Undoubtedly one of the greatest mysteries in modern day music, Getintothis’ Simon Kirk takes us on a journey through the dark ambient world of Labradford.
Labradford are the ideal band to sit in front of the backdrop of a silent night.
Amid the silhouettes of darkness and stillness of a clear evening, their sound floats, occupying every corner of the room. Labradford produce chamber music in every sense of the term. It’s dark, it’s atmospheric, it’s oddly serene.
To begin, Labradford are one of the great mysteries in music of the past thirty years. They could almost be the pioneers of coalescing ambient, drone and rock music. Over their six album existence, their collage of sounds is almost unparalleled.
Their success or very much lack thereof is gloriously mystifying. Bands such as Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor would be wise to give a subconscious head nod in the direction of the finest act to emerge from Richmond, Virginia, since – well – forever!
Labradford weren’t elusive in a Godspeed anarchic kind of way. Largely it was because most appeared to afford them little to no attention at all.
Arriving just after their trans-Atlantic cousins, Bark Psychosis, Labradford sat in-between the lines of other Kranky stable mates such as the Bowery Electric and Stars Of The Lid. By and large, they sounded nothing like any of the aforementioned bands, though. One band Labradford certainly didn’t sound anything like was Archers of Loaf – the first band in which they supported on tour.
Labradford were like the kid who was stowed away in the basement. Or more closely, the musical equivalents to mad scientists, left to their own devices to work on sound concepts, clearly immersed in their own shadows of dark-laden ambience.
While their sound template barely extended beyond the clutches of desolation, over their career, Labradford excavated dark pits and explored these findings to much fruition, giving birth to varied textures of drone and melody, essentially forging a unique union of both. They’re are the niche band; a project which pulsates the senses of crate diggers and music aficionados alike.
Those familiar would associate Labradford as a fractured version of post-rock, but rather than the ethereal melodic sounds one may correlate with the genre, Labradford produced elusive drones that tampered with your internal organs. Cinematic textural grit forming this unique spatial song-craft, having more in common with bands like Sunn O))) as opposed to someone like say – for instance – Explosions In The Sky.
They were influential to many others which lay outside the boundaries of instrumental music, too, even to this day. Low‘s latest masterpiece, Double Negative, certainly owes a little something to Labradford.
They do say timing is everything. Had Labradford started their musical journey today or, even in the early part of this century, they would be functioning in a totally different landscape.
Music which has been erected from an ambient framework has reached far more people since the turn of the century and although they would have had good company – plus the fact the Internet has become such a customary presence – it would have meant, in this writer’s opinion, that Labradford would have been benefactors and perhaps even the pioneers.
On the flipside, some could argue that their current standing only illuminates their prescience. A band way ahead of its time.
Furthermore, with so many bands in the post-rock pantheon ripe for the picking where soundtracks are concerned, Labradford would have been the perfect fit for this milieu. Some may even claim this as a natural habitat for the band and it’s hard to argue against that. How Jim Jarmusch didn’t pick up their music for one of his many cult-classics adds further proof to this ambiguity. If you’re out there, Jim. Hint, hint – it’s not too late…
Coupled with the lack of referencing from Labradford‘s peers, it’s yet another facet which amplifies this musical mystery.
With this in mind, Labradford’s music has seemingly fallen between the cracks of heaven and hell creating this distorted universe. In many ways Labradford were world builders. They discovered and nurtured different shades of darkness. A different type of gloom, impacting on you differently than say a Bauhaus, or Godflesh or The Cure. A slow motion ceaselessly whirring brand of chamber rock.
Though Labradford haven’t officially disbanded, the band members have moved away from their former base in Richmond, Virginia to pursue other projects since.
Guitarist, Mark Nelson, has been the most prolific out of the trio, releasing records on Kranky under the Pan-American moniker. His latest under this project being 2013’s Cloud Room, Glass Room.
Bassist Robert Donne has worked with slowcore underground pioneers, Spokane, as well as having been a touring member for Gregor Samsa.
Both Nelson and Donne have produced the closest thing to Labradford under the new moniker, Anjou. Both albums – 2014’s Anjou and 2017’s Epithymía were released through the Kranky label and it appears that this is the main focus these days.
Below is a little something in regards to each of their releases, starting from the band’s inception up until their final release in 2001:
Prazision LP (1993)
Prazision LP is like taking a plunge into the unknown. Like a scaled malaise of sound. At the first time of listening it felt like Prazision LP was heavy weather, with a band trying to throw all of their ideas into the melting pot for the ultimate sonic goulash.
However, with the benefit of retrospection, it’s probably the album that best represents Labradford and their various qualities. Where running time is concerned, it’s the band’s longest, which is further evidence of a scatter-gun approach.
The ambient drone offerings stem the flow of the album, making the whole experience eerie and quite an uncomfortable out-of-body-experience. It feels intentional, though and certainly not uneven. A stained sound that dissonantly crackles like leaves blowing through a cold unoccupied street in the backwaters of a parallel universe.
While challenging in parts, Soft Return is arguably the most beautiful song the band has written, with a gorgeous guitar sequence taking centre piece over Nelson’s soft vocal delivery, as the paranoid lyrics of “stepping back inside a wall” takes you into another stratosphere.
This isn’t the only tender moment.
While Nelson didn’t often show us the purity of song-writing as we know it, on Prazision LP he provides a snapshot of his potential to perhaps one day dabble in the more traditional senses of the art. Tracks such as Accelerating On a Smoother Road and C. of People throw weight behind this notion and are essentially the bedrock of Prazision LP.
A Stable Reference (1995)
Collectively, A Stable Reference is arguably Labradford’s darkest moment. Tracks such as the opener, Mas, Eero and Star City Russia possess haunting torrents of drone amid a backdrop of the new dark age. In many ways there’s a sonic prescience to these tracks. Mas is the darkest by some distance, all four minutes and thirty-two seconds of dark ambience that sounds like you’re in an aeroplane at high altitude with the window open.
Following Mas is an interesting juxtaposition of sorts. The elegy that is El Lago – a track immersed in creepy organs that one associates with a funeral plan advertisement. Not for the fainthearted.
Streamlining is about as uplifting as Labradford get on A Stable Reference and one of the few times we hear Nelson sing. SEDR77 closes the album in fitting fashion. It’s a forging of the enveloping darkness of rumbling drones and Nelson‘s vocal whisper. Almost like a having Satan sing you a bedtime lullaby.
From front to back, A Stable Reference is not Labradford’s finest works; it feels almost a little too stark and gets drowned in the undercurrents of obscurity. It’s an interesting projection as to where they would go to next.
Labradford sees the band spreading their wings somewhat and becoming, shall we say, a bit more easier on the ear.
While the opening track, Phantom Channel Crossing has those similar dungeon drone lamb-to-the-slaughter qualities to that of A Stable Reference’s opener, Mas, thereafter, we slowly start to see a new version of Labradford unfurl.
Mid Range follows and with it, you can just feel a more focused energy. The violins are a welcome addition to the song and it’s the first time that you can hear those Bark Psychosis influences introduced into the Labradford DNA.
The spatial melody that intertwines through Pico along with the howling whirlpool of dread during Bigcontinue a solid, focused theme throughout Labradford.
Then there’s the final two tracks. Scenic Recovery and Battered – with the benefit of hindsight, these two tracks were the two cuts that bled into the fabric of the pioneering creature that Labradford were set to become. A bridge of sorts, breaking free from those effortless nihilistic chamber requiems that they had been the exponents of, replaced with a liberal cinematic underpinning that hinted towards a new accessibility for the band.
Same may suggest that this is Labradford was their finest effort. For me that moment was still to come, but it certainly has a seat at the table.
Mi Media Naranja (1997)
On the back of their bridging self-titled opus, Labradford followed up with their most defining piece of work. If there was a better night time album ever produced, then – quite frankly – this writer is yet to hear it.
The striking thing about Mi Media Naranja is that, apart from closing track, P, there’s no real stand out here. The clue may be found within the unadventurous song titles – all single lettered titles apart from WR. It’s seven tracks clocking in at forty-three minutes and fourteen seconds. It’s a proper record.
Each song (or ‘piece’ really) bleeds into the next. V inherits elements of classical music with rich sparse pianos and a heartfelt string section. It’s also one of the rare occasions we here Nelson‘s pale vocals throughout the record and this is why Mi Media Naranja feels like the juncture where they fully found their groove. The moment where Labradford were at their most comfortable musically. Nelson‘s vocals always felt a little too apprehensive. It’s no coincidence that he has gone one to forge an impressive solo career with ambient music as Pan•American.
The tender ghostly hymn that is P finishes the album with a beautiful piano loop accompanied by a sliding guitar that has an effect that just hangs in the air waiting for the next piano note. It’s the first track you would want to hear in an alternative universe which you occupy as a post-human.
P is Labradford‘s most known song and their finest. A weighty emotional dirge that is hands down one of the greatest funeral songs ever made and probably the finest to never be actually played at someone’s funeral, given Labradford‘s near non-existence exposure.
With Mi Media Naranja, there’s a snapshot of just about every post-rock luminary. The Dirty Three (S), Godspeed You! Black Emporer (G), basically all soundtrack music (WR). It’s their defining moment and one which elevates them as touchstones in experimental music of the last thirty years. All despite being the forgotten ones and – in most people’s case, the never fucking was’s. Merely never men in the hard luck story saloon.
E Luxo So (1999)
At this point, Mark Nelson moved to Chicago and began releasing music under the guise of Pan•American. The trio got together periodically in their native Richmond to rehearse and record, which meant that this long distance collaboration yielded the follow-up to the seminal Mi Media Naranja. E Luxo So.
E Luxo So is one of the few albums (and maybe the only one?) in the history to have recording and production credits listed as the song titles. Yes, seriously. Just to give you an example, so you think we haven’t totally lost the plot, the first track is called Recorded and Mixed at Sound of Music, Richmond, Va’. And so on.
The aforementioned track is a post-rock meander that you would expect Mogwai to have produced during their Rock Action period. The remainder of the album holds a compositional aura, as pianos and rich string textures replace those whirring organs. The core sound of drone and guitar also play more of a peripheral role during E Luxo So, which is largely an album that could be defined as neo-classical with Labradford almost rubbing shoulders with Louisville Kentucky outfit, Rachel’s.
Whilst there is an undoubted rich thread which runs through E Luxo So, guitar has one last hurrah, with Let O’Steen Assisted by John Piper capping off the album. If a Labradford album was destined for a film score, then E Luxo So would fly the flag well. Again, Jim, if you’re reading…
Fixed::Content is the final chapter of the Labradford story, in which the band drafted in Steve Albini to oversee matters from behind the studio glass.
As is often the case, Albini‘s presence is felt, with a scratchier raw production gracing the ears throughout this opus. The bulk of this album is taken up with opening track, Twenty clocking in at eighteen minutes and twenty-seven seconds.
Final track, Wien, is a fitting end to the chapter on the book of Labradford. Finality exists as a continuous sombre riff pulls this track into a murky realm. Labradford‘s stock-in-trade was producing funeral songs and with Wien they absolutely nailed it.
Fixed::Content saw the band garner plaudits from afar, not least here in the U.K. That may have been down Albini‘s involvement with the album, for the band did play the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in its glory years prior to its unsavoury demise.