It's really hard to write about utility music. By utility music, I mean ambient music. And by ambient, of course I'm talking about Brian Eno. He's a dabbler and an innovator and definitely a consummate collaborator. No matter what the album is listed as credit to Brian Eno, there is always someone helping out or inspiring him. This time around, his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois are behind the scenes adding guitar and other . Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks is exactly what it says it is, an atmospheric ambient album that was sued as a soundtrack to a film called For All Mankind, a documentary about the Apollo space program. The music held on these 12" of vinyl is a journey through the emptiness of space. Sure, no one will hear you scream in space, but regardless of the soundless vacuum of the gulf of space, there is still some sort of music to be made to emote the feeling of emptiness full of stars and celestial bodies. Whether someone thinks it can be constituted as "music" is up to the individual, but there is no denying the power behind this record to emote a feeling of space travel. The wonder and awe of the universe broken down for your ears.
Before I go into the particulars about the music, I want to go back to what I mean by Utility Music. Ambient music as per what Eno was trying to create in the 70's is a type of music that isn't meant for popular consumption but to be used as utility. No greater album to describe this idea is Ambient 1: Music for Airports. It's purpose was to be played in airports to calm the nerves of bustling travellers. Sure, that isn't the case today as I have yet to hear "1/1" while waiting in the terminal, but it was an experiment nonetheless. A soundtrack is utility music of sorts, written for the sole purpose to accompany a visual, however, many soundtracks go beyond this. Apollo is definitely one of those records. Released in 1983, it's a beautiful album that works great for meditation, as a sleep aid and as a beautiful reflection of the night sky above.
"Under Stars", a recurring theme of sorts on the album, is a slow, bubbling and brooding track. It's incessant hum and occasional shifting synths make it one of the most unsettling first tracks on an album. Unless played really loud, "The Secret Place" almost seems nonexistent, except with an occasional sound here and there. Same goes for "Matta" where a strange, almost organic grunting sound comes out of nowhere. "Signals" fits the tide for a very somber and quiet opening of the record. It isn't until the incredible "An Ending (Ascent)" comes in that we get any sense of melody. This is easily one of Eno's most famous ambient tracks. It's an essential in his catalog. It's beautiful rising tide of sound is like watching the Sun emerge over the Earth, filling you with it's warmth and it's unbridled beauty. "Under Stars II" is much like the album opener, but there are tiny differences between all the star themed songs. "Drift" ends the first half of the record, which is a very minimal.
Side two is way more conventional. When Eno was given the task, he found that slide guitar and country/western style twang kind of fit in well with the role of the astronauts. Like space cowboys (not the movie!) they were travelling uncharted frontiers. This is where Daniel Lanois steps in. Side two starts with an impressive and gorgeous Lanois helmed track "Silver Morning." The tones on the guitar are beautiful and other than maybe a few minor production notes, Eno takes the back seat here. "Deep Blue Day," Eno's other very popular ambient track, invokes the vastness and beauty of the universe. It's flowing tones wash over the listener with an array of sounds and accents care of Lanois' guitar. It's one of the best songs to ease the mind. "Weightless" is an electric piano and guitar piece that definitely invokes the sense of floating. The sleepy slide guitar gently moving in and out of the simple and elegant piano line. "Always Returning" is a lullaby of sorts, one filled with a sense of wonderment and joy. The title is no doubt in reference to the astronauts returning, so the simpleness and quietude of the track is fitting. "Stars" finishes the record and much like "Under Stars" and "Under Stars II", actually, exactly like them except all other instrumentation aside from the simple drone is extracted. It's hypnotic in it's minimalism.
One thing is for sure; Brian Eno's ambient records are not for everyone. Utility in music seems a bit obtuse, yet Apollo is not as sterile as some of the other ambient projects. Maybe because it was used for a film it evokes more? I can't explain it. I just know that if you can embrace this album, you will truly be delighted.