At first, it may seem paradoxical that the notion of listening to a Banco De Gaia album could be regarded as a challenging experience. Outdated at the moment of arrival, a musical fossil from one of those artists who has existed for years on the fringes of interest, followed by small, yet devoted groups, Toby Marks has continued to produce music that is listener-friendly, mild, and subtly melodic, and yet entirely uncool. His formula of ambient-with-a-trance-beat, enriched with pan-global samples, was the perfect proposition for the druggy enlightenment and transcendental fascinations of the 1990s, but it didn’t sit well in the post-2000 musical landscape. The earnestness of Dead Can Dance or Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares weren’t the most fashionable references in a world shaped by shabby indie, futuristic R&B, angular IDM, and gritty dubstep, let alone the fact that “trance” became near-synonymous with “unwelcome.”
Yet the circumstances in which the new BDG album — the first studio release in seven years — arrives are somewhat altered. Recent times have seen an unexpected renaissance of New Age aesthetics: a genre that seemed too awkwardly naive to stand up in the face of fashionable postmodern detachment was suddenly re-embraced, along with its dolphins, cosmic nebulae, and universal oneness. First, the likes of Steve Moore, Emeralds, and Stellar Om Source dusted off the synthesizer suite, long perceived as a proggy, bombastic 1970s relic. Further rediscoveries and reappraisals followed, leading eventually to today’s climate of ambient, even New Age, appreciation. The musical zeitgeist has thus, surprisingly, become favorable once again to Banco De Gaia’s contemplative trance. With this new album, Marks’ project may even become embraced as a “lost ancestor,” as occurred with Current 93 and the New Weird America/New Weird Folk movement — artists who have always been present, never ceased recording, but who for some reason became near-invisible to critics and the wider audience until a younger generation of musicians began to cite their obvious-in-retrospect influence.
Apollo differs little from previous Banco De Gaia releases. Its formula remains firmly rooted in middle-of-the-road dance music: mid-tempo trance beats intertwined with ambient moods, accompanied by a palette of ethnic instruments and “world” melodies, mainly from the Mediterranean region (as the album’s Hellenic theme suggests). It has a vaguely conceptual shape — coherent, but without a distinct story connecting the tracks. Plainsong chant marks the beginning and end of listening, while the content between these borders comprises miniature narratives of various tone, shape, and mood, all touched with the typically Banco spirit of “armchair travelling.”
During its worst moments, Apollo attempts to be an uplifting and playful record — e.g. in Wimble Toot, where things precariously resemble ornamental, nostalgically ethno-tinted cafe music in the vein of Beirut or the Amélie soundtrack — yet positive impressions prevail overall. The album is mainly filled with bright, melodic ambient, at times even suggestive of one of the genre’s touchstones, Brian Eno’s recordings with Laraaji. The beat-based tracks crafted around “world music” samples, such as the Arabic-themed Oreia, boast a wealth of engaging subtlety, typical for this branch of electronica. Ultimately, Apollo’s music is decorative rather than meditative, but if the listener can suspend any reflex notion of kitsch in their mind’s eye, it still manages to deliver a predominantly enjoyable experience.
Yet the main worth of Apollo lies in its status as an artifact from a bygone mindset; listening to it is tinged by a certain sadness, a note of lost innocence. Acts like Banco De Gaia, and their sonic siblings Delerium or Deep Forest, sound hopelessly naive in today’s landscape. The picture-perfect, imaginary evocations of Tibet or India and the visions of global harmony evoked by electronic world music have not only lost their relevance, but seem near-ridiculous when knowledge about the disturbing underbelly of these “exotic” destinations is only a click away. Despite, or perhaps because of this, there is something undeniably moving in Banco De Gaia’s continued pursuit of this mirage.