Obscure Records box set

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Obscure RecordsBrian Eno and Gavin Bryars‘ short-lived record label from the mid 70s – is getting a lavish reissue this month via the Italian label, dialogo. The ten albums released in three batches between 1976 and 1978 are getting the box set treatment on vinyl and CD with accompanying books detailing their checkered histories with new sleevenotes and essays by key contributors. The label very kindly sent me the full digital release and I’ve been revisiting – and in some cases hearing for the first time – all the volumes in pristine, digitally-remastered quality seeing as the handful of originals I have on vinyl have been around the block a bit now.
Co-curated at the time by Eno, Bryars and Micheal Nyman and resurrected by Bryars with full co-operation of all featured artists for this release, the ten albums form a snapshot of a young, experimental set of avant garde composers, mainly from the UK, setting out in careers that would take them in different directions with varying levels of succes, fame and notoriety. The most famous of the set are by the key curators – Bryars’ ‘The Sinking of the Titanic / Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’, Eno’s ‘Discreet Music’ and Micheal Nyman’s debut,’Decay Music’, but you’ll recognise others among them too; The Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s first LP is here alongside works by John Cage, David Toop and Harold Budd’s introductory outing.

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Several things strike me about these albums; the amount of samples – or ‘found sound’ as they’re called in the sleeve notes – some of them use. At least half the catalogue use or manipulate voice or field recordings, in Discreet Music’s case, affecting or looping sections of another composer’s work as just another instrument. It’s also interesting to note how many of the participants were also working part time in the education system, no doubt influencing future generations in other ways beyond these albums. There’s probably a book to be written about the hidden history of art and music taught through the universities of the UK by some of its most unique practitioners.

The label have done a beautiful job representing these albums as one body of work with the CD version looking like a perfect companion to the Oblique Strategies box on the shelf. The sleeves are facsimiles of the originals, reproducing sleeve notes inside the book along with reflections from Bryars, Toop and more as well as insights into their legacy, the cover reconstructions and even the myriad of different pressings of the originals out there. According to the sleeve notes there was to be an Obscure 11, Eno’s Music For Airports, but at the last minute he changed his mind and started the Ambient Series; four albums that bear similarities to the Obscure releases, not least in their cover designs as well as his hand in their production. Times and the composer had moved on and a new movement was afoot, leaving the Obscure catalogue at a perfect ten, a time capsule of a collective that would splinter in different directions and prove influential in ways none could predict.

An aside concerning the cost of these box sets, they’re not cheap but look worth every penny. Downloads of six of the albums are also available on the label’s Bandcamp for €12 per LP – minus the classics by Eno, Penguin Cafe, Michael Nyman, Harold Budd (which you can find easily elsewhere).

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