Tom Hall – Muted Angels (Complicated Dance Steps)
By Wallace Wylie
In the liner notes to Brian Eno’s Discreet Music the great man talks about how, while confined to his bed due to an accident, he accidently discovered a new way of listening to music. The record he was listening to was too low for his liking but low energy prevented him from adjusting the volume. Accepting his current condition he began to hear the music as “part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of the ambience”. From these beginnings came ambient, music designed to be both listened to and/or ignored depending on the whim of the listener. It was to be employed in much the same way as mood lighting or incense, meaning that it should add to the atmosphere without being the main focus. I mention these facts because Muted Angels by former Brisbane resident Tom Hall feels like a relative of the ambient music birthed by Eno. Instead of staying quietly in the corner, however, this music occasionally roars and demands to become the focus of attention. If this is ambient then it is surly ambient, background music that won’t do as it’s told.
Things begin delicately enough with ‘Chased By Demons Through Vacant Lands’ (not sure about the titles but that’s a minor complaint) and second track ‘You Forgive Me’ keeps things mellow, despite having an air of contained menace. It isn’t till ‘To Continue’ that the ambience is shattered and a great electronic snarl explodes from the speakers. ‘Before Being’ keeps up the darker mood yet once this song is over the album retreats to a place of implied danger as opposed to the unsettling sonic storm cloud of the aforementioned tracks.
If the album has any weaknesses it’s that it can be a little indistinct at times. The great curse (or blessing) of electronic music is its facelessness, its lack of personality. There is nothing here that screams, “Only from the hand of Tom Hall could this have been created”. The influence of Eno certainly feels strong, be it direct or indirect, but one could easily say they detect Aphex Twin when neither was on the mind of the music’s creator. Ultimately it doesn’t matter who influenced the proceedings. The album works but I yearned to be taken by surprise a few more times. I wanted to be baptised in dark electronic fire and felt a little disappointed by the album’s return to relative calm. Yet overall Muted Angels succeeds more than it fails and I find myself thinking of nights when I can dim the lights and let the album unfold before my ears. If I hunger for a little more menace and less containment from time to time it has not stopped me from returning to the album on a regular basis and this tells me that perhaps Tom Hall knows what he’s doing after all.