Pensive electric guitar composition has a limited history, which makes sense as it’s a fairly limited mode of expression. In the 70s, Robert Fripp and Brian Eno brought cosmic rock and new age down to earth, stopping just short of total academia. Their primary guitar works– No Pussyfooting (1973) and Evening Star (1975)– were tainted by showmanship in the traditional rock and roll sense, by a kind of regal grandeur, but their work would inspire a gaunt, neurotic Mancunian named Vini Reilly who, as The Durutti Column, married virtuosic talent and discreet music with help from producer Martin Hannett, the gruff, northern rejoinder to Eno.
Reilly’s nascent experiments on 1979’s Return of The Durutti Column flowered on later records like LC and Another Setting, but as much as they inform the lineage of ambient guitar, it was 1984’s Without Mercy that served as a template for how far the genre could be pushed. Partly responsible for Talk Talk’s transition from flaccid electropop to lush, kraut-informed post-rock, it’s a work of modern classical composition and electric atmosphere, driven as much by piano and horns as by the flickering guitar lines that weave throughout.
In the early 90s, The Durutti Column was taken as mantle by a host of artists on the Kranky imprint. Groups like Pan American and Labradford combined Vini Reilly’s echoing delay with hollow, menacing space, dub nostalgia, and the modern ambience of Aphex Twin. One of this movement’s crowning releases came from Aix Em Klemm, a one-off collaboration between Stars of the Lid’s Adam Wiltzie and Labradford’s Robert Donne. If Vini Reilly is an encouraging father figure, Aix Em Klemm is 1 Mile North’s older brother. He’ll be amazed to see how things have changed since he left the house three years ago.
“Black Lines” and “Life Indoors” owe the most to Aix Em Klemm (2000), but outstrip that more repetitive influence thanks to a teardrop guitar sound reminiscent of Reilly and The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds, as well as expertly attenuated keyboards from fanatical analog synth collector Mark Bajuk (photos of his collection are available on the band’s website). Bajuk is ubiquitous on Minor Shadows but never overstated, his presence hugely increased compared to the band’s first album (essentially a solo performance from guitarist Jon Hills).
1 Mile North’s 2001 debut Glass Wars sold online and at shows in Brooklyn, making its way into all the right hands. It’s a much simpler work than Minor Shadows, of straightforward guitar and gorgeous melodies, but it was chiefly remarkable insofar as it used very few effects. Employing moderate reverb and looping delay, 1 Mile North focus on songwriting, on resonance rather than ambience. Their sound is more inviting and memorable than the washed-out waves of bands currently attached to this medium, like Aarktica, who couldn’t resist the reactionary temptation to “break out” of their sound. It’s hard for extremely talented musicians to write patient music, because it’s predicated on suppression, but that’s a talent in and of itself.
One suppressed urge– one that’s overtaken most instrumental work– is the use of samples, both cinematic and field-recorded. 1 Mile North employ them for “In 1983 He Loved to Fly” (the out of print 1984 documentary Streetwise) and “Black Lines” (Tim Roth’s crushing The War Zone), but they couldn’t be more subtly inserted or appropriately melancholy. In the case of “Black Lines”, you get the feeling you’re watching a child holding its ears, cowering under the bed as its drunken, lunatic father smashes up the living room. It’s a hugely disturbing contrast to associate such peaceful, passive music with maniac outbursts like, “You’re breaking this fucking family up!” One could point to more recent influences– DJ Shadow’s “Stem”, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s best material– but 1 Mile North’s compositional detail conveys a much deeper understanding of the past. “In 1983 He Loved to Fly” is the duo’s most ambitious move, a monumental work of fogged-in Bowery nostalgia that along with the record’s closing opus
“The Manual” serves as a direct response to the two compositions that made up the Durutti Column’s Without Mercy. Spare electronic percussion drifts in and out as huge guitar chords fire like synapses, a slide show of both personal and societal memory. A muted, midranged trumpet wails in the distance of its second half, a more literal reminder of the history at hand; 1 Mile North stare out over land- and cityscapes, but their response is more terrestrial, more tangible than the questionable “emotional” ambience of infinite delay and thoughtless glitches. “The Manual” is even more massive than “1983”, a thirteen-minute tribute to both Reilly and Brian Eno, openly harking back to Discreet Music and his work with Cluster (and more than likely using the same vintage keyboards). Following an introductory guitar movement, it gives way to those twinkling, doleful synths of old, an educated reminder of the beauty that still lies in instruments that shouldn’t have been buried for their criminal misappropriation by prog pretenders. Minor Shadows makes no secret of its inspirations, reaching out across decades of music to arrive at a synthesis of electronic sound, classical composition and spare ambience that raises the bar on recently lauded artists like Keith Fullerton Whitman, Boards of Canada and the increasingly monotonous Morr imprint. 1 Mile North aren’t interested in definitions, in easily identifiable or “current” modes: this is a band that demands more of music than sequences and tones, invoking pasts their contemporaries are ignoring. This sonorous instrumental album divines new paths from ambient music’s more considered roots, reclaiming the wasted potential of its legacy. Merciless.