“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” said Neil Armstrong, as he became the first person to walk on a surface outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. This July will mark 50 years since that historic event, when we first looked beyond our own horizon, and travelled to our nearest satellite; a moon made up of dust, rocks and craters we rather arrogantly named “the Moon”.
So it seems appropriate to commemorate this half-century milestone with this, Brian Eno’s ninth long-player. Receiving a timely, extended reissue it was originally recorded in 1983 with his brother and composer Roger and Canadian producer Daniel Lanois. For those that may not know, ‘Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks’ is the score to American journalist and director Al Reinhart’s 1989 documentary ‘For All Mankind’.
The film featured 35mm footage of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, along with real-time commentary from the mission crew and control staff. Initial cuts of the film featured no narration at all, with only chronological footage of the landing set to Eno’s music. While this later changed as production went on (although the non-narrated version was released on VHS in 1990), it didn’t stop the record becoming a seminal entry in the Eno catalogue.
This slick 2019 edition comes in a number of flavours (including limited double CD edition with 24-page hardcover book, and double gatefold 180 gram vinyl) and features an entirely new album ‘For All Mankind’ – 11 instrumental compositions that reimagine the soundtrack to the film.
It’s Eno, you know the score – literally. From the opening twangs of ‘Under Stars’ to the otherworldly echoes of ‘Matta’, ‘Apollo’ shows the composer at his ambient best, with these meticulous compositions sounding as great now as they did 30 years ago. Eno and co perfectly capture the ghostly ambience of the Moon, and what it must have been like to gaze across that grey, lifeless atmosphere. There’s the droning whine of ‘Signals’, the dreamy textures of ‘Stars’ and the haunting reverb of ‘Drift’. And while the Yamaha DX7 got extensive usage through this album, Eno also recruited Lanois’ guitar playing abilities for tracks like ‘Silver Morning’ and ‘Weightless’, the unmistakable influence of country and western permeating through the songs which, he says, was used to “give the impression of weightless space”.
Whether commander Pete Conrad of Apollo 12 felt the same about listening to songs like ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ or ‘Sugar Sugar’ by The Archies on the way to the Moon remains to be seen, but it’s a cosmic coincidence that country and western is actually what astronauts were listening to while whizzing through the atmosphere. The ghosts of the genre live on through ‘Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks’.
But it’s the extra material that’s the more intriguing in this package. Working collectively for the first time since the original ‘Apollo’ album was released, ‘For All Mankind’ sees the Eno brothers and Lanois work their intergalactic magic once again for this new version of the soundtrack. While Brian Eno has the majority share, Lanois’ trademark guitar is buoyant throughout his contributions, the wistful ‘Capsule’, ‘Last Step From The Surface’ and ‘Fine-grained’. Roger Eno offers ‘Waking Up’, ‘Strange Quiet’ and highlight ‘Under The Moon’, its ominous edge equalised by its soft keys.
Nevertheless the original album is a seminal body of work, its diligent compositions having an undeniable influence on what we think of as “space music” – the album could well be called ‘Music For Space’. The ethereal textures and serene electronics feel as contemporary today as they did in 1989, and you’d be hard pressed to argue they didn’t go on to influence the likes of Clint Mansell’s ‘Moon’ score, or Steve Price’s work for ‘Gravity’.
The music here has enhanced the soundtracks of several non-space related films, with notable examples including ‘Deep Blue Day’ finding life as part of Danny Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘An Ending (Ascent)’ featured in just about everything, from Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ to the 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony. In some ways ‘Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks’ is the antidote to Ligeti’s music used in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. It carries that same sense of scale and emptiness, but with a much more optimistic outlook. This is the beginning of the next stage of human evolution, the baby steps of man conquering the universe, distilled down into these recognisable electronic textures.
Since that historic moment back in 1969, our intergalactic endeavours have somewhat stalled. While there are constant missions into space (with NASA recently announcing that they will allow tourists to visit the International Space Station from 2020), no one has set foot on the Moon since astronaut Eugene Cernan back in December 1972, as part of the Apollo 17 mission.
Armstrong may have made a literal small step onto the Moon’s surface back in 1969, but there can be no denying how big it was for us as a species – scientifically and culturally. Likewise, ‘Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks’ is a milestone in film scoring, the motifs and sounds we associate with the stars. And with ‘For All Mankind’ included in this remastered edition, this is essential whether your adding this to your Eno collection, or just starting one. So, ‘Music For Mars’ next?