ´Bognor Regis Stripper´, an extended jazzy excursion travelling through the more refined airs of ´La Luna y el Cabellero´, consorting afterwards with chamber strings on ´Thieves´ (where Lynch reappears, turned inside out). With ´Space Therapy´, the final third parts a diaphanous space curtain on shimmering galaxies whizzed through at warp speed. Drunk and bruised, we are dragged through dark, wet streets while serenaded by a choir of sad but knowing sisters on ´Big Amoeba Sound´, a track originally released under the moniker Max & Harvey (and the etymology of Frankland´s label name).
Ultrascope arpeggiates bombastically over three pieces, culminating in the title track. I feel uncomfortable with the bombast – as stated, Woob is supposed to be hybrid, and subtle and eccentric, and this sounds so very much like the space operas of the seventies and eighties when it could use more of the imagined 1890s mentioned above. I begin to feel more at home when a voice straight out of a b-grade sci-fi flick prepares “to chart a course for an unknown destination” and the more liquid ambience of ´Over World´ pours out of the speakers. ´Ultrascope II´ is the album´s centrepiece. Being so Wagnerian, so emotionally charged, it is not cinematic in the sense of conjuring images, but rather begs a movie to be playing in front of it. The colours are surely iridescent and dazzling, but unlike its predecessor Have Landed, its galaxy-grasping, epic reach is too big and general; it is not distracting enough in detail to be transportive, not patience-rewarding like the exquisite neverending build up of Depart. Interestingly, the tacked-on bonus ´Mode Statis´, a description as much as a title, is my favourite. Sweet, weightless suspension, noises off but not indicative enough to reveal where they are or where we are either, for that matter.
The trilogy concluded in mid-2014 with Ambient Disaster Movie, (complemented with a semi-alternative, remixed take on Ultrascope). No spoiler alert necessary, as I have only listened to small portions of it. There´s a cliffhanger for you.
Between Ultrascope and Ambient Disaster Movie, Frankland released Lost 1194, consisting of previously unheard versions of tracks from the classic debut. Lost 1194, with its ghosted “ice logo in snow” easy to miss on the white outer sleeve of the digipak but with an inner sleeve panorama of Antarctic blue-white magnificence, continued the remembrance of things past journey of Repurpose in an entirely different way. Tracks from the original in their original order are here sculpted into alternative mixes. A reinvention, a revisit that doesn´t sound like déjù-vu all over again.
More recently, Frankland orchestrated an absolute megamix, “[a]n intergalactic mash up of epic proportions drawing on five years worth of material + new mixes and tracks from the future – Intervision 1015.” So great. And then came his latest work, Adaption, a clever rewrite of the quintessential late 20th-century urban legend, according to those who are in the right kind of know, about a video console that captures men´s minds.
Paranoia is at the heart of the horror/thriller genre – from the bloodsucking illegal immigrant Dracula to the Cold War´s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Adaption opens very creepily and revs into action as ´The Midnight Arcade´ comes to life, rife with video-game lasers, a punishing beat and a propulsive, catchy theme. The ´Transmutation´ is short but devastating, and as bodies turn into strangers to themselves, and footsteps advance with trepidation, the air thickens with dread. ´Stay Hidden – Adaption Part II´ powers through to the ´Broken Console´, which works just fine as Woob processes a kind of perfect archetype of the first intelligent hybrid electronica – I immediately heard echoes of Syrinx´ wonderful theme song for the Canadian television show Here Come the Seventies. After which, a pall is cast over the already pale as we enter a ´Dead End´ – the zombies plod nearer, there is no escape, and, with an elegant, extended sigh rather than a blood-curdling brain clusterfeed, we understand all too well that ´Jessica is Not Coming Back´. Concise, just over forty minutes if you subtract the bonus ´TIME EXTRACTED: Welcome to the Arcade´. This is a time limited album and is available to download for just only a few more days in its current form, after which it will be (un)dead.