In January 1995 the English music critic Simon Reynolds published on ArtForum an article entitled “ISOLATIONISM, genre survey/thinkpiece”.
In this article Reynolds investigated a new musical sub-genre coined by the critic Kevin Martin, defined as Isolationism. With this term they tried to give a connotation to a vast network of refugees, disenchanted by rock (Main, Final, Scorn, Disco Inferno, E.A.R.) and experimental musicians (Zoviet France, Thomas Koner, Jim O’Rourke). Among the records recommended by Reynolds there was the compilation “Ambient 4: Isolationism”, a work of Kevin Martin himself where, in addition to the artists already mentioned, there were 13 other exponents of the avant-rock and post-rave scene.
This double CD, never reissued, through the years has become a sort of reference, a frozen moment, a snapshot of an artistic scene. The ironic thing was that it was the fourth in the “Virgin Ambient series”, a series of CDs among the best-selling by Virgin UK, which if on one hand published interesting works by David Toop, the “Ocean of Sound” collections and “Macro Dub Infection” on the other rode the tiger of the chill-out’s boom. An ironic paradox as the isolationist musical aesthetic broke radically with all the premises of ambient music.
Reynolds defined isolationism as an “ice-olationist”, highlighting how it decidedly detached itself both from the “environmental” visions of Brian Eno who saw this music as an element of decoration, as a subliminal accompaniment to daily life, and from the chill-out’s ideas matured by artists such as Pete Namlook, The Irresistible Force, Future Sound Of London, Biosphere and The Orb who wanted to wrap the listener in an intoxicating sound bath, giving him relief from the stress of urban existence.
Unlike the pseudo-pastoral peace of the Ambient, Isolationism offered no help but rather a cold, glacial comfort that evoked a restless silence with sinister tones. Isolationism was the disturbing calm before the catastrophe, the deadly stillness of the winter anguish. A sort of dark ambient. Musically, isolationism still shared many traits with Ambient music. First of all the emphasis on the texture and the tone: many tracks are a fog of luminous drones, generated by guitars elaborated by effects, samplers or, in the case of Thomas Koner, by the long decay of the gongs. Secondly, the absence of rhythm: if there is percussion, it is a metal-style death bell (“Lost (Held Under)” by Null / Plotkin), or a gamelan-style texture (“Hallucinations, In Memory Of Reinaldo Arenas ”by Paul Schutze). Third, it adheres to Eno’s idea that ambient music should not have a defined structure. But instead of being lulling and reassuring, Isolationist is an incubator of profound structural discomfort.
The presence of David Toop in the collection is significant. Toop is an excellent critic as well as a musician, and has repeatedly written of how some strands of contemporary music reflect an indefinite feeling of terror that many people now feel when they think about life, the world, the future. Words that anticipated the writings of Mark Fisher. These ideas perfectly fit the way in which Isolationism turns Ambient music upside down, so that the sound traits (hypnotic rings, amorphous drones) which normally mean a plateau of orgasmic / mystical bliss (in techno) or serenity (in Ambient), lead to opposite sensations: panic crisis, dissociation and disorientation. With Isolationism, the absence of narrative means not utopia but entropy, paralysis. But there is also a kind of neurotic enjoyment to get from this music. It is a victory over the omnipresent low intensity anxiety typical of our neoliberal society. If you listen to your demons, you can make them friends. There is no doubt, in fact, that Isolationist music presents a disturbing magnetism and morbid reveries, very different from the calming waves of cosmic rock or ambient music, but very similar to the weird fantasies of H.P. Lovecraft and modernist science fiction writers.
Isolationism seems to create the perfect soundtracks for films and stories about world destruction or mass annihilation, diagnosed in response to the planet’s overpopulation. The empty soundscape also seems to be intimately connected with a strong sense of individuality that is perfectly combined with the perpetual anxiety of the avant-garde artist to be incorporated into the mass, the purity of art that succumbs to the pulp and gruel of a massified popular culture. This is music that embodies and embraces the “death of the social”. It is music that seems driven by an almost monastic impulse to escape from the noisy hyperactivity of pop culture for a rigorous aesthetic of silence and sensory deprivation, it seems to want to express a nihilistic re-addressing towards one’s inner space.
This compilation also highlights another interesting aspect: a massive concentration of guitarists. Let’s take the list of the pieces and begin to investigate.
- KK Null & Jim Plotkin: “Lost (Held Under)”
KK Null: Kazuyuki Kishino (岸野 一之, Kishino Kazuyuki, born September 13, 1961 in Tokyo), known by his stage name KK Null, is a Japanese experimental multi-instrumentalist active since the early 1980s. He began as a guitarist, but soon added composer, singer, electronic musician and drummer to his list of talents, and also studied Butoh dance at Min Tanaka’s workshop.
Jim Plotkin: James Plotkin is an American guitarist and producer known for his role in bands such as Khanate and OLD but with an extensive catalogue outside these bands. He has played guitar for Phantomsmasher and Scorn and continues to remix tracks for bands such as KK Null, Nadja, Sunn O))), ISIS, Pelican and Earth. He works in the genres of grindcore, industrial metal, noise music, drone metal, dark ambient, digital hardcore and post-metal.
- Jim O’Rourke: “Flat Without A Back”
Jim O’Rourke: Jim O’Rourke (born January 18, 1969) is an American musician and record producer. He was long associated with the Chicago experimental and improv scene. Around 2000, he relocated to New York before moving on to Tokyo, Japan, where he currently resides. O’Rourke is best known for his numerous solo and collaborative projects, many of which are entirely instrumental, and for his tenure as a member of Sonic Youth from 1999 to 2005.
- Ice: “The Dredger”
Ice (often stylized as ICE) is an industrial music band formed by guitarist Justin Broadrick and saxophonist/vocalist Kevin Martin
- Raoul Björkenheim: “Strangers”
Raoul Björkenheim (born February 11, 1956) is an American jazz guitarist from Los Angeles
- Zoviet France: “Daisy Gun”
- Labradford: “Air Lubricated Free Axis Trainer”
Labradford: Founded in 1991, Labradford consists of bassist Robert Donne, guitarist/vocalist Mark Nelson, and keyboardist Carter Brown. Their music style is experimental ambient and post-rock, although their first releases were much more related to dark drone rock.[
- Techno Animal: “Self Strangulation”
Techno Animal is an industrial hip hop duo formed in 1990 in London, England by British composers and musicians Justin Broadrick and Kevin Martin.
- Paul Schütze: “Hallucinations (In Memory Of Reinaldo Arenas)”
- Scorn: “Silver Rain Fell (Deep Water Mix)”
Scorn was formed in 1991 in Birmingham, England, by drummer Mick Harris and vocalist/bassist Nic Bullen, former members of English grindcore band Napalm Death. Another Napalm Death member, Justin Broadrick, appeared on their first LP, Vae Solis. With Bullen’s departure in April 1995, Harris has been the only member of the project since then.
- Disco Inferno: “Lost In Fog”
Disco Inferno was an English experimental rock band active in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Initially a trio of guitar, bass, and drums (Ian Crause (guitars and vocals), Paul Willmott (bass), and Rob Whatley (drums)) performing in an identifiable post-punk style, the band soon pioneered a dynamic use of digital sampling in addition to standard rock instruments.
- Total: “Six”
- Nijiumu: “Once Again I Cast Myself Into The Flames Of Atonement”
Nijiumu: Keiji Haino (灰野 敬二 Haino Keiji; born May 3, 1952) is a Japanese musician and singer-songwriter whose work has included rock, free improvisation, noise music, percussion, psychedelic music, minimalism and drone music. He has been active since the 1970s and continues to record regularly and in new styles.
- Aphex Twin: “Aphex Airlines”
- AMM: “Vandoevre”
- Seefeel: “Lief”
Seefeel are a British post-rock band formed in the early 1990s by Mark Clifford (guitar, sequencing), Daren Seymour (bass), Justin Fletcher (drums), and Sarah Peacock (vocals and guitar).
- .O.rang: “Little Sister”
O.rang (or ‘O’rang) was an experimental music project led by former Talk Talk members Lee Harris and Paul Webb, with a shifting cast of guest musicians.
- E.A.R.: “Hydroponic”
E.A.R.: Peter Kember (born 19 November 1965), also known by his stage name Sonic Boom, is an English singer and record producer. He was a founding member, bassist, vocalist and guitarist of alternative rock band Spacemen 3, lasting from 1982 until the band’s dissolution in 1991
- Sufi: “Desert Flower”
- David Toop & Max Eastley: “Burial Rites (Phosphorescent Mix)”
- Main: “Crater Scar (Adrenochrome)”
Main were a British band formed in 1991 by guitarists Robert Hampson and Scott Dowson, both formerly of the English rock band Loop. Drawing on that group’s experimentation with drones and guitar texture, the duo moved further into ambient sound, eventually abandoning traditional percussion and rhythm altogether
- Final: “Hide”
Final is a project of Justin Broadrick, creator of the band Godflesh, which he started when he was just 13 years old. Unlike Godflesh, Final is primarily electronic in nature, taking on a space-like, dark ambient sound
- Lull: “Thoughts”
- Thomas Köner: “Kanon (Part One: Brohuk)”
As you can see there are several guitarists and some of them, like Justin Broadrick, return several times under various reincarnations. What I have always found interesting is the sense of estrangement that is felt listening to music that seems light years away from the iconic image of the guitar. Thanks to the use of loops and an infinite series of pedals and effects, the electric guitar receives a “whitening” treatment that frees itself from any previous image related to rock and blues. I think it’s a process that started with post punk and brought to extreme levels: the electric guitar is used here as a pure sound generator. Isolationism gives the guitar an acousmatic effect that Pierre Schaeffer would probably have liked and that gives it the quality of a standing alone musical object. In this collection Isolationism gives the guitar qualities and a musical imprint previously unknown.