When asked what type of music I like, I never know what to say. “Music to which I have an emotional response,” is the truthful but unhelpful answer. I suspect that most people, whether they care little or are truly passionate about music, just want an answer along the lines of, “Oh, you know, reggae.” Or ‘pop’. Or ‘classical’. Or ‘metal’. Or any catch-all genre category. And that’s what I usually give them. If I think the enquiry was born out of politeness, I usually say ‘ambient’ or ‘experimental’. If they seem genuinely interested I say ‘drone’. And when I want to end the conversation, ‘freeform jazz.’ That’s usually enough for most people, but if you have to delve deeper and they want more details, you end up in the tricky and totally unsatisfactory waters of making up musical sub-genres – ambient experimental droning freeform jazz. Music journalists and record stores love such labeling and I guess that to some extent we can’t help but let these artificial categories guide our listening and purchasing habits, even though we know how meaningless they can be. They are almost as meaningless as describing an album as ‘awesome’ or ‘stunning’.
So, given that categorising music is meaningless and lazy, I’d like to talk about ‘Edgelander’ music.
Welcome to Edgelandia
‘Edgelander’ is a term I have caught myself using recently to describe several of my favourite albums and it is a reference to the early 2000’s work of English writer and country-side activist, Marion Shoards. In her essay simply entitled, ‘Edgelands’, we were introduced to the concept of the marginal hinterland between planned town and over-managed countryside, an area where a strange mingling of utilitarian urban with unplanned nature takes place. Since then, ‘Edgelands’ have become a minor cultural ‘thing’, along with psycho-geography and the like, and out-of-town industrial parks, sewage-works, tow-paths, the land trapped in motorway junctions and unloved brownfield sites are now the subjects of prose, film, photography and an excellently entertaining book by a couple of poets, imaginatively called ‘Edgelands’. These liminal spaces are seen as an untapped, alternative resource and have become, in certain circles, quite the object of a new cult. I exaggerate of course.
Anyway, I’m sure this idea is being increasingly reflected in the music I’m currently enjoying. Maybe I’m just looking for it.
For example, last year’s stunning Near Dark album by the awesome Gideon Wolf on the stunningly awesome Fluid label was most certainly to me an album bustling with the sound of the Edgelands. Transformers hum, taut wires tremble, trees creak and undergrowth rustles. Still one of my favourite albums, ever, it stands firmly with one foot caught in brambles and the other snagged on barbed wire. It projects a jeopardy and danger that reflects the Edgelands as wild and dangerous border territory. Here is the Edgelands of abandoned rotting structures, reclaimed by Poison Ivy and Rosebay Willowherb, of bracken and broken bottles, of Buddleia and butterflies, of abandoned mattresses and a dead dog.
Earlier I described the Edgelands as ‘liminal’ and they are, referring as the term does, to the threshold on either side of the border; in Near Dark’s case, the wild and disorganised no-man’s zone between organised rural and organised urban. But it also has a particular meaning in the study of ritual in folklore. Here it is used to describe the condition during a ritual transition when the original state of being is lost and the new one, which is to be brought about by the completion of the ritual, has yet to be attained. During this period of the process, the participant gains a unique and often frightening perspective on both the condition he has left behind and that to which he is moving. It is such a perspective that Gideon Wolf presents for us, caught as he is between rural and urban, past and future, renewal and decay, hunted and hunter.
Meanwhile, in another part of Edgelandia…..
Earlier this year, bijou and diverse Whitelabrecs released Contrails by Dave Kirby. On first listen I thought this album a ‘sleep’ album. I’m afraid to say I parked the album on the iPod, put the CD on the shelf and forgot about it. A long walk through a sprawling industrial/business park one bright Sunday morning soon changed my mind. Contrails’ long drone ‘movements’ echoed the endless procession of incredibly similar yet slightly different warehouses, each asleep, each with their monumental roller doors firmly pulled down. The concrete standings for articulated trucks in front of each were empty and home only to heat haze. The warehouses gave way to workshops, all corrugated steel and compounded store-rooms, protected by chain-link and razor wire. Here the wind thrummed the fencing and occasionally stirred the big blades of extractor fans into slow and grinding half-hearted motion. Contrails’ drones, its static and its hums, contain quietly dampened industrial noise and machinery buried deep in the mix. It’s the echo of the inner life of these temporarily abandoned workplaces.
Yet alongside all this ran bull-rush choked drainage ditches and wide verges. Small birds flitted. There was even the odd duck. All the chain-link was anchored by ivy and encroaching brambles. Dandelions cracked the tarmac. Occasionally I came across a space between one particular type of building and another. Most were fenced off, filled with bracken and brambles, abandoned pallets and hoardings, impenetrable wildlife citadels. One or two were open. In these were ponds and willow trees, a bench. Frogs. A heron. An oil drum and more pallets. And so too alongside the evolving manmade soundscape of Contrails there are the sounds of nature; wind, rain, water, wild-life.
Contrails was the perfect soundtrack to this walk through this more serene Edgelands. It captured that hazy and slightly hallucinatory time and place perfectly, the gently slumbering man-made, humming quietly, and the irrepressible, ever-present, never ending, encroachments of nature.
You are now leaving Edgelandia.
Gideon Wolf’s Near Dark is now only available as a download from his bandcamp page:
It was originally available in an incredible physical version from Fluid but, as is the way with all their releases, was gone in an instant.
Dave Kirby’s Contrails is available as a download from Whitelabrec’s bandcamp:
It too has sold out in physical format.
Both these labels have super limited runs and so it is worth signing up to their mailing lists.