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Banco De Gaia ‘Last Train To Lhasa (20th Anniversary 4xCD Set)’   and  Various Artists   ‘Strange-Eyed Constellations’ (Disco Gecko)


Despite, what on the surface, seems a plausible misconception, one of the UK’s chief progenitors of global trance peregrinations Banco De Gaia have become synonymous with all things Tibetan. Re-released on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary, the Banco’s Last Train To Lhasa album may have borrowed the title and evoked a transcendent spirit of the country’s mystical Himalayan landscapes, yet the group’s founder and guiding force Toby Marks never meant to confine his world sounds to one particular place: In truth, more a pan-global sound palette with echoes and traces of the Middle East, Asia and the Orient.

Going as far as to refute suggestions in every subsequent interview since its original release, the LP only actually features a solitary sample from the region and only gained its title from Marks wife on completion. However, Marks lent space on the album’s sleeve to publicising Tibet’s struggle against its overlord Chinese masters, and would become a vocal advocate of the Free Tibet campaign.

 

Base camp on the enlightened journey to the ethereal, Tibet’s meditative disposition was no match for the authoritarian steamroller of the Communist party machine. And so an ill-at-ease occupation and stalemate persists. Its international vessel of protest, the Dalai Lama in his own affable and gentle way backed by the Free Tibet campaign continues to be a big draw, yet has decidedly been upstaged by events elsewhere. Clarifying his commitment to the cause, Marks was recently interviewed by the Free Tibet organisation in the run up to his trio of performances at this years Glastonbury and the anniversary Last Train To Lhasa release – perhaps a timely reminder.

Musically speaking, as I’ve already mentioned, the twentieth anniversary appraisal of Banco De Gaia’s blueprint, and Marks other complimentary release, his first ever compilation Strange-Eyed Constellations, reach far beyond any Tibetan influence, imbued by cultures both imaginary and real from both terra firma and the stratosphere.




Highly praised for merging trance and nuanced electronic four-to-the-floor beats with atavistic echoes from mystically envisioned landscapes, Banco De Gaia’s Last Train To Lhasa was released in the dying ambers of the second rave and house music waves in 1995. On the cusp of Britpop, hung-over from grunge, guitars were about to once again dominate whilst house and techno music in all its many guises had reached superclub status; the underground movements fractured and broken up into a myriad of smaller tribes. Ambient and trance, usually the preserve of after hours clubbing or allocated space in the “chill out” zones had already blossomed into its own industry. That unfairly and often fatuous “chill out” idiom used to sell everything from nirvana relaxation and transience to any ‘new age” missive. Never new in itself, until progress and technology made it easier and offered more options, the core ambient ingredient had already been in existence for decades. And despite what you may have read, Eno may have given it a name but he certainly didn’t invent it. In this evolving stage of dance music, Banco De Gaia went to town, sitting on a fluffy cloud, hovering between trance and techno.

LTTL’s suffused panoramic station-to-station soundtrack was different. Sharing some of the peaceable beautiful nephology of The Orb and Air Liquid but with the satellite guided twinkle and kinetic rhythms of Orbital, the album sounded every bit as organic as it did electronic. The original album is boosted by a further three CDs worth of alternative takes, mixes, remixes and the missing until now, Apollo moon landing inspired space-voyage, ‘Eagle’ – recorded at the time but left off the final version of the LP. A box set only available as a limited edition physical release – though now also available to hear on Bandcamp -, fans and admirers alike can really indulge, with 24 tracks of transcendent aural bliss.




Even if you are far from familiar with the source material, the general method applied is one of respectful tinkering and expansion, with Marks own alternatives plus a line-up of contemporary artists/producers remixes congruously immersive. A ‘Duck Asteroid Extended’ mix of the original ‘Kincajou’ for example, takes the steam driven new age suite on an epic, stripped and even more ambient, 44-minute journey: it takes the mix thirty-minutes to bring in the beats and reach a higher plain. Elsewhere, various tinkering’s of the holy misty mountain proverb ‘China (Clouds Not Mountains)’ takes the languid drifter into ever more esoteric territories, or in the case of Roedelius and Felix Jay collaborator Andrew Heath, adding a diaphanous piano to the meditative calligraphy-brushed valley narrative.

The reverberations of dub, bhangra, and the Orient are sometimes stretched into indolent escapism or given more power and lift on the varied versions of ‘Amber’. Sometimes as with the Carl Craig imbued Bluetech remix of ‘Kuos’, they are taken apart and rebuilt. Though nothing quite matches the rolling timpani introduction and celestial beauty of the original ‘White Paint’, ‘Where’s The Runway Dub’ and alucidnations ‘Dream Remix’ offer interesting interpretations; one a hymn in dub the other a suffused with kosmiche rays romance in the sky.

A carefully considered expansion of the Banco De Gaia panoramic worlds of the mid-90s, the 20th anniversary edition certainly offers the listener an immersive experience. And you can’t complain about getting your money’s worth, with over four hours of music over the four discs to peruse.




Strange-Eyed Constellations


Following this legacy release, Marks inaugural compilation – which yes does feature both a Marks and Banco De Gaia track; compilers privilege and all that – has gone full circle: “In 1991, I saw my first tracks released on CD as part of the Ambient Dub compilations series on Beyond Records. Six years later, when I set up my own label [Disco Gecko], one of my aims was to start a similar series of down-tempo, left of centre compilation albums, featuring more or less anything I found beautiful and uplifting, irrespective of genre.” Seventeen years later as Mark says, “…it became a reality”, his showcase dedicated to Beyond’s founder Mike Barnet finally now sees the light of day.

Accompanied by the evocative photography and paintings of Andrew and Zoe Heath, this survey of harmonious lullabies, dreamscapes, heavenly and nebula horizons, with a title inspired by Thomas Hardy’s The Dead Drummer poem, is full of transient, breathy and venerable compositions. An amorphous bed of seraph tones, water spray tropical rainforests, lingering ghosts of spiritualism, ethnographic soundtracks and diaphanous exercises in melodic sky building echo throughout the albums well-chosen thirteen tracks. These Strange-Eyed Constellations chart naturalistic wonders on AstroPilot’s ‘Dum Spiro, Spero’ (the Ukrainian producer alter ego of Dimitrix Redko, who also modernizes Marks own LTTL title track on the 20th anniversary special), and builds an empyrean Popol Vuh like tribal trance soundtrack to the female water spirits of a famous Rhine landmark rock on dr trippy’s ‘Sirens Of Lorelei’. Other notable inclusions include 100th Monkey’s Artic requiem ‘The Inuit Snow Song’, which is given an ‘Icescape’ remix of drifting Polar winds and plaintive poignancy to create a supernatural atmosphere. Meanwhile, Radium 88 traverse a Peter Gabriel sounding world trance aria with the Cocteau Twins cooed ‘The Future’s Bright The Futures Incandescent’, and Marks’ own contributions, a Shanghai 8am mix of ‘Falling Down’, leaks the sounds from the mixing desk into the studio and out the door into the early hours of a mystery environment, and ‘The Nth Degree’, chants on a down-tempo pathway to Shangri-La.



A peaceable mostly tranquil collection, SEC isn’t as such a progression in the ambient or trance music fields, rather a continuation of the early to mid 90s experiments with slight modifications. Certainly evocative at times, and always sophisticatedly divine, there isn’t really a track out of place, each complementing the other. Marks took his time, and in a world that moves on pretty quickly, this assortment dares to press pause and take reflection.

Words: Dominic Valvona





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