The Black Dog’s Martin Dust mentioned, in his recent interview with FACT, that he was disappointed with Brian Eno’s 1979 precursor to this album, Music for Airports, as it lacked reality. “It just seemed so out of place”, Martin observed, “like something from a sci-fi film”. I’m not sure whether it’s involvement in the art removing objectivity, or simply aesthetics evolving over time, but the main cultural reference point throughout numerous listens to this record for this writer has been Moon, the 2009 film by Duncan Jones. Moon, were you unaware, is a science fiction film.*
This isn’t your reviewer being a dick, rather it’s a hopefully understandable reaction to this record, before having read said interview. Both Moon and MfRA are super-modern, minimally beautiful and surprisingly poignant works that serve to remind us, in this world of overkill and hyperbole, of how effective a decent level of imagination combined with killer execution can be. There was some trepidation prior to hearing Music for Real Airports: after the ridiculously good recent one-two of Radio Scarecrow and Further Vexations, a concept album? A retort to Eno that pimps the importance of reality and legitimacy? Is this an album or an art installation?
While it begins with traffic noises and samples of disembodied welcomers (and how nice it would be to drift in and out of an airport within the hour it takes to play this record…), you do not have to be waiting in a departure lounge to feel the music on here. While it’s certainly true that the juxtaposition of haunting, trembling, arpeggio and ominous low frequency of ‘Sleep Deprivation 2’ benefits from contextualisation within the mass-dehumanity of the holding bays we pay for the privilege to perch in, the music is not dependent on location. A graduated ambient album, MfRA uses real world samples and cues as signifiers and enablers of a concept, rather than allowing them to become what the album is. Instead, the arrangement ebbs and flows while generally building, reminiscent of Ricardo Villalobos’ Fabric 36 set, albeit replacing South American sexual tension and catharsis with the satisfaction of (just about) getting home.
I very nearly went to Leeds Bradford Airport for this one. I didn’t, largely because I had nowhere to go, the World Cup was on, and I have a job. I did manage to listen to it while taking the train to Wakefield. Railway stations are like shitty little airports; you wait around, feeling your soul ebb gradually, yet inexorably, away. And then you get in a large vehicle and turn your brain off, lest the tedium of your situation divorce you from sanity. And, in this context, MfRA definitely worked. What’s refreshing, in this day and age of Sigur Ros and soft ambience, is that this record does not emulate the feeling of rising through the cloud canopy, nor does it enhance the sensation of being above the mortal Earth, peering down at seas and mountain ranges like so many patchwork quilts.
No, given their punk backgrounds amid the steel and perspiration of Sheffield and agit-electro, TBD focus on the more earthly ‘delights’ of your journey. ‘Future Delay Thinking’ and ‘Delay 9’ sum up the (non-)passage of time, while the heavy breathing of ‘Passport Control’ and snippets of barely audible voices mixed in with numbing aural thuds and blotches of ‘DISinformation Desk’ (love the sentiment, but the nomenclature is a tad heavy-handed) bring the paranoia you sometimes feel. Granted, when I was travelling from Iran to Turkey during the former’s post-election troubles in 2009, even I wasn’t quite as shook as your man on ‘Passport Control’ seems to be. But it takes all sorts, I guess.
What we’ve got here, then, is an album that is many things at once. It does convey, to a very real extent, the weariness and boredom of waiting around at various points of an airport-based journey, but it makes a virtue of it, somehow maintaining the ennui while transmogrifying it into something beautiful. It’s a fitting third part in the recent trilogy (so far) of albums. And, if we’re being honest, it hints at a desire to move into soundtrack work. But why not, when here is a collection of sonic vignettes that evoke on their own, yet combine to form a seamless whole? We’ll know in advance who Duncan Jones can call when the time comes to make Moon 2: Electric Boogaloo.
* If you really don’t want to think of this as a sci-fi record, despite its Death-Stargate front cover, you’ll do well not to listen to ‘BCN4’, from the limited edition Thee Lounge EP. While very good, its voice samples, banging on as they do about galaxies an ting, do little to back up Martin’s argument. Or perhaps it’s a sly dig at the whole ‘Music for Airports as sci-fi’ thing. Who knows?