Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Bill Nelson
Chance Encounters in the Garden of Lights

Released 1988 on Enigma/Cocteau
Reviewed by Lugia, 06/01/2004ce

Bill Nelson: "Chance Encounters in the Garden of Lights" (LP version)
Enigma/Cocteau D1-73337, recorded 1980-87, released 1988

Normally, I would put a track listing here, but given that there are some 41 tracks spread across this double-LP set, and also given that the cassette and CD versions contain different amounts of tracks and somewhat different orders, I prefer to look at this release as more of a 'unified work' rather than a collection of smaller snips.

Bill Nelson, during the 1980s from around the time of Be-Bop Deluxe's breakup onward, did quite a bit of work in his own homestudio, The Echo Observatory. This was not merely musical work, either, as Nelson explains in the liner notes here that these tracks were also part of an ongoing spiritual process of development and growth. So what we have here is a set of vignettes, snapshots of some obscure time or another across the space from 1980 to 1987, chronicling his experiments, exercises, and practices in musical form, likely alongside parallel self-exploration of a spiritual and philosophical nature. The whole set appears to owe a debt to the visualization and evocatory explorations of the occultic innovator Austin Osman Spare, with a quote from his writings featured in the liner notes that reads:

"The Way of heaven is a purpose - anterior to and not induced by thought. Desire, other than the act, shall in no wise obtain: Therefore believe SYMBOLICALLY or with caution.

Art is love. Wisdom and folly is a difference of degree."

By and large, the thrust here is very much in the ambient vein, but Nelson doens't simply stick with a unified 'drifty' atmosphere through these snippets. Things get broken up; one track might be washy...Eno-like, then there'll be something build around a quoting vocal loop from some semi-familiar source, then maybe a "Sowiesoso" outtake, then perhaps something with a drum track...not banging, then into a Roedelius-like pulse-piece, maybe a bit of Ryuichi Sakamoto-ism, then some droning phasing for a bit, and so on, etc etc. The effect is very much like an ambient 'salon recital', a string of pieces in side-long 'suites'. Nothing ever gets jangly, and a sense of introspection always seems to inform the music. The instruments in play are mainly synth, although there's a bit of guitar here and there, guitar synth also it seems like, sometimes a drum machine, sometimes a vocal sample in the style of his "Orchestra Arcana" projects. But there's a homogeneity to the sound...it never gets wide-ranging, as if the intent here was to focus on the short compositions themselves. Form, and not the components of the form.

Annoyingly, this thing is rather hard to find; I only have the LP version, which I got to replace the cassette version that I literally wore out during my Masters work. It was a great calming influence during that time, and even fifteen or so years on (longer still if you count the 'vintage' of some tracks on here) this entire album has aged quite well. My complaint...and the sole one...is the side-changes; my cassette allowed me these wonderful hour-plus sweeps of sound that worked so nicely as pure atmosphere.

If you really like ambient...and I really like it, probably because I compose and play it myself...this is one of those little-known gems of the genre that is a classic from the time just before the dawn of ambient house and all that came in its wake. You want the CD version, though, as (if I remember right) it has some 60+ tracks...same idea and pacing as the other versions, but the 'heftiest' of them all. Put on, allow to run. Or just as easily, drop it in the multi and use it as a means of dropping a little breakup here and there in things via randomization. Anything works, really...it's consistently good, no matter where the needle goes down.

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