Robert Henke
Layering Buddha






When FM3's Buddha Machine was released in 2005, the press was excited about the tranquilizing loops that came out of the tiny transistor speakers of this little plastic box. However, it was equally clear that this little gadget was just another one on a long list of short-lived trends – an aural Tamagotchi. In 2012, the Buddha Machine is still strong in its 3rd revision and due to the various apps for mobile phones and tablets. In 2006, Monolake-member Robert Henke decided to release an Ambient album – called Layering Buddha – that is structured on and around the loops of the Buddha Machine by the Beijing-based electronic music duo FM3 whose little plastic box gained a devoted cult following up to this day, thus outnumbering similar gadget hypes for several years. These loops are then reinterpreted, modulated and twisted in 10 tracks and various ways, ranging from soothing layers of bliss to relatively dark bits of spookiness. The high fidelity result is convincing, for the muffled loops can now be heard in pristine quality. Henke doesn't change the predominant reason of the original layers' existence, which means that this is a deliberately minimal album: once a loop is introduced with all its layers and oscillating bits, it is usually played for a few minutes and fades out for good, making room for the next layer. The subgenre of Layering Buddha is thus best described as minimal drone.


Layer 001 is probably the best known layer by Henke, for it was also featured on the Staubgold label's Jukebox Buddha compilation, curiously titled Layer 02 on there, probably because of the internal file names of the Buddha Machine. The track is a close rendition of that loop, uniting the distinctly dark synth pad melody with qualmy hisses and fake swamp background noises. Even though this is a dark loop in the best Gothic tradition, it is somehow relaxing and mesmerizing. Layer 002 is an apocalyptic drone track with monotonous dark strings and quieter ethereal synth foils. The volume slowly builds up and a harshly quavering, eerie string is added to the mix which is then blurred near the end of the track. Layer 003 is the most fragile track, introducing an organic, churchly 2-note melancholy to the album with sustained strings of peacefulness and the characteristically glacial layer of high-pitched electric buzzes. A deeply droning bass line is added later and is a befitting counterpoint to the fragility and icyness of the track. Layer 004 is an ethereal, vault-like reverberated affair with cherubic but mystically dark synth rumbles and attractively bubbling, liquid pulses that grow larger during the duration of the track and dampen the previously dominant synth strings. Layer 005 is a particularly strong drone tune with bright, monotonous synth layers that are as bright as they are arcane and tense. Even though the setting is peaceful and quiet, an additional layer encapsulates a certain tension and uneasiness, creating an interplay of different moods that is highly successful.


The second half of the album introduces a variety of different styles while staying true to the carefully built sound and feeling. Layer 006 is the first track that isn't primarily realized with strings; instead, a dark and echoey 4-note melody is played. Brighter synth pad dots are added in the background as a feedback, augmenting the evening setting of the track. Since there are no sustained strings, the track seems to pulsate and tremble, which is quite a change of formula. Layer 007 is a short track, taking the concept of bubbling and pulsating staccato droplets to the extreme. There is only a very quiet one-note string in the back of the mix, the rest of the track contains static noises of the aquatic kind. This is the weakest track of the album in my opinion, as its rustic harshness is simply incomatible to my ears. My bad! Layer 008 consists of short string fragments and chopped melodies, again breaking the endemic string-focused motif of the album. The track evokes a feeling of loneliness that is enhanced with eschatological flavors due to the bright but menacingly pulsating background strings. Layer 009 is the darkest track of Layering Buddha and reintroduces the loop of Layer 001, but its tremoling nature is straightened and polished and hence morphed into an eerily scary two-note string. The accompaniying frizzles are blurred as well, and only one additional steam-like sizzling string remains. Even though the track is dark, it is yet again curiously soothing and soporific. Layer 010 is the final track and features a dominant, mouth organ-like loop with dry strings and slowly added pulsating loops. Again, this track doesn't do much for me, but I have to acknowledge the skillfull intermingling of quickly pulsating loops and the most minimal and dry strings of the whole album.


As it is often the case in regard to minimal Ambient albums with a drone attitude: if you don't like this particular mixture, you might be turned off by Henke's result. But if you already own a physical Buddha Machine or the app with the same name, this might be an enhancing and particularly interesting album for you. Even though Henke relies on existing loops and only modulates and puts them into different settings and through different filters, he was one of the forerunners of doing exactly this. Nowadays, you can choose from a variety of layer remixes by different artists, but you will not often come across a release that builds on the minimal nature of the original loops by adding only slight ingredients such as buzzing and sizzling noises, deep bass lines and oscillating pulses. The original loops are thus perfectly recognizable for fans of the Buddha Machine, and this is exactly the point of this release: keeping genuine additions low by focusing on the tranquility and characteristics of the mildly reworked loops. Be aware, though, that Henke only chose the darkest layers, not the friendlier, mellower ones; maybe he did, but he reworked them in such a way that they are not recognizable anymore. Recommended for drone fans who don't mind the focus on loops and the dark, mysterious atmosphere.  




Ambient Review 065: Robert Henke – Layering Buddha (2006). Originally published on May 2, 2012 at