Robert Fripp's "Radiophonics".
1995's "Radiophonics" is only one of the many volumes in guitarist Robert Fripp's ongoing 'Soundscapes' releases. Recorded live in Buenos Aires, Argentina, "Radiophonics" finds Fripp stretching his soundscapes into lengthy dissonant explorations which are sometimes beautiful, sometimes frightening but always musically intriuging.
Harsh and dissonant
"Radiophonics" is probably both the most difficult and least enjoyable of Robert Fripp's solo soundscapes releases. Performed by Fripp unaccompanied on guitar, with processing and looping, soundscapes are, for Fripp, a means of improvisational expression. This release, recorded live in Argentina in 1995, actually presents two suites, the "Radiophonics" portion and the "Buenos Aires Suite". I'll address each separately.
A looooong while back I wrote a two-star review for this batch of white noise, complaining how difficult a listen it was. Well, mea culpa - it's still a difficult listen, but with a different perspective I'm giving almost four stars now (rounded off because we're still limited to mere integers). How come? I rated it before for the wrong reasons. One of Fripp's most common sayings is "expectation is a prison," and I slagged Radiophonics largely because I'd wanted it to be something different. It takes some adjustment for anyone to accept the sound of Soundscapes on its own terms; Robert loops and repeats layers of hazy tones and synth noises, gradually building more and more layers of ether as the older ones fade away (it's almost a shock to hear the recognizable sound of a guitar when "Sky" kicks in near the end). It's atmosphere without melody. It sounds aimless and unstructured, even for ambient music. At times it is harsh and almost physically irritating. And incidentally, it's all improvised live with no overdubs. I wonder what his audiences in Argentina must have thought of this stuff.
Part of my initial problem came not only because these tracks aren't easily accessible or recognizably musical, but also because they don't serve as easy-to-ignore background music or aural wallpaper like most other ambient work. It's not anything that sticks in your head, or that you can hum along to - and even if you tried, the result would sound vastly different from the Soundscape itself. It's like listening to three different Brian Eno albums all at once, where they don't seem to match up. And it does occasionally dive headfirst into unlistenable chaos, as on "Streets" and the last few minutes of "Radiophonic II." During those sections Robert stirs the hazy clouds into a full-fledged tornado, whipping past each other and crazily panning between the left and right channels in a cacophonous frenzy. It's like being sucked into some bizarre vortex where your brain is bombarded with too much information to handle. But thankfully that's only a small fraction of the disc.
Though Radiophonics is an extraordinary listening experience (not to mention different from anything else I've heard, even in the ambient realm), it's still humbled by the sheer perfection of its successor A Blessing of Tears. If you're still curious about how this kind of music has been described on this page - Michael Lopez's review below is particularly eloquent - then you'll be well served by ABoT or November Suite (if you can still find it). This disc isn't the best introduction, but those already familiar with Robert's 'Scapes will discover a whole new world of sound; occasonally jarring, sometimes difficult, but inexplicably fascinating all the same.
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