Ambient myth-making in the American South:
The KLF’s Chill Out Revisited

Elvis is singing about snow in Chicago. A gospel choir sing hauntingly in the background with the refrain: ‘after the love has gone.’ A preacher rants about the East Coast. A train shuttles through the long, dark, lonesome night. You’re on a journey you’re never going to forget.

When we think of the 90s music scene, familiar faces and themes come readily to our minds. The paranoia of the surveillance state of the interconnected world brought us Radiohead’s OK Computer. The spread of malls to America’s small-towns and suburban malaise helped form Modest Mouse’s The Lonesome Crowded West. It was an era of nightmarish, industrial alt-rock (Tom Waits), of face-melting, fist-clenching grunge (Nirvana, Pearl Jam), of denim jackets (Blur). It had everything, and then some.

So it is, then, that The KLF’s Chill Out, one of the landmark albums of ambient house music, seems so incongruous with the period that birthed it. This is an album of ‘found’ sound, of trains coursing through some unknown American night, of police scanner audio reporting the hunt for a murderer. Water drips. Sheep graze. Altogether, in its relatively lean 44-minute duration, these strange and wonderful sounds form the sonic journey of this, or any other, lifetime.

Breaking down individual tracks here would be futile because Chill Out is designed exclusively for one-sit listening. This isn’t an album where you sit poring over liner notes, but one where you hit the lights and close your eyes. Rising, pulsating synths spar with the sound of acoustic guitars, the kind you imagine being plucked lazily on a Southern porch. The instruments proper, the recognisable tools of the trade, are spliced with samples from Elektra Records’ Authentic Sound Effects Vol. 2 from 1987, including ‘Crossing bells and horn with electric train pass.’ If this sounds bizarre, that’s probably because it is. At its strangest and most mythic, Chill Out recalls Brian Eno’s Ambient series, particularly 1982’s dark-ambient opus On Land. At its most conventional, it recalls energetic trip-hop and the early days of trance. It’s an aural melting pot into which The KLF have willingly chucked everything within arms reach. The result is astonishing:

Pulling out of Ricardo and the Dusk is Falling Fast

3 A.M. Eternal Somewhere out of Beaumont

Six Hours to Louisiana, Black Coffee Going Cold

These are three randomly selected track titles, if they can be called that. They’re testament in themselves to the subtle poetics of Chill Out, which dabbles in Americana imagery and the ideological symbols of the U.S road trip. The album purportedly details a nighttime journey from Texas to the Gulf Coast, charting a course through America’s South and seemingly encountering all of its hidden secrets along the way.

Ethereal drone accompaniments, backed by the sounds of crickets, car horns, and even the wind, elevate Chill Out beyond the realm of album, beyond music altogether at times. It’s a transmedial journey through time and space, framed by the archetypal American road trip. At one moment, in particular, dogs bark and metal cans clatter together as if you’ve stumbled into some moonshiner’s woodland camp, with people chattering in the background as you stumble onwards hazily toward the East Coast. Tuvan throat singers and the chirps of exotic birds ring out in these imaginary woods, and for a moment you forget you’re hearing an album at all. Forget you’re sitting at home, or in the car, in a recognizable space that you can reach out and feel. For a moment you are floating along the Mississippi listening to the fauna of America’s backwoods cry out over electronic music.

To understand how an album like this exists, one so strange and yet so influential, we need to understand the people behind it. The KLF, comprised of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, established themselves in 1987 under the name The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu with sample-heavy offerings of hip-hop and electronic tracks. Soon after, The KLF and its earliest machinations began to take effect. They published manifestos decrying the art world, they encouraged the defacement of public installations and billboards, and in 1994, in an abandoned boathouse on a remote Scottish island, they set fire to £1,000,000.

Such anarchy is troublesome, problematic, unforgettable, as is so often the case behind great works of art. Chill Out is one such work, deservedly remembered by ambient and electronic purists, but perhaps underrated in the grand scheme. When you next find a spare three-quarters of an hour, and aren’t afraid to get lost, seek Chill Out. Enjoy the meditation of simply listening, free from distraction. Relive the come-up of raves you’ve never experienced, with people you’ve never met. I’m imploring you, like some maniacal travel agent from a 60s billboard, to take a trip to the Gulf Coast, today.

Words by Will Carroll

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