Sometimes, for whatever reason, great art slips past audiences and remains woefully underappreciated. Which is why we’ve created an essay series called Fossil Records, devoted to helping people discover lost and obscure work that never got its due.
Ambient music, though conceptually simple, perpetually walks a tricky line: make it too minimal and it risks being boring and irritating, stuff it with too much and soon it can’t be called “ambient” at all anymore. From Gardens Where We Feel Secure by Virginia Astley (no relation to the infamous Rick) neatly sidesteps this problem by evoking not so much mood as time and place, less the simple notion of bucolic England and more its literal, physical sound and dimension. It is lovely, forward-thinking work and, even though this entire column is about great out-of-print records, I must go out of my way to note that it’s a true crime that this album isn’t commercially available anymore, given how many genres and artists it must have breathed some measure of life into.
Broadly speaking, Gardens is a collection of nature recordings that are structured around piano loops and gentle woodwinds. Adorably, side A is called “Morning” and side B is “Afternoon.” Imagine if the town of Hobbiton was really big on Debussy and you’ll have a decent idea of the feeling this album is going for. And indeed, if that definition were to indicate to you that this album is nothing more than New Age claptrap, or even if you came to that conclusion from the title of the album alone, it would be perfectly understandable.
But to do so would be to miss a whole range of atmospheres and dynamics that this album explores well beyond the simple goal of putting the listener in their happy place. The title track is disorientingly melancholic, coming off more as a Mogwai inspiration than something for Enya fans to zone out to, and songs with names like “A Summer Long Since Passed” and “When the Fields Were On Fire” hint at a deeper mystery. As a lyricless concept album, Gardens focuses on tangibles both in the song titles and in the construction of the music itself: a water wheel is used as off-kilter percussion on one track, the scattered chirping of birds as melodic accompaniment on another. While soothing, there is counterpoint in these compositions that provides not drama, exactly, but wistfulness. It’s as apt to remind you of a date with a lost love as a day at the lake when you were a child.
Rarely does one find modern, relaxation-oriented classical music this engaging. The title track, as stated, feels like an important development in the creation of orchestrally-minded post-rock, and opener “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming” will stay in your head for weeks. The pastoral world Gardens invokes is small and safe, but not entirely simple or predictable. The tracks are threaded to flow into each other seamlessly and titled like short novels; it’s impossible to shake the feeling there’s a bigger picture to be observed inside of this album, but the soft abstraction ensures whatever painting congeals will be a solitary, private work of the listener’s own creation.
From Gardens Where We Feel Secure is one of my favorite albums, lost or otherwise. Textured enough to allow for playful dissection, meditative and content enough to ensure no such dissection is mandatory, I can find myself listening to it many times per day without finding it grating or tiresome. Careful and nuanced and free, Virginia Astley’s magnum opus is ripe for remastering and revitalization, a surefire inspiration for a new generation of producers and composers.
Christopher M. Jones is a comic book writer, pop culture essayist, and recovering addict and alcoholic living in Austin, TX. He currently writes for Loser City as well as Comics Bulletin and has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators for his minicomic Written in the Bones (illustrated by Carey Pietsch). Write to him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.