Sleep Research Facility and ambient music

I’m always searching for music to listen to while I’m writing, because I can’t think and fall into the right kind of trance to dump my subconscious onto pages when extreme death metal is screaming away in the foreground. Classical music puts me to sleep, and jazz is jazz, so it’s hard to precisely nail it. I do like ambient music, as long as it isn’t too passive, and doesn’t veer off into the Yanni-esque new age shlock. All points south of classic Eno can be good, but that specific sound doesn’t imprint my brand of writing exactly the way I need it, so I’ve been looking for more.

Dark ambient, for better or worse, is closer to what I like. It contains a texture that provides a good underlying current for my work, and blocks out everything around me, yet doesn’t invade my mind in a way that would turn it in the wrong direction. Dark ambient removes from the equation the type of music a hippy-dippy acupuncturist would play in his office, which is good. The main problem with dark ambient is that it’s impossible to find a straight answer as to what it is. Ask ten people what ten bands constitute death metal, and you will get twelve highly contested answers. Dark ambient is the same. It shares distant borders with Krautrock and experimental music, and I don’t know enough about it to give you a defined answer as to who the main players are. (Maybe you should tell me.) I can tell you about a specific band I like, though.

Sleep Research Facility, the working name of Glasgow musician Kevin Doherty, has released five albums of essentially beatless dark ambient music, along different themes. The one thing in common is a dark, textured soundscape, usually without musical elements, or maybe with long, sustained chords. The name of the band relates to the work’s lack of any elements that would disturb sleep. That’s a slight peeve of mine, because it’s difficult for me to listen to dark ambient that contains extreme screeching, loud noise, and distorted shrieking voices. It’s hard to get in a trance state to work when interrupted with those elements. I’m not saying they don’t have artistic merit within a composition, and I can enjoy listening to them for the sake of listening to them, but when looking for functional music, it’s an issue.

Another challenge with creating any ambient music is having a central theme or “gimmick” or some set of tracks for the train to roll down. SRF seems to do this well, in the choice of conceptual framework. The prime example, and a good starting point, is the album Nostromo. This is a nearly 70-minute album that was inspired by the ship from the movie Alien. The album details a walkthrough of the ship from Ridley Scott’s scifi/horror movie, starting in the A-Deck, while the crew is in suspended animation, hurtling through space back to Earth. Scott meticulously detailed the ship, not as a sterile, futuristic vessel, but as a beaten, worn, working man’s craft, like a battle-damaged oil platform in the middle of the ocean. But when the crew is in stasis, prior to the computer waking them, there’s a certain calm, or anticipation in the vessel.

Nostromo starts in the A-Deck of the ship, presenting a deep-bass flow of sound, with slight electrical static and drifting sounds of machinery. It’s not like the harsh industrial sounds of the cyberpunk-influenced electronic genres of the mid-90s (I’m thinking the mechanical sounds of, say, the interstitial tracks of early Fear Factory, or even the earlier sounds of something like Front 242. (and sorry for the horrible reference points. This is very far outside my wheelhouse of musical knowledge, trying to learn here.)) Anyway, the dozen-minute tracks drift deeper into the ship, as the sounds and textures become more refined. The entire album is very dream-like and drifts seamlessly through the ship. The 2007 release contains a bonus track named “Narcissus,” which was the lifeboat escape pod of the Nostromo, which contains similar elements, although it is texturally different. You could imagine Ripley putting herself in stasis and drifting back to earth during the final track.

I listened to Nostromo constantly when I was writing He. I’d sit down to write every day, start the album on repeat, and keep it as a constant soundscape. I do this a lot when writing; for Atmospheres, I listened to the Sleep album Dopesmoker every day for at least a year. It’s not exactly ambient, but it’s an easy album to fall into.

So what album do I use for the next book? More importantly, what is the next book? Still working on that.

Anyway, check out more about SRF at their home page: http://www.resonance-net.com

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