Britain in early 1990 was fast approaching the peak of Acid House, though four whole years would pass before the introduction of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 and the clampdown on outdoor raving culture. At the heart of the scene were three musical polyglots, artists and, depending on your take on these things, pranksters. Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty formed The KLF, while Alex Patterson was one half of The Orb alongside Cauty. Between them, they would lay the foundation for an entire genre.
Starting in a side room at Heaven nightclub in London during Paul Oakenfold’s ‘Land of Oz’ nights, Cauty and Patterson would spin laid-back, ambient sounds in the ‘chill out’ room. Having taped these sessions, Cauty found himself and Drummond in their Trancentral recording studio with a plan. Over the course of two days they would record an album of ambient and found sounds based on these recordings, interspersed with samples of songs by both The KLF (3am Eternal, Last Train to Trancentral) and other artists. To ratchet up the pressure, on the most chilled of albums no less, they would record in a single take.
The result is, in essence, a live album. Both creators have stated that long takes were abandoned after mistakes in the closing moments. The resulting record spans nearly 45 minutes, and while a track listing with approximate times was always available in the sleeve notes, the album was always intended to be heard as one single track. For those lucky enough to have laid hands on the now rare, UK only CD, that one track is all you’ll find.
Further concept was applied to the record as it was recorded and after it made it to tape. While not immediately clear to a first time listener, the track titles belie the albums central concept; it documents a journey through the southern states of the USA, from Texas to Louisiana. As steel guitar, Evangelical preachers, rolling trains, and the voice of The King, Elvis Presley flit through the mix, the echoes of a journey, however imagined, become mile markers for a trip experienced other than in mind. It’s equally clear that The KLF had no intention nor desire to truly transport the listener to the southern states as sheep bray and Tuvan throat singers add an uncanny reminder that this is an album that spans out from physical space.
Featuring samples from Elvis, Fleetwood Mac, Van Halen, Aker Bilk, Sci-Fi TV shows, news reports alongside engines, and birds, and the sound of waves ‘Chill Out’ flows naturally with rhythms and beats sliding in and out and no individual part drawing overt attention to itself, no piece appearing superfluous.
Often talked of in the same breath as Brian Eno’s Ambient works like ‘Music For Airports’, ‘Chill Out’ differs in a pointed way. While Eno’s works aimed to evoke a tangible space, ‘Chill Out’ plays with our sense of both time and place in a manner more reminiscent of Eno’s work with David Byrne on ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’.
Thirty years from its release, having spent time in muddy British fields with bass filling the dawn skies and have spent road trips along the Mexican Gulf coast between Texas and Louisiana, I find it hard to pin down this record. It is, like so much associated to The KLF, overtly unique, knowingly contradictory, and sorely intelligent in its concept and execution. That it helped spawn a genre is admirable. That it somehow channels a place its creators had never stood, yet is so completely rooted in its own time and place is testament to their skills. That it is still a vivid, contemporary sounding album worthy of repeat listens, that makes it a classic.