Album of the Week: Trans-4M – Sublunar Oracles

Some records are created to live beyond their time. They get overlooked, and forgotten, getting passed over for something more recognisable at the forefront of the shelf, only to crop up years later in a retrospective that should’ve included them in the first place. I suspect this is what happened with Trans 4M’s “Sublunar Oracles,” an album that landed right alongside “U.F.Orb” and “Selected Ambient works 85-92” in 1992, but was largely passed over for the sake of those, more recognisable titles. At a time when electronic ambient music was still fairly new and alternative, Aphex Twin and U.F.O had only just started making impressions in popular culture, and it would take another few years for people to get accustomed to the exotic sounds of ambient music and another two decades or so for more obscure artists like  Trans 4M to be recognised for their excellent contributions to the genre.

Re-issued for the first time via Young Marco’s dedicated Safe Trip label, the “Sublunar Oracles” has finally found an audience that could appreciate its magnificent beauty. At a time when electronic music is returning to melodies and new generations are navigating archives to get back to the roots of various styles, “Sublunar Oracles'” arrival is serendipitous and  sounds as contemporary as its ever been. It must have been way ahead of its time in 1992, with a minimalist spatial awareness and an open-ended musical purview that sounds a lot more grown up than the very cluttered and DIY ambient music of their time. The sibling production duo of Dimitri and Stefan Van Elsen would only go on to release a handful of LPs and EPs throughout the ’90s, before disbanding in 1999, but what they left on “Sublunar Oracles” is a masterpiece in the ambient music lexicon.

An immersive experience over eight tracks, “Sublunar Oracles” narrates a global journey from the omnipotent perspective of a satellite charting an orbit around the planet, where stark alien electronic textures conspire with the terrestrial sounds of exotic locations from around the world. The album arrives on a chorus of detuned synths modulating on the rhythms of a message being broadcast lightyears ahead, before setting a path in an orbit of sweet melodies and broken beat constructions that mark out a metre with sensitive delicacy. Opening track, the aptly named “Arrival” introduces the narrative for an LP that travels between the otherworldly sounds of Trans4M’s synthesisers and the earthbound sounds they’ve sampled. On “Death Probe” a lovely arp hovers above the  sounds of water and whale song while on “Amma” the evocative sounds of the African continent travel into the future on the heady pulse of a dub rhythms.

There’s a captivating melodic- or harmonic phrase at the core of each track with keys and synthesisers offering some kind of development through the tracks that go beyond the refrain. Like if Steve Reich were to compose from the synthesiser, there’s something complicated about melodies that are built on very a simple foundation. Dimitri Van Elsen had apparently been enrolled in Antwerp’s Jazz Studio at the time of creating the LP and the genre’s influence had certainly been a touchstone for the artist. The melodic phrasings aren’t quite as innocent anything else released at that time, offering something a little more progressive than three notes barely breaching the tonic.  It’s especially noticeable on the Indian sounds of  “Atharvaveda,” where Gert Wijninckx’s saxophone evokes eastern passages alongside talking drums and electronic sitars.

Between the more organic elements of tracks like “Atharvaveda” and the classic sounds of electronic ambient music, this album is a versatile record that contains more than just the obvious tropes of its time and its music. It might have taken two decades for it to be appreciated for its magnificence, but “Sublunar Oracles” deserves a rightful place amongst the classic ambient albums like “Selected Works 85-92” and “U.F.Orb.”