August 1994 – album reviews – Richard Barbieri/Tim Bowness’ ‘Flame’ (“the internal landscapes of the restless emotional mind… the indistinct visions of dreams and the hallucinatory moments of being in love”)

31 Aug

Richard Barbieri/Tim Bowness: 'Flame'

Richard Barbieri/Tim Bowness: ‘Flame’

There’s a common misconception going around which says that in order to be “experimental” you have to be noisy (viz. the many grinding guitar-noise bands clogging up many a Camden basement or American college-kid bar) – or, conversely, that you have to be utterly ambient, all empty space filled with electronic pulses, “ironic” hoover noises and nothing so anti-deconstructionist as the hint of a song. Theoretically a great idea, but in the end it produces little more than a big heap of CDs which you only play once plus another big heap of empty pseud criticism.

Alternatively, you could join that group of musicians whom Tim Bowness calls “the radical conservatives”; those people who take a long, wise look at both what’s going on and what’s worth retaining from the past, and then combine it with their own particular art of the possible, in the process creating memorable, lasting and demanding records (if not always incredibly famous ones – but so it goes, eh?) These people are also collaborators par excellence, linking up with a free-floating pool of like-minded musical allies to produce something greater.


 
In this context, the teaming of Bowness (the outspoken, intellectual No-Man singer) and synthesist Richard Barbieri (the quiet one in Japan) makes perfect sense. Both are associated with progressive synth-pop groups that stretch yearningly towards art and sensation; both fairly drip with musical and contextual knowledge; they’ve worked closely together in the past; and now they’ve produced an album as a duo which draws on considerable collaborative talent, including regular mates (fellow ex-Japan-ers Steve Jansen and Mick Karn, No-Man instrumental maverick Steven Wilson) and highly individual guns-for-hire (double bassist Danny Thompson, world-jazz drummer Gavin Harrison, textural guitarist Michael Bearpark). ‘Flame’ has emerged out of a mutual desire to create what Bowness calls “ambient torch songs”; moody late-night music with words summoning up the memories of love and heartwreck, sheathed in drapes and washes of unearthly sound. (There are, of course, precedents: Scott Walker, The Blue Nile, Julee Cruise and both men’s respective groups – Japan’s Ghosts being a particular blueprint.)


 
This objective is best realised on standout song Brightest Blue – Chris Maitland‘s delicate pattering drums wander around Danny Thompson’s deep woody jazz bass and Barbieri’s gentle piano chordings as Bowness unfolds the beautifully rapt love song of someone so engrossed in another person that they are virtually oblivious to the war going on outside their very windows. Distant swathes of Frippian textural guitar and blankets of electronic sound from Barbieri’s keyboards that settle on the listener like banks of soft snow add to the withdrawn, dreamlike theme of the song: a theme which becomes dominant over the course of an album which deals with the internal landscapes of the restless emotional mind, with the indistinct visions of dreams and the hallucinatory moments of being in love.


 
Bowness’ words touch on images of dying light and candles, sleeping and waking, hunger and falling, vegetation and rivers; and above all on memory, vision and communication obscured, whether this is beneficial or otherwise. Brightest Blue urges “forget the facts… I have to trust my own truth”; Song of Love and Everything cuts through its vague atmosphere of betrayal with “jump in the water / …swim in the dark to keep myself alive / …to shake myself awake”; the closing Feel rages quietly “I don’t know what it means / I try to surrender / I only know what I feel.”


 
This murky emotional obscurity means that ‘Flame’ tends to drift away from its initial premise into a hinterland of dimly-lit emotional set-pieces. Songs like A Night in Heaven and Trash Talk come across as expressionistic heart-sketches; their rains and rivers, their words of betrayal, stagnation and disaffection mingling to put across a particular mood. As such, ‘Flame’ fails as an ambient torch album. The title song is one of the few that emerges from the mists of imagination, with its portrait of a suffocating lover (“I will hear your calls, I will break your falls / …build your walls / because our love is strong / …I will share your life, / I will blind your sight…/ I will cover you / I will smother you”) and Bowness often seems to be providing tantalising clues rather than telling a story. (Unfortunately, the ambient-torch label is better applied to the work of David Sylvian, Barbieri’s former bandmate, whose own highly literate take on the form will be inevitably and somewhat unfairly compared to this album.)


 
Where ‘Flame’ does succeed, however, is as a marvellous dream album. A lot of this is down to Barbieri’s magnificent settings. Always a sculptor in sound rather than a keyboardist per se, he envelopes Bowness’ hallowed, reverent croon and enigmatic word-clues in delicate electronics – scouring sounds, breathy walls of soft noise, alien cellos and Chinese chimes, resonant aquatic flutters and twitters. On the solitary instrumental track, Torch Dance, he wraps undulating didgeridoo sounds with waves of flanged burbles and an unearthly guitar.

Throughout ‘Flame’, Barbieri creates an ocean of sound, always beautiful, never inflated by the self-important pomp that can sink keyboard-based albums. Other musicians float and mesh their own contributions into this sweet tapestry – Jansen’s featherlight percussive touch, Karn’s elastic bass and smears of treated sax, Steven Wilson’s guitars charting a course between psychedelia and spaghetti-western in contrast to Michael Bearpark’s distant blocks of Howe-cum-Frippian textures… all anchor the music to further dimensions of dreaming and organic emotion.


 
All of which adds up to a rich, seductive experience. Yes, ‘Flame’ can err too much on the side of obscurity a little too often, but it does so with such a consummate shadowy beauty that this becomes a positive virtue. Gorgeous, lazy, flowing melodies; a ghostly hint of melancholia; a rattle at the spirit cage… this is one flicker in the darkness that is well worth tracking down. Come catch the fire.

Richard Barbieri/Tim Bowness: ‘Flame’
One Little Indian Records, TPLP58CD (5 016958 023720)
CD/cassette album
Released:
29th August 1994
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Richard Barbieri online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Amazon Music
Tim Bowness online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Amazon Music
 

One Response to “August 1994 – album reviews – Richard Barbieri/Tim Bowness’ ‘Flame’ (“the internal landscapes of the restless emotional mind… the indistinct visions of dreams and the hallucinatory moments of being in love”)”

  1. Dann Chinn July 12, 2020 at 11:09 pm #

    Originally written for and published in ‘Progress’, 1994.

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