- The Detroit artist marks the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.
- On their way back to Earth 50 years ago, the crew of the Apollo 11 entertained themselves with a scratchy tape from 1947 called Music Out Of The Moon. It was made to tap into "the remote realm of human emotions," and was supposedly ideal for films dealing with "the macabre and fantastic." The mystery of the music's celestial subject was captured by choir harmonies and the theremin, which gave the LP's lush, easy-listening jazz an ethereal warmth. To today's ears, that music would seem at odds with what Buzz Aldrin called the "magnificent desolation" of the lunar surface. But the distance between knowing and imagining what's on the moon has fed artists for centuries. So for a few of them, the Apollo 11 mission was a real downer. "The moon of the myths, the poets, the lovers will have been taken from us forever," said CS Lewis, a few years before the first moon landing. "He who first reaches it steals something from us all."
In two previous albums, Jeff Mills found inspiration in stories Lewis might've appreciated. One was a remarkable two-hour score for a Fritz Lang film whose heroes found gold and breathable air on the far side of the moon. Two years later, in 2017, another film score nodded to "strange plants," "botanical wonders" and "underground moon people." Mills's latest album, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, considers another question that's roused the collective imagination: how does the moon affect us? "There are influences of the moon we can detect, measure and document as scientific facts," he says. "If these are perceived as rational explanations, then it should raise questions about the possibility of other unseen mental and metaphysical connections humans have [with the moon]." In exploring these ambiguities and unknowns, Mills again shows a quality few would readily associate with him: a romantic streak.
But his music has expressed that regularly. On one of my favourite Mills tracks, 2009's "From Beyond The Star," suspenseful techno and symphonic strings mixed in a way that conveyed the intense joy and relief of discovery. (You might imagine a Captain Ahab type spotting his whale somewhere past Alpha Centauri.) A comparable track on Moon – The Area Of Influence, "The Tides," shows how refined Mills's use of classical music elements has become. The bowed strings, woody, syncopated percussion, and agile bassline spin each other into a sophisticated dance. The mood is profound yet ambiguous—the strings split off like capillaries, each stroke probing a slightly different emotional current. The overall impression, though, is of a cosmic gravitas that speaks for itself.
Mills's albums often stretch skillfully beyond four-to-the-floor techno. His last LP, for example, integrated cinematic interludes and exotic ambient into highly strung club tracks. But Moon – The Area Of Influence is a Jeff Mills techno album through and through. "Stabilising The Spin," "Lunar Power" and "180-Degree Repositioning Phase" all slam with off-centre rhythms. "Decoding The Lunar Sunrise" has the unmistakably uplifting sound of Galaxy 2 Galaxy. The stealthy acid groove driving "Measuring The Doppler Shift" and "Electromagnetic," a half-time bob of chatty circuits and mechanical springs, are especially good. And many of Mills's classic hallmarks are present, including shards-of-crystal soundscapes ("Control, Sattva And Rama") and sinister arpeggiation ("Sleep-Wake Cycles"). There's a lot here that will satisfy fans of his catalogue.
But as an evangelist for techno's artistic potential, Mills has always sought audiences beyond the dance floor. How might Moon – The Area Of Influence affect them? Some tracks, like "Peaks Of Eternal Light"'s eerie chime lullaby or "Control, Sattva And Rama," are immersive sonic scenes of the type Mills has seemed especially enthused by: "[Techno could become] the recreation of an experience that you would like to have," he once told Lauren Martin, "[you could listen] to techno making you feel like you're in India, in the year 1645." But the album is not always that evocative. "Erratic Human Behaviour," for all its discordant clang, is disappointingly mild (and as a track with a fairly regular rhythm, it's not that erratic). Sometimes, ideas fail to translate. It's hard to tell what a drum track called "180-Degree Repositioning Phase" might be trying to say about our relationship with the moon.
Mills faces an additional challenge in getting across the LP's concept. Can the enigmatic effects of the moon resonate through a style of techno that has been ripped off and reproduced so often? In that light, Lewis's formulation seems wrong: it's not the first, the second or third man on the moon who steals from us all, but the opportunists who follow. In that situation, lots of artists, their style thoroughly cramped, would jump spaceship. Though Mills has always made what he'd call techno, he has spent years expanding the possibilities of the form. "Ridiculed," from Woman In The Moon, or 2016's "Entering (Free Fall Galaxy)" are just two excellent examples of the virtual reality-style immersion Mills has envisaged. The album's flaws, then, are mostly about scope. It's a good techno album with lots of vintage Millsian touches. These days, though, that feels like a modest result.
01. Control, Sattva And Rama
02. Stabilising The Spin
03. The Tides
04. Sleep-Wake Cycles
05. Erratic Human Behavior
06. Lunar Power
08. Decoding The Lunar Sunrise
09. Peaks Of Eternal Light
10. Measuring The Doppler Shift
12. 180-Degree Repositioning Phase