An attempt to translate into sound the beauty and utter strangeness of the Apollo 11 mission.
First released in 1983, Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks has long been recognized as one of the major accomplishments of ambient composition. Now, this pivotal album has been remastered and revised, an extended version rereleased to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Eno, along with brother Roger and Daniel Lanois, returned for the first time since the original recordings to produce 11 new compositions for an accompanying second disc (or playlist). Titled For All Mankind, this companion album is named for the documentary that provided the impetus for the original recordings and which has itself been reworked through multiple iterations.
What is most fascinating about the newly recorded tracks is how closely they continue the atmospheres of the first recordings, matching the sonic palate of the original compositions and not extending them so much as expanding them. Given that a number of pieces from the original have had a profound popular culture presence outside the 1983 album (“Deep Blue Day” featured prominently in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), while “An Ending (Ascent” was used in the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony), it’s no mean feat to have produced new recordings that so comfortably sit alongside the originals without ever being redundant.
Also immediately noticeable is how pivotal the 1983 recordings have been to establishing a certain sonic shorthand when it comes to evoking the space missions. This applies to such physical aspects as weightlessness and the overwhelming sense of scale so artfully captured in photographs of the Earth as seen from the Moon; and it also conveys emotions associated with space travel, such as awe, fear and peacefulness. Like the first album, For All Mankind mixes more familiarly structured pieces – “Over the Canaries,” for example – with less structured moments that span a wide variety of sound sources. As with the original album, the musicians utilize slowness and a spacious use of reverb and echo to convey the physical environments encountered by the astronauts.
On the 1983 release, Lanois made powerful use of pedal steel guitar through “Deep Blue Day” and “Weightless,” and picks this timbre up again on new tracks “Capsule” and “Fine-Grained” which along with the languid “Last Step from the Surface,” are credited to him. “Waking Up,” one of three tracks credited to Roger Eno, offers processed, echoed piano notes and chords, a delicate hesitancy when compared to Lanois compositions which are closer to conventional songs in their structures. Roger’s “Under the Moon” continues this, the now-heavily echoed piano notes linking this track to such other pieces as “First Light,” from Ambient Vol.2: The Plateaux of Mirror, Brian’s 1980 collaboration with Harold Budd. Brian’s own “Like I Was A Spectator,” which ends the second album, uses sustained and processed synthesizer chords to draw us out, a diminishing sequence of notes that close fittingly like a camera iris on the entire project.
If the original release of Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks was immediately essential, this expanded version is no less vital and significant. After all of this time and, for all three musicians, significant career successes across a range of genres and styles, the fact that the sonic aesthetics of the first album can be so powerfully continued in the new material proves how well-crafted and realized the first release was. The delicate sound as though they’ve always been a part of the objective of this album – an attempt to translate into sound the beauty and utter strangeness of the Apollo 11 mission.