Tournesol were just one among dozens of artists pushed out into the wider world by the towering edifice that was R&S Records in the early nineties, an era when the various strands of eighties-derived dance music wove together in a vibrant tapestry of sound under the aegis of a post-ecstasy dance culture that had just begun to span the globe. Everything from breakbeat ardkore and EBM to acid house, Detroit techno, ambient, and hip hop were caught up in the mix, fellow travelers marking miles on the post-disco highway, and the great splintering to come — into genres like jungle, trance, IDM, gabber, big beat, etc. — was only just on the horizon.
At this point, R&S stood astride the scene like a colossus. Operating out of Ghent, Belgium, their rise came at a moment when the country could've passed as the center of the musical world thanks to the rise of Belgian hardcore. After doing their part to forge the sound in the crucible of the late-eighties, they really made their mark putting out figures like Human Resource and Outlander, along with a slate of Joey Beltram records that would turn out to be crucial in defining the sound. It wasn't long before auteurs like CJ Bolland and Robert Leiner emerged, twisting the sound into a very European, high-speed take on the techno blueprint, and Bolland’s series of Ravesignal records, along with Leiner’s early albums as The Source Experience, were crucial in mapping out the contours of this terrain.
Even as the label built its reputation taking techno's velocity to dizzying heights, there was a definite undercurrent of bucolic ambience running straight through its discography. This side of R&S’s identity found its true outlet when Apollo Records — the label's ambient division — emerged from the mists of 1992 with David Morley’s Evolution/Birth 12". Just later that year, the label put out Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 — an instant classic that even today is considered one of the greatest records of the decade — and reissued Biosphere’s Microgravity, which alongside The Orb defined the whole notion of Ambient House in the popular consciousness. Speaking of The Orb, Dr. Alex Paterson affiliates Sun Electric and Thomas Fehlmann also called the label home for most of the nineties (good company, indeed).
Apollo was also a place that auteurs from other scenes could find refuge: techno luminaries like Ken Ishii, Dave Angel, and Juan Atkins all put out key records on the label, while Robert Leiner took a break from his dizzying high-speed workouts to craft the gorgeous Visions Of The Past. Complicating matters further still, industrial dons Cabaret Voltaire slipped their ambient The Conversation double-album into the equation, abstract auteurs like David Morley, Andrea Parker, and Locust pioneered the whole 'dark ambient' sub-genre, and dancefloor chanteuse Billie Ray Martin recorded the breathtaking 4 Ambient Tales (a Parallax favorite) with The Grid. And then there were shadowy figures that you knew nothing about, figures that didn't seem to exist outside the label's catalog, figures like Manna, Uzect Plaush, and — yes — Tournesol.
I lay all this out there only to set the scene from whence Tournesol emerged, a face in the crowd during an era when crews from all over could crawl out of the woodwork to make their statement before vanishing back into thin air. Hailing from Denmark, Tournesol were the duo Thomas Lynge and Tommy P. Gregersen, who also put out an early tune under the name T & T Aggression. Beyond that, I know next to nothing about them. I picked up their records in a cache of Apollo wax that I ordered from a good gentleman in Germany way back in 2002, and their name has never come up with anyone I've talked music with over the years.
However, like Digital Justice and The Skinless Brothers, they're one of those crews that made an outsized impact on my own musical life. Household icons 'round these parts, no question. Their brief discography — just four records! — encompasses an astonishing interior world of strange sonic forms and aching beauty, poised initially between the twin poles of rave and ambience before veering off into crystalline Black Dog territory. In the space of just two years, they evolved eons, light-years traveled in just two trips around the sun.
Today we focus on their self-titled debut, which features four untitled tracks spread across four sides of 12" vinyl (the record never came out on CD). Technically an EP (at least that's how it seems to be classified now) but clocking in at 45 minutes, I've always thought of it as a classic electronic album in the vein of Stay Down by Two Lone Swordsmen: both records certainly would've sat comfortably aside seventies head elpees like Heldon’s Électronique Guerilla, Cluster’s Zuckerzeit, and Zero Time by Tonto's Expanding Head Band. Driving the point home further still, there's undeniably similar sub-oceanic currents running through the both of them (not to mention gorgeous sleeve art to boot).
Tournesol’s opening track is a sort of continental breakbeat hardcore, laid out in linear fashion across a sprawling vanishing point horizon, its strange trancelike European currents connecting back to kosmische music like Cluster and Harmonia rather than the British bredren's hyperspeed hip hop sonix. The closest U.K. counterparts would be either The Holy Ghost Inc. (circa Mad Monks On Zinc) or early Classics-era Aphex Twin (Didgeridoo in particular): this is infinite horizon music, played out at a time when the dancefloor was everything.
Squeezing steadfast harmonics from their array of magnificent machines — bleep loops interlocking with ancient electronics and an uptempo rhythm, they unfurl sheet after sheet of acid cycling up and down the dronescape — much like something Underworld might have done around the same time. That selfsame bleep pattern hammers the point home for nearly a minute before reconfiguring itself into a swirling ascent, tonal cascades reaching to the heavens and back again.
This is truly beautiful music, capturing the optimism of the time in its gorgeous geometric grooves. Perfectly matching its evocative sleeve art — capturing various shapes and people in glorious motion — its technicolor tones coarse through a world that's constantly changing. Even when the melody cuts out and the acid lines are submerged underwater, bubbling up around the groove and reverberating across its surface like sonar space, it's but a moment before that heavenly refrain returns... bright future music with but a shade of melancholy swirling about it.
The flipside contrasts it immediately with two minutes of distended, distorted kick drum clocking unsteady intervals against churning synth environments. In a brilliant threading of the whole rave/ambience deconstruction, it flows just like this for three-and-a-half minutes, before those trademark Tournesol bleepscapes begin spiraling off into the ether, twisting electronic formations into shape as wide-open elegiac strings enter the fray. Mournful and ancient, like Popol Vuh and Aguirre, The Wrath Of God.
Herzog-techno. A Red Planet-esque lead shades the melody for just moments at a time, ghosts of jazz dancing in the shadows of the pale moonlight. The rude edges of rave is still there, yet to be beveled off by time and 'good taste,' haunting the sound like a spectre. They'd develop this sound to its furthest on their debut album proper, Kokotsu, which emerged a year later. In fact, it's the one track from this record to feature on that LP, where it acquires the title
On the second disc of the Tournesol double-pack, things get even more abstract. Underwater flickers and the track commences, submerging into another deep sea dive, shifting currents drift across the ocean floor almost imperceptibly. These inner space sub-sonics dominate the proceedings for over sixteen minutes, flowing across drum machine rhythms that play like slow-motion electro inna proto-trip hop style, like a downbeat Drexciya. Synths zap through the water in slow-motion, electricity shifting in and out of the darkness like cryptic creatures just beyond your field of vision.
It's all strikingly minimal for 1993, but then there's that vocal wail like something from FSOL’s Lifeforms, transmissions from across the globe finally penetrating the deep black of this lonely submarine world. Just the faintest flicker of melody at the edge of consciousness, there for but a moment before it dwindles back into the bubbling landscape. There's a trancelike calm to the whole thing — indeed, the entirety of this second disc — a zen state caught in suspended animation that conjures up images of ancient underwater temples, explored in the extreme deceleration that comes with the decent into the deep.
The final stage of the journey begins on the flip with another slab of submarine techno. Here's where the Drexciya comparisons really bear fruit. Starting with squealing oscillators and proto-Myst sonix, a bouncing bassline pulls into focus like rolling underwater machine hum, and squealing oscillators begin ascending the scales. Those downbeat electro rhythms are back, this time muted and deconstructed in a sort of slow-motion sub-oceanic bebop, jamming to the sounds of the ocean floor, where atmospheres fade in and out of focus, sonar screens flicker with life and go blank again.
Cascading in nearly ten minutes of lo-fi sub-oceania, its similarly minimal vision places it outside its time in the same way Basic Channel’s contemporary sides seemed to exist on an entirely different plane to what was happening 'on the ground' at the time. There's a definite precursor to the whole Mille Plateaux thing going on here, a sort of glitch-before-glitch but better than glitch sensibility, much like Manuel Göttsching’s E2-E4 managed to prefigure techno itself just before the fact. These crumbling, lo-fi sub-sonix might be the most forward-thinking aspect to the record.
It's this sound that feeds into their final album, Moonfunk, where it's given a shimmering hall of mirrors sheen. 'Moonfunk', the perfect title in this case, it's zero-gravity orbital electro running parallel to things like The Black Dog’s Spanners. On a good day it might be my favorite thing they ever did, but there's no getting around the excitement and unbridled experimentation of their self-titled debut... pushed out at a time when everything was coming together, they made it all vanish in the ether, becoming one with the emptiness and ascending to a higher plane. During that brief moment when anything seemed possible, Tournesol made it so.