Released in 1994, 1194 is Woob's debut album, and considered by many to be one of the genre-defining albums of modern ambient music. A reviewer with more buzzwords than sense describes it as a "state-of-the-art snapshot of heavily hybridized post-rave experimental ambient", which is fairly representative of the cartwheels which most critics and listeners have turned in praise of Woob's music.
Album review bullshit aside, however, 1194 is an unforgettable experience. Woob's style is to mix together long, slow, deep beats with samples from popular science fiction TV shows, snippets of conversation, Middle Eastern or Indian traditional voice music and woodwind instruments. Long spells of near-silence turn out, when the volume is turned up, to be teeming with subtle ambient noise and words at the edge of audibility.
Woob both is and isn't easy listening. The first tract of 1194, on earth, is 32 minutes long, which is enough to put anyone off, but only until they actually began to listen. on earth is epic, probably the greatest ambient track ever written, starting with bells and voices heard from a distance, as if one is standing on a mountain track watching herdsman on a plain below. An ululating female voice joins a deep bass throb, singing what sounds like a lament, which continues, increasing in intensity until the beat begins, slow, steady and powerful. The beat fades away again after a few minutes, and there are more ambient sounds, long seconds of silence, voices, until a strange instrument begins again, something like a gigantic wooden Tibetan horn, resonating and sweet. The sound rises and falls, and the beat begins again, in a slightly different rhythm. It's still the same song, but it could as easily be a new track. After a couple of minutes (no hurry, we don't know where we're going but we know we're loving getting there), it begins to modulate from its major key to minor and back. We're happy. We're sad. We don't care any more, we just want the sound to go on forever. And just when you've forgotten to wonder when the song's going to end, the beat and the horn fade away again, and we're left with the voices and clinking bells, the soft ripples on sitar strings, and throb of the bass moving into the silence for the last time.
The rest of the album couldn't possibly outdo the first track, and they don't have to. In my opinion, Woob's intention is to bring you to another plane - planet ambient, maaan - and once you're there, to let you linger. It's the musical equivalent of an extended meditation. The second track, odonna, is over 13 minutes, and, in addition to a long monolgue about the nature of sound and chord progressions in Mozart by a tripped-out, gentle academic, features an extended sample from an episode of the first series of Star Trek, in which James T. Kirk is speaking with a woman from an alien race living on an overcrowded planet.
Kirk: "...You've come to kill... Odonna, you've come to die?
Odonna: "I don't know, I don't care. I only know I'm here. I only know I'm happy"
The same style continues in the following tracks, which are chilled-out, funky, and packed full of ethnic music and more samples, including snippets from Quantum Leap, The Abyss, Sex, Lies and Videotape, and Tron. Frankland says in an interview that some of the samples were unintentional - on strange air there is dialogue from a horror film that he wasn't even watching, which mysteriously appeared on the audio track later, and he decided to leave it there. The final track, emperor, is the strangest of the bunch - four and a half minutes of a deep, quiet, undefined bass hum, interspersed with the sound of emperor penguins cackling and gurgling to each other. Anyone who has heard the sound made by an emperor penguin will know how strange it is that it could form the basis for a song, but Woob manages to pull it off, mainly due to the fact that an attentive listener is, at this point, so relaxed that their bones are liquefying. I put the CD on in the chillout room of a party I had for my birthday last year, and when I came back in an hour later, there were four people fast asleep on my bed. When I sat down beside them, one of them woke up, and the first thing he said was "What is this music, man? It's so great..." True story.
The bad news: this album, together with the follow-up, 4495, is extremely rare on CD. As in, out of print, out of circulation, out of sight and out of mind. My copy was burned for me by a friend who found his copy in a second hand record store somewhere in Leeds, England - he loaned it to me before getting a CD burner, and said "If you lose this or scratch it, I will kill you", and he meant it.
The good news is that all of the tracks, and a lot more by Woob, are available through various file-sharing websites, often in near-CD sound quality, having been thoughtfully ripped by music lovers around the world who are trying to spread the word. The CD cover of the em:t album release features (of course) emperor penguins in a snowy landscape, but em:t are now defunct, so the only place you're likely to see it, if at all, are second hand stores, jumble sales, or in your discerning friend's CD collection. My advice? Borrow it, but for god's sake don't tell him.