TOM MIDDLETON: Lifetracks (Big Chill Recordings)


Posted on Dec 3rd 2007 01:01 am

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Tom Middleton: Lifetracks

Big Chill Recordings 2007
12 Tracks. 69mins09secs

Originally envisioned as music to wind down to after a night out, downtempo found a commercial life of its own in the mid to late nineties under the guises of trip hop, ambient breaks, and any number of dime-a-dozen compilations invoking watered-down Buddhist spirituality. Like all genres, downtempo was destined to produce some more questionable compositions. Over time, the darkness (and much of the depth) was swept out from more popular recordings, replaced by a flux of reverberated blandness (looking at you, Zero 7) leading to inevitable, laughable cash-ins like the Reindeer Room series of Christmas compilations. Suddenly, “chillout” became a new buzz genre, and the most staid dinner parties had a watered-down soundtrack.

Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Just ask Tom Middleton. As a forerunner in the early movement of dowtempo fusionism, Middleton worked with Richard D. James (on the ambient house-inflected Analogue Bubblebath EP), and, most famously, as half of Global Communication, the pioneering ambient and deep house act, whose 76:14 is rightfully acclaimed as the summit of ambient house and techno.

Now, Middleton has released Lifetracks, his first solo album, as a peaceful reminder of a time when downbeat fusion was both exciting and vital. From the track titles alone, which draw upon Eastern spirituality (Shinkansen), emotional states (Serendipity, Yearning), and late-night moodiness (Moonbathing), the album elicits a classic, nineties ambient atmosphere.

Opener Prana starts things off perfectly, as a progressively layering groove climaxes in a widescreen sea of strings and synths. Following this is Beginning Of The Middle, in which Middleton brings forth a vital sense of darkness and mystery that’s been missing in downtempo for far too long. Part of the genius of Global Communication was its ability to both lull you to sleep, and force you to focus on its stunning peaces, often at the same time. Lifetracks works on a similar level; on one hand, yes, it’s fine background music for a social gathering, but on the other hand, the tracks are interesting enough to reward close listening. Each peace here is definitely going somewhere.

An essential asset of Lifetracks is that it ebbs and flows at an appropriate pace. Middleton’s music is beauty with a purpose and a destination, and the journey is the best part. It is thrilling to hear each additional part enter on the active builder Shinkansen, before Middleton amusingly filters out of the song with an emphasis on a funk guitar hit. Elsewhere, the bubbly synth of Astral Projection rides a dubby groove through a spaced-out sea of reverb and pads, featuring breathy noises resonances reminiscent of Global Communication’s 9:25.

Lifetracks does not sound like an album released in 2007. This is a plus, in that it evokes the classic sound of mid-nineties ambience, but it also bestows an oddly nostalgic feeling on the music. This kind of fusion is no longer new and exciting, and the listener cannot help but think of Middleton pining for a bygone age. Unfortunately, Lifetracks lacks the timeless aura of ambient house/techno masterpieces by The Orb, Aphex Twin, or Global Communication.

Lifetracks is far from a rehash, but it’s not a revitalization either; Middleton is, it would seem, far too humble and uninterested in presenting himself as “relevant” to go trend chasing. Rather, it is best to approach the album as a gently beautiful statement from a downtempo master. Middleton has nothing to prove here, and is instead free to focus on crafting the kind of music he does best.


Icon: arrow Tom Middleton | Big Chill Recordings
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