The British electronic producer's fragile ambient compositions are an ode to relaxing spaces and video game soundtracks.
Photo by Jun Yokoching
“I can't really be arsed with Brian Eno at all, if I'm honest,” isn’t something you’d expect to hear from a producer who nominally operates in ambient circles, but Joe Moynihan isn’t going to let the grand old dukes of woozy weightlessness dictate what he does, and doesn’t do. After all, it’s not very often that people who make music this dreamy and unmoored release records with grime-associated acts like Mr. Mitch, is it?
Spa Commissions, his third longform release for British label Local Action under the Yamaneko alias, is a brilliant, beguiling, and beatless exploration of a specific space: the spa. Describing it over email as, “the result of years of research,” the record—which came about via commission—is a chance for Moynihan to try and present an idea of environment that he’s not intimately familiar with. “I've spent most of my life being pretty into relaxing places, both real and virtual, exercises and the calming music that goes with all that noise,” he says. “Even if I couldn't afford to go to them.”
The power of of a lot ambient and new age music stems from its uncanny ability to provide listeners with a chance to create their own narratives, to weave their own images and ideas together. Moynihan seems blessed with a canny understanding of this uses his music to hint at things, to implicitly suggest rather than explicitly explain. Most of the sweeping pieces on Spa Commissions act as a canvas rather than a thickly applied layer of aural oil paint.
For all its spa-like tranquility, there are chirrups, whistles, flutters, breezes, rushes, Spa Commissions carries with it an underlying and undulating sense of unease. That relationship between quiet ecstasy and understated anxiety seems oddly redolent of it’s composer’s own relationship to the environment in question. “No one should be priced out of understanding a place or concept and having the opportunity something to say about it,” he says.
To this listener, it sounds less like a trip to the spa than a day spent plunging into the deep digital blue of every underwater video game level I’ve ever sullenly swum my way through. “Glacial Heal Aid,” for example, bubbles in a kind of approximation of every wave you’ve ever seen crafted from pixels or polygons, both real and not. Harumi Fujita ( Bionic Commando), Yuka Kitamura ( Dark Souls III) and Koji Kondo ( Super Mario World) are just a few of the video game soundtrack producers he namecheks during our email-rally.
“Some are a bit bait,” he says. “I mention them all the time and rinse their tunes in mixes lot but it feels dishonest not to constantly credit them with shaping who I am.” The Yamaneko project, he reveals somewhat candidly, “is ultimately all of their ideas filtered through what feels like my 'voice'.”
That voice, however it came about, has formulated a rich record that, like Huerco S’ modern-masterpiece For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have), or Tangerine Dream’s seminal mid-70s burbler, Phaedra, has transformative powers. Tracks like “Yaeyama Islands (Setting Sun)” and “Crystal Palace Dolphin” hint at Moynihan’s interest in Japanese ambient music so it isn’t at all surprising when he mentions the work of ambient pioneer Hiroshi Yoshimura and Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono as being influential.
“There's this one particular piece of music [Hosono] that was composed to play in Muji stores that always comes to mind when thinking about this idea though,” he says when asked about what environmentally-responsive music he finds himself returning to time after time. The Muji theme—a gauzy, tripped-out thing that meanders through a few mournful synth-heavy movements—is something the he feels encourages, “this sort of loose sense of personal agency within a broken system. Everything is going to be alright.” He says it's the “perfect blanket to shelter you from this here capitalist hole,” and notes that he’s “a big fan of things that make things slightly less terrifying and shit.”
If there’s one kind of music that’s quietly devoted to maintaining the illusion, and what a lovely, calming, and ultimately necessary illusion it is, that everything really is going to be alright, somehow, someway, it’s new age. Over the last few years, the sound’s become rehabilitated, with labels like Music from Memory, and parties like London’s blissed-out New Atlantis (which often features Yamaneko) making some very cosmic waves.
“From my experience a lot of the people into making and enjoying this sort of music are inspired and driven by an earnest desire to connect with others and help alleviate worries and tension in their lives, usually as a way of sharing the things that help them,” Moynihan says of the contemporary new age scene.
Moynihan is evidently, and understandably, enamored by the “blissful, naive optimism,” that runs through new age as an idea and as a medium—optimism you can hear glimmers of in his own work, even in last year’s steelier, sturdier, sadder Project Nautilus. He tells me that he thinks of it as, “a massively multiplayer astral panpipe playing game full of nice people, shit people, workers, stoners, trippers, athletes, freaks, geeks and families of all kinds.” before going on to add that, “it feels like a big fuck off support group. It's also just totally daft and amazing and I love it.” And, let’s be honest, with an assembly of like-minded souls like that, who wouldn’t?
We suggest sliding into a robe, getting a comfortable pair of sliders on, and settling into one of the year’s most luscious listening experiences. Which, handily, you can do right here in full on Noisey. Or you can buy it over at Local Action's Bandcamp. Right now.