Chill Out






A victim of their own success, the British duo of Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond aka The KLF, KLF Communications or The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu (yes, seriously) coined a new term with their debut that had only existed as an underground term before: Chill Out. The problem with this term, as fantastic as this album is, derives from its stale aftertaste. It sounds dated as the English language has evolved (or devolved if you're a pessimist) over the last decades and since its original release. So here we have the rare case of a brilliant Ambient album chock-full of field recordings, movie snippets, Elvis ballads, and animal noises … with a now lackluster title. So let me be clear. You must not miss this album! Who am I to force you around? Well, my intentions are humble, it's just that I couldn't imagine to check out the album myself if I didn't already know it, for its title is suggesting a kind of cliché that wasn't even born and in place when this work was released. So I would project wrong thoughts and unfitting assumptions on its title and content. Don't let that happen to you, as The KLF deliver the blueprint of a 44+ minutes long travelog album for the new generation. The album was fittingly released in 1990, a new decade, merging British humor with ephemeral sound waves and train noises even before The Orb came up with their debut in 1991, of which Jimmy Cauty was not coincidentally also part of at some point. Chill Out is essentially the result of a continuous live recording session that was studied and performed several times by the band before the best version of all these takes was recorded on DAT and pressed on CD (if the band made a mistake during one of these takes, they started over from scratch). While the band depicts a clichéd aural landscape full of steel guitar-driven kitsch of the American Deep South, there are both traces and glaring ingredients of a placeless ethnicity. Back then, the duo sees themselves as electronic musicians, but instead of using multiple racks of synthesizers, they create organic landscapes full of field recordings, some of them floating for minutes before even one single synth stab hits the scene. It's therefore hard and also redundant to describe the 14 tracks – or rather vignettes – in great detail, as it is often about the feeling and the things that happen in the head of the listener instead of the actual ingredients. I'll give further insights into the distinctive qualities and moods anyway.

One of the rather unique elements can already be spotted right at the beginning of the opener: the long track titles display the things ahead in a playful, creative and poignant way, and it takes years of listening to and looking at them in order to memorize all of these titles by heart. Brownsville Turnaround On The Tex-Mex Border launches with croaking crickets, floating creeks, a male announcer with a Mexican accent, bypassing trains, warm steel guitar twangs and various other natural field recordings and technical artifacts. The plasticity is astonishing even today, and since this and various other tracks are based on field recordings and montages, they never sound dated despite their age. The short Pulling Out Of Ricardo And The Dusk Is Falling Fast consists of a majestic Ambient soundscape full of warm synth washes, harpsichord-like glints and spacey whirls, and leads directly to the dreamy three minutes long scenery of Six Hours To Louisiana, Black Coffee Going Cold with distant birdcalls, train signals, flowing water and angelic if somewhat dated synth washes. Bleating sheep and a talking shepherd refer back to the iconographic cover artwork. While Dream Time In Lake Jackson presents an ethnic cocktail of reverberated Indian chants, airplane engines in-between the base frame of the already introduced monotonous synth stream, the seven and a half minutes long piece Madrugada Eterna brings back the already established two-note synth motif of the second track, but it's pitched down here. The euphonious steel guitar licks and the iridescent monotony of the Rock organ are absolutely stunning and paint a skillfully crafted. Chopped samples of an acidy announcer are interwoven ("If ya need me baby when the sun goes down") next to a female radio reporter mentioning a seventeen-year-old road victim, most definitely the only creepy integration on the whole album.

While Justified And Ancient Seems A Long Time Ago features a muffled girl band who sings the lyrics of a later KLF Eurodance hit called Justified And Ancient and places various engines next to nocturnal insects plus a short intersection of muffled beats that are altogether juxtaposed to the ladies, Elvis On The Radio, Steel Guitar In My Soul features an echoey excerpt of one of Elvis Presley's greatest hits – In The Ghetto of 1969 – that is enhanced by the previously featured steel guitar melody. Even though there isn't more to this mash-up, its mellowness is soothing and closes with the distant cries of birds. 3 a.m. Somewhere Out Of Beaumont is the almost 10 minutes long centerpiece of Chill Out, which launches with revved up field recordings of birds and the dawn-laden synthesizer goodness of a song that was previously released by the band as 3 a.m. Eternal. Female Oo-oo-oh chants, "after the love" vocals by Boy George (please see the addendum below) off his song with the same title as well as short beat-driven interludes make this a superb track that is definitely Ambient, but moves into dance territory for short times. Sheep, chirping birds and ocean waves build an auroral background for the beautiful synths and cymbals that outshine everything else due to their pulsating textures. Desperado guitars are meandering through the last quarter of the song, jet engines and playing children can be heard. Oh, and did I mention the delicate inclusion of Fleetwood Mac's Albatross3 a.m. Somewhere Out Of Beaumont is a fantastic piece that makes up almost one quarter of the whole album runtime, but does never sound boring or overly long. 

Wichita Lineman Was A Song I Once Heard incorporates a huge dose of Eurodance, but it is – believe it or not – tastefully interwoven. The quirky eight-note synth hooks were later used in The KLF's hit Last Train To Trancentral, and the first remnants can be already savored on this version. After their glitzy introduction, various other synth parts are presented and accentuated by pumping beats. The nasty commentator with the rusty voice is back again, as the synth stabs and related backing sweeps hit, clash, merge and depart. The field recordings are completely mute, it's all about the euphoria-evoking saccharine synth structures whose luminescence is all the stronger in the sections without the beats. Yep, this specific song sounds quite a bit dated nowadays, but the gorgeous melodies and catchy riffs are still magnificent and utterly strong! Up next is a short encore: Trancentral Lost In My Mind doesn't offer anything new and can be seen as a mere appendix. Of greater interest is the unison of gentle ocean waves with morse code beeps in The Lights Of Baton Rouge Pass By. Crying seagulls fly by while the synth motif of 3 a.m. Somewhere Out Of Beaumont makes a return. The poetically titled A Melody From A Past Life Keeps Pulling Me Back samples the trumpet goodness of Acher Bilk's Stranger On The Shore as well as the electric guitars of Van Halen's Eruption in the distance. This song is a bit too arbitrary, and the two Billboard hits don't merge too well and aren't cleverly used, but who am I to complain about this? It's all about the atmosphere, the aura and depicted landscape. Rock Radio Into The Nineties And Beyond relies on the same ingredients, while the ultra-short closing track of a mere 16 seconds features the fade-out of one of the backing synth sweeps as heard on Wichita Lineman. The album does end rather abruptly, and not with a bang, but this was never expected and remains hence true to the build-up and feel of Chill Out

"File under Ambient" is printed on the promo recordings of Chill Out, and this advice was needful back then, for The KLF created a new kind of ambience and pushed it beyond the very boundaries the duo created themselves! I could have written so much more about this album, and I believe this review might be one of the more detailed ones you can probably find on the net, but a cold analysis is as unnecessary as glowing ramblings or wet-eyed nostalgia attacks, even though I admittedly oscillate between all three moods. My review is by no means overly great, for there are thousands over thousands of listeners who have experienced this album the same amount of times on various occasions, during the halcyon days of open-air raves in the rural countryside of Great Britain. I can neither compete with their memories, nor with their vast knowledge about every little sample. But what the heck, I've tried, for I really love Chill Out. This is an album that has to be experienced. The railway sounds are the golden thread that holds all of the 14 tracks together. It's both an aural diorama and a travelog album of the finest order that relies much more on the flair of a fictitious location as on complex synth washes. If there are synths involved, they are usually playing rudimentary two-note motifs, but since they sound full and complete and glimmer and glow in technicolor, I don't think that any serious Ambient listener should mind this deliberately reduced prowess. And blimey, even Exotica fans will surely find this album mind-blowing, and I will try to advertise this gem to a lot of people interested in that certain genre, for the steel guitars, gentle ocean waves and creative concept of traveling is just too appealing. It can also be linked to the genre due to the deliberate and purposeful faux-depiction of the Southern parts of the United States. The band didn't know much about these places back then, and yet tried to come up with a mélange of clichés, kitsch, urban myths and innocent happiness. Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond have created a modern masterpiece with Chill Out. Lovers of field recordings, travelog albums, traces of British humour, synth sweeps and sound libraries will be blown away, and I'm very sure that this album will be re-experienced and worshipped by new generations all the time. Its scope is simply too great and at the same time too humble to be ignored. A hallmark that has only been possible thanks to the rise of sampling technologies and sound libraries. The KLF delivered big time. If you have the slightest interest in Ambi– … in the synergy of music and nature, check it out, and by all means, don't mind its dated title!



Further reading:

  • The sample database has a detailed list of the audio material, whether its songs or sound effects, used by the band in order to create Chill Out.
  • Then there's a surprisingly detailed entry of Chill Out at the Wikipedia. Seriously, good work guys! 
  • For the record: there was once a thriving and bustling international community website called Unfortunately, webmaster Torsten deactivated the website at the moment. Use to access its various topics, or pray for a quick relaunch.
  • Addendum, December 24, 2013: Incidentally, I have fallen into the ubiquitous trap of mixing up Boy George with George Michael, so big thanks to reader Lanark McVie for pointing out the stupidest of all possible errors in a detailed email. At least I can tell apart Madonna from Maradona… I hope.



Ambient Review 090: The KLF – Chill Out (1990). Originally published on Jul. 4, 2012 at