Having spent the previous decade fronting Be-Bop Deluxe, Bill Nelson began the 1980s with the intent of forging a solo career. Alongside his more traditional rock records, he started to develop an interest in instrumental music of an ambient nature. Recognizing at the time that these more abstract records might be a bit challenging for his audience, he initially coupled two of them as bonus records alongside his more straightforward records, while releasing the third, Das Kabinet, on his newly-launched label, Cocteau Records. Dreamy Screens: Soundtracks From The Echo Observatory, the latest release in his ongoing reissue campaign, compiles these three early works into one collection.
The first of these albums, 1981’s Sounding The Ritual Echo (Atmospheres For Dreaming), was a compendium of tracks that appeared with his solo album, Quit Dreaming And Get On the Beam. Though he states that he recorded these songs on defective equipment and offers no apology for their quality, it’s a silly gesture, as these songs are simply gorgeous ambient compositions. Any imperfections such as tape hiss or wow & flutter only serve to make these songs more compelling. Unlike the other two albums in this set, this record only serves as a hypothetical soundtrack. Furthermore, Sounding The Ritual Echo offers up fully developed songs, as opposed to the fractured yet thematically linked material on the other two albums.
In 1981, Nelson was approached by Yorkshire Actors Company to compose a score for their stage adaptation of Robert Weide’s 1919 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Musically speaking, Das Kabinet is a very difficult listen; most of the pieces barely break the one-minute mark. Without visual accompaniment, Das Kabinet feels disjointed, fractured, and confusing. It’s also extremely dark and haunting; the acidic “The Unmasking,” “Caligari Opens The Cabinet,” and “Murder” veer from ambience to noise, while the punch-drunk “The Fairground” and the gorgeous tranquility of “The Dream Dance of Jane and The Somnambulist” are moments of beauty amongst an otherwise disturbing landscape.
Better is La Belle Et La Bête, which was another commissioned piece from the Yorkshire Actors Company’s adaptation of the 1946 Jean Cocteau film of the same name. Though this album is even more impressionistic than Das Kabinet—much of the album consists of sonic pieces that last less than a minute—the progression from one to the other is much more natural, and the listening experience isn’t hampered by sudden, jarring changes. The thirty-five pieces flow together quite nicely, a sonic collage that is sublime even as it is dark and foreboding.
Don’t let the fact that’ some of this music is complicated scare you off, because for the most part the music here is sublime and beautiful. Nelson would go on to perfect his ability to make sonic soundscapes out of short pieces of music, and dreamy screens shows that his vision was worth the effort. Time has shown that music he thought was too complicated to find an audience on its own has, in fact, not only found an audience, but has served to define and cement Nelson’s role in establishing the ambient genre.
Dreamy Screens: Soundtracks from the Echo Observatory is available from Cocteau Discs.