Switched On – Richard Norris: Elements (Group Mind)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Richard Norris has kept himself busy during lockdown. As well as running the excellent Group Mind resource on Facebook (do join if you have an interest in any sort of ambient music!) he has been making music to help ease the stress created by the COVID-19 pandemic, confinement and worrisome news headlines – to name just a few of our bugbears in recent months.

Having released a series of Music for Healing tracks, Norris now heads into album territory with meditations on the five Chinese elements. He is helped by vocalist Bishi (who appears on Water) and some wonderful artwork by Mark Golding and Andy Ball, and a striking front cover image designed by Lyndon Pike.

What’s the music like?

Although his music with The Grid and Beyond The Wizards Sleeve is largely beat-driven, Norris has always shown a talent for creating musical textures that can soothe or comfort, and Elements is a fruitful use of that resource.

He uses appealing, analogue-driven sounds twinned with sequencers, making consonant musical motifs and – where required – well-crafted beats. Earth sets a solid base, its loops unfolding at a naturally relaxed pace, while Water is a more expansive structure, contrasting immersive vocals from Bishi with gentle instrumental oscillations.

Norris’s interpretation of Fire brings to mind the vision of flames lazily flickering in the half-light, with glowing embers that leave a lasting warmth. This eases us into the lovely stillness of Air, which could easily go on for longer than five minutes and not outstay its welcome, after which Space is appropriately remote, with lights twinkling in the distance.

Does it all work?

Yes. Elements is ideal for either end of the day, soothing the fevered brow but also working the brain nicely with its loops and well-constructed melodies. The music is always on the move, but the mind can choose the intensity with which it follows the designs.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. If the cover hasn’t already drawn you in then the music will. For best results the LP is strongly recommended, but anything linked to headphones will do the job. Norris offers a half hour of escapism, something we can all do with right now!

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In concert – Loscil & Marconi Union @ Rich Mix, London

Loscil & Marconi Union

Rich Mix, London, Monday 21 October 2019

Written by and images (c) Ben Hogwood

How do you define pure musical ambience? Is it music you can leave it on in the background and do all manner of tasks to, or is it the sort where you become so transfixed that everything else is blocked out?

Loscil’s music falls emphatically into the latter category. He may have been on the stage at Rich Mix for 45 minutes, but for that time the entire audience were gathered up and taken to the outer reaches of Vancouver, British Columbia. This is where Scott Morgan, the man behind the moniker, resides – and it is the wild, open panoramas of the region that his music so successfully evokes.

Equivalents, his most recent album, is a series of responses to black and white photographs of clouds by Alfred Stieglitz in the early 20th century, and the formations billowed on projections behind Morgan for much of his set. This aided the feeling of total immersion in the elements, meaning all we were lacking was the wind on our faces and the rain on our heads.

With little in the way of propulsive rhythm, Loscil’s music somehow captures the raw power and scale of the elements, the expanse of the Pacific coast stretching out as far as the eye can see. The mind’s eye is also drawn to natural phenomena closer at hand, with forests, lakes and birds all effortlessly alighting in the imagination.

We traversed five numbers from the Equivalents album in all, in a I – III – II – V – VII formation (with the image for the beautifully restful II shown above). The air was thick with big chords, Loscil’s keyboards and sequencing taking on quasi-orchestral designs. When silence arrived, in the middle of the set, nobody dared to move – and, after an intake of breath, on we went. It is a long time since I saw an audience so transfixed in a gig, and Loscil’s music took us somewhere truly special, way outside of a bar in Bethnal Green.

Supporting this transcendental experience was a more beat-driven variation on musical ambience from Marconi Union (above). The long-standing Manchester group make music that is more urban in origin, at one with the setting in which we found ourselves. Like Loscil they used projections, usually halved on the screen and complementing the more city-based and percussive approach perfectly.

Night time visions for tracks like Sleeper were transporting, as were the images of travel by car or train before them. Piano and guitar were key elements here, sensitively played as the quartet gelled effortlessly on stage.

The first part of Weightless was arguably the most effective, its subtly changing textures and evocations of twinkling lights most effective before an audience fully on board with this antidote to Monday night drudgery.

Both acts offered proof positive that ambience can be a transporting experience, and that the rich talent and intensity in this field remains undimmed. With well-chosen DJ sets from The Grid’s Richard Norris in and around the live acts, as part of his Group Mind initiative, this was a night to celebrate the surprising power of ambient music, whether foreground or background.