Last summer holidays I made a two hundred and fifty kilometre round trip to visit a Sunday Market.
A mate was holidaying nearby –or rather, we were staying near the newly acquired beach house of he and his partner– and I discovered that Geoff (unlike Vinyl Connection readers) had not been to the Kongwak Market. So off we went on a fool’s errand to find records (or CDs, or books or…).
It was a lovely day and great to have a decent old chin-wag on the long drive. Geoff told me of his disastrous interview with The Clash and I regaled him with a close Crowded House encounter at the very market we were heading for.
Kongwak Market is a wonderfully diverse affair, with several of the dozens of stalls having a box or three of LPs. But after an hour of diligent digging, I had very little in the way of acquisitions. Nothing in fact. When my mate and I re-convened for an organic non-exploitative coffee and a sausage in bread, Geoff showed off a few CDs and an album, but me? Zilch. So desperate for a result was I that I returned to one of the boxes I’d thumbed through in a perfunctory manner earlier and tried again.
It’s amazing what you find when you put your mind to it. Here was a rather careworn cover that I’d passed over previously that now got a little more attention. Looking past the age-lines and time-worn corners of the sleeve, I noted that this was the soundtrack to an obscure Australian film called Spirits of the Air – Gremlins of the Clouds, directed by Alex Proyas and released in 1989. As I scanned the inner sleeve, I noted that the music was written entirely and performed mostly by Peter Miller with just a smattering of tonal colourings from a handful of guests. It whispered ‘synthesisers’ to me and – most importantly – the vinyl was in much better shape than the cover, so I bought it for the princely sum of $3.
After being cleaned and inserted into the sprawling section labelled “Vinyl – Unplayed”, Spirits of the Air sat there, unnoticed and unloved, for months. Much like it had at the market, I imagine. Until last week when I deposited it on the turntable for a spin. The next day I span it again. Why? Partly because no record gets filed in the collection prior to two listens (one of which should be more-or-less focussed) but mainly because Peter Miller’s soundtrack is very good.
The opening “Spirits Song” has a haunting Dead Can Dance feel – ethereal but not exactly comforting – performed by vocalist Karina Hayes (who was briefly in post-punk electronic dance-pop band SPK near the end of their run). From that uneasy beginning, the synthesised instrumental music evokes Tangerine Dream without ever sounding like it’s trying to emulate the famed German soundtrackers. Synthesisers stretch and sigh, bringing to mind open plains and emptiness. Quite fitting, really, as the film has a post-apocalyptic setting in the Australian outback. As with many a suite of slow, brooding synth pieces, there is not an awful lot that stands out in this ominous landscape. A bit like the Australian outback, actually. That is why the fresh textures appearing from time-to-time really add to the listening experience. One short piece is based around the spooky air-spirit sounds of the Aeolian windharp, another uses the melancholy harmonica tones to add humanity in a way that leaves you feeling desolate as the mouth-organ surrenders to stately, funereal chords. It’s rather beautiful in a spare, timeless way.
Like many soundtrack albums of original music, the fourteen tracks of the album utilise a handful of themes which are worked and reworked through variations and inversions to build a repetitive, almost Phillip Glass-like experience. How you respond to this re-visiting and echoing of brief slow melodies will determine how you respond to the album. For this listener, the way the simple lines emerge from atmospheric washes or are re-stated in different voices was quite mesmerizing.
In a twenty-fifth anniversary re-appraisal at dailygrindhouse, Alex Proyas’ Spirits of the Air – Gremlins of the Clouds is contextualised in some detail, though the conclusion reached suggests Spirits is a slight film that may have made an outstanding 30 minute short. Revered Australian film critic David Stratton liked its production design and “special vision” while noting a certain “lethargy and stiltedness” [Wikipedia]. How paradoxical that a failing of the film is a strength of the music. Because the soundtrack album is a modestly excellent long-player that would be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates the more meditative works of Vangelis or the soundscapes of mid-70s Tangerine Dream.
Not that you are ever likely to come across it. Although released on vinyl, cassette and CD and nominated for a music award in the year of release, Spirits of the Air – Gremlins of the Clouds seems to have pretty much disappeared, which is a pity. The one copy of the CD listed on Discogs has an asking price of over eighty dollars. (Am I the only person starting to hate that site?). You’d probably be better off visiting Kongwak Market some sunny Sunday and taking pot luck. At least you’d be assured of a nice guilt-free coffee.
More on Spirits of the Air – Gremlins of the Clouds here, including an interview with composer/musician Peter Miller.