With its future leaning edge, continual interplay and dark yet fulfilling atmosphere, Kevin O'Neill's debut record still rings out from the past to this day, displaying a kind of mastery and originality over the concept of ambience that many are still trying to attain to this day.
Electronic music is a funny one to describe and ascribe meaning to sometimes, as for nearly every producer who dwells within its wide umbrella, there is a differing placement of meaning onto their sound and atmosphere. But in many ways there can be collectivised notions loosely placed upon certain genres, and with Ambient Music perhaps one that can be placed upon it is the idea of cinematic visuality. Brian Eno described Ambient music in its primary form as passive, a sort of background noise akin to static or white noise, but over the years it has grown in personality and scale, to become one of the most affirming and characterful genres going. Ambient artists often offer up a concept as a sibling to the music, much like when visiting a contemporary art gallery you often read the blurb next to the pieces as a means to get the full picture. Ambient comes across as an artform, a seemingly larger than life genre that contains plenty of colour, with many producers favouring long form compositions that spin yarns of spellbinding and meandering narratives. Not only does a form of visual narrative come across, but the atmospheres being created often encourage listener participation, providing a space in which we can imprint ourselves and marvel at the wondrous energies flowing all around. The relevance of the genre has always remained, as countless generations of artists all across the globe have discovered their own stories, portraying a simmering palette of synths, textures and tones which all come across in a unique and very personal manner. Its a space where dreams persist, where the imagination can run rampant across open plains, exploring and understanding all there is to know about ourselves and the world around us. Ambient has the power to open doors into the consciousness that perhaps never existed before, an emotional experience that fuels our own creative endeavours and encourages us to keep moving onwards and upwards.
Kevin O'Neill's music, even within an ever densifying field of ambient artists in the present day, sounds and feels like a breath of fresh air, with his talent and eye for detail whistling through time from his initial run of releases to our ears in the here and now, and oh boy is his discography a thing of beauty. Initially inspired by the expressive electronic music of Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, a run of bad luck resulted in O'Neill becoming unemployed, but in many ways this negative became a positive as he immersed himself in music magazines and turned his attention to the avant-garde, which led to him borrowing his brothers' wasp synthesiser. Steve Howell would then teach O'Neill the basics of synthesiser programming, and from here he would purchase a Roland SH-101 and a Sony TC-377, and the beginning of an incredibly fruitful creative period had begun. From 1984 through to 88', O'Neill self-released 6 tapes, all of which were recorded with his home set up, and the sound that emanates from these releases is quietly powerful and texturally excellent. The tone is set within the crackles and heavily laden textures, with the atmosphere being created one that remains deeply personal and overtly involving. The sound he mustered up remains indefinitely relevant, the dynamics of which are filled with shifts from densely layered melodic shorelines to cavernous, softly speaking rhythmic blips and clicks. O'Neill approached his craft with an understanding of evolution, as he considered the stanzas and ensured that his compositions never stood still, their form morphing from a small scale then into a large, all encompassing field of view within mere seconds - and it was all pulled off flawlessly. There truly is much to think about within his music, even more so the fact of how fresh and contemporary it sounds, its scope feeling like something from just yesterday gone rather than something released nearly 40 years ago. Timeless music is often that which goes above and beyond, its contents unafraid of exploring to the fullest and its depth never truly being reached, and with O'Neill's music there is so much depth to be explored. His run of 80s works are all well worth checking out, including the likes of 'Metamorphosis' (1985), 'Intimations of Immortality' (1986), 'Islands' (1987), 'Omega' and 'Live!' (both released in 1988), with these albums giving us the fullest spectrum imaginable of O'Neill's melodic expressionism and sonic scope. O'Neill would begin releasing records on the Direction Music label during the 1990s, beginning with the stunning 'Katharsis' release from 90', followed up by the equally compelling 'Yggdrasil' and 'A Hostage to Fortune', the latter of which came out on the Arrival Music imprint. The final piece of the jigsaw arrived in the form of 'The Secret Tapes', a 2017 compilation record that bought together many of O'Neill's recordings that never made it into the original run of releases, and to hear them together simply joins the dots between the varying degrees of ethereal atmospheres and time bending horizon lines. Put simply, Kevin O'Neill conjured up something new, something a little bit different, something which will forever remain his own, a uniquely out there and hard to beat ambient and experimental sound that feels as if it was made just yesterday. Its hard to not become completely enamoured with his craft and the tone in which he presents his music, a deeply mystifying series of enviroments that unravels itself gently to us until we are completely on board with everything being presented to us. Ambient in many ways is conceptual and deep, and O'Neill set the template for many who would follow in this regard - Ambient music with soul, character and a flawless ability to convey narrative and mood. We highly recommend checking out his works, if you feel like drifting into the twilight and into the deepest ravines within the mind.
And now we arrive at the subject of today's review, 'Icon (An Electronic Music Album)', O'Neill's debut tape, which was released back in 1984. The journey that O'Neill paved for himself in the 80s was certainly covered in gold, with the DNA that would become synonymous with his style for the next two decades. The tones are glorious, the melodies exquisite, but what lingers long in the memory here is the diversity of atmospheres, an element of O'Neill's records that would persist. Every track unravels slightly differently, enveloping the listener slightly differently each time but always leaving a similar impression, one which lingers long in the memory and allows us to look at the stars just a little bit differently. So, on that note, lets dive head first into this incredible and timeless slice of electronica, one which to this day feels significant and meaningful.....
'Julia' comes up first, and this one starts with the gusts to get things going. The contrast between the dynamism up top and the solid fuzz of the recording play out really well, and as the two lines merge and concede space to one another the arpeggio of our dreams starts to fade into view from the left hand side of the pan. Straight up tones also emerge which provide a solid basis for future expansion, and this is when the solo keys of sorts slide their way into the picture, their form meandering and expertly placed within the layers. The ways in which the three layers interact is a joy to behold, a consistent fluctuation that never ceases to amaze, delighting all the senses as we seek out a golden horizon line. The densities switch it up around the half way mark in the most subtle of ways, the interactions growing in stature and always looking to grow and merge, and as an opener you couldn't ask for much more. Up next comes 'The F'tang Element', which begins in a very different audial sphere. The drums are sparse, filtered through plenty of texture and spatial features, their form providing plenty of room for growth in regards to the melodies, and that is exactly what happens as time passes by. The keys are even more sparse, their placement converging with the drums at all the right moments, and if you listen closely you can hear the softest of pads emerge from underneath. As time passes by their presence becomes more and more overt, and what a line it is, as wondrous keys float pass the window, phasing in and out of time with expert delivery. The growth of this aspect of the song is highly memorable, and we arrive at a point towards the end which fills the heart with vitality, an eagerness to move into the light and face the day with plenty of positivity. Glorious stuff. 'Valles Marineris' arrives afterwards, and this shifts the spotlight towards the power of the keys. The chords found here are introspective and immensely deep, their solid state once again contrasting with such interest against the hum and crackle of the reel. The original form begins to divulge slightly, with additional layers thrown into the mix which add perplexity and intrigue with each passing stanza. The way in which things unfurl is a joy to behold, with an almost polyrhythmic approach to melody provided which never ceases to amaze, with each movement presented in the brightest of colours, allowing time and space to cease meaning and start to begin living free of structure. The key change that begins just shy of the half way mark keeps the interest running high, and before long further swells make their way into view, continuing to subvert our expectations of where exactly this journey is taking us. The final phase continues some deeply emotive passages, ones where the listener is washed over constantly as we find ourselves on the edge of our seats, eager to continue diving deep into a world that feels alive, well and filled to the brim with life and personality. This one is an epic.
'Iconoclast' comes next, and this one begins with some very interesting textures indeed. The pulsating arpeggios emerge from underneath the haze, clambering over one another before settling on a formal structure, but the magic here is found in the evolutions, as constant switches allow for the mind to keep resetting. The lead key line slices right through the oxide, engaging with the playful keys as we sweep from the bottom right through to the top, and just like that the energies collide into the night sky, a short but utterly beguiling snapshot into a universe of wonderment. 'Lucky for Some' comes next, and this one begins in a similar energised space as the previous cut. The scale is neverending, the drones in the undercurrent providing plenty of room up top for expansive and deeply meaningful interactions, as the lead synth dips and dives through the layers with the utmost ease. The listener is transported along, invited to weave their way through the oxide and out the other side, soaking up the ambience as time fleetingly passes by. The track simply glides by, grooving along to a pulse that is hard to put your finger on but so very easy to fall deep within, an enveloping notion that is as mysterious as it is crystal clear, soothing to the touch and profoundly engaging to the mind. The drone dips in and out of time around the half way mark, and as we enter the second half we see some high end chords swing in and out of view, as if they are emerging from an eternal slumber, eager and willing to show the world what they are made of. There's time for some expertly conceived rhythmic blemishes at the end, their form contrasting with the expressive keys wonderfully, and like that the curtain calls, and we feel all manner of things. To wrap things up, we have 'On The Wings of a Condor', and this one starts with the cosmic techno-logical sweeps to get things going. Birdsong calls out amongst the metallic squirms, and after a few stanzas the noises drip away to leave us with a lovingly curated bass line, which is joined soon after by a chordal sweep to die for. The keys are dripping in the cosmos, their tone so delicate and pure, their presence doing so much to add to the uniformity of the bass line, the soundscape we have before us truly, truly special. As ever with this record, the emphasis remains on quiet evolutions, transitions that flow into one another with an expertise and perhaps more importantly, an inspiring spirit. The additional short stabs do much to add further to the ensemble, with further parts thrown in for good measure which continue to keep the mind ticking over. Its a mesmerising ending to a record that we cannot get enough of, one which stays on the consciousness for a long while after it has ended, and one which we feel honoured to come across.
There are many stories within electronic music, and some shine brighter than others, and in many ways Kevin O'Neill's star feels like one of the brightest out there. Never one to shy away from a challenge, his music bought out the best in the emerging genre of Ambient, so much so that it sounds incredibly relevant to the conversations we continue to have to this day within the genre and its many, many meanings. His original run of home produced tapes are the stuff of legend, and here on his debut all the motifs of what would become an era defining series of recordings are laid bare for all to witness. The humble yet excessively scaled soundscapes, the light touches in regards to composition and rhythmic placement, the bold and expressive brush strokes that capture the eye and reel in the mind, O'Neill thought of everything, and perhaps most importantly - he left space for growth. A true originator he is, and the music he made with last many, many lifetimes - 'Icon' was just the start, so why not go and check it all out?
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