South Horizon

South Horizon.

It’s the process, not the result, that matters to me.

Pyke, in The Buddha of Suburbia.

Where to begin when rummaging through your life? One starting place was jazz, a first love. “I want to be a saxophonist in a modern jazz quartet,” Bowie told Bromley Tech’s School Careers Officer when he was leaving school in summer 1963. In his memory chain in the Buddha of Suburbia liner notes, he included Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho, where as a teenager he’d seen a number of American jazz players. Bowie had already returned to jazz with Black Tie White Noise, thanks to Lester Bowie, but on that record he’d kept to contemporary fusion. Now, with “South Horizon,” he tried his hand at the avant-garde, and outsourced the job to Mike Garson, as he had in 1973.

Garson’s five-chorus piano solo on “Aladdin Sane” played against a basic rock rhythm track in 4/4: bass root notes, acoustic guitar and drums, constantly shifting between A and G chords. For “Horizon,” Bowie offered a craftier puzzle for Garson to solve. (Garson recorded his contributions in California, months after Bowie and Erdal Kizilcay had cut most of Buddha). Bowie started “Horizon” by monkeying with one of his Buddha soundtrack motifs, a brief trumpet/synthesizer passage, isolating a few melodic peaks of the trumpet melody, layering in percussion (both live and electronic), and then “all elements, from the lead instrumentation to texture, were played both forwards and backwards. The resulting extracts were then intercut arbitrarily,” Bowie wrote. He thought it worked: “South Horizon” was his favorite piece on the album.

Still, Bowie always talked a more dramatic game than he delivered; even his Low instrumentals formed by chaotic motivations have fairly standard song structures. And “Horizon,” although “intercut arbitrarily,” is in two obvious halves (the join is at 2:24), an opening “trad jazz” movement anchored by Kizilcay’s drums, and a closing “acid jazz” movement paced to a drum machine. There’s some bleed-through—the drum machine winks in about a minute into the “trad” section, while a trumpet motif that repeats every eight bars in the opening half reappears once more in the “acid” stretch—with Garson’s piano and Kizilcay’s walking bass being the main border-crossers.

The opening half of “Horizon” is spare, with a cycling trumpet motif (sometimes shortened, sometimes allowed to fully expire) and a set of four synthesizer chords creating a harmonic wash, while the lead perspective shifts between Kizilcay’s drums (themselves a dialogue between ride cymbal, hi-hat and kick, interrupted by occasional tom fills), Garson’s piano and Kizilcay’s bass, which starts challenging Garson midway through. The latter half of “Horizon,” kicked off by a groaning “three blind mice” synth pattern that returns twice more to break up the various solos, introduces a few new characters, like a second Kizilcay trumpet track (sprightlier and sweeter, as though happy to have escaped the loop that claimed its predecessor) and Bowie’s saxophone. With Garson doing the fireworks, Bowie’s content here to be a secondary player, offering support and a few mild variations to a dancing synthesizer melody that appears whenever he’s on stage. It’s as though we’re hearing a Bowie who became a “modern jazz” sax player in Bromley, but who never made it out of the suburbs.

Garson starts out in the “trad” section playfully, winking through a few scales, rumbling away on the bass end, jabbing against Kizilcay’s bassline, as if trying to undermine it. When the drum machine kicks in, Garson, after an initial darting melody in response, starts giving random commentaries on his fellow players, sometimes trying to drum them out with pounded chords, while playing a sweet counter-melody during the return of the trumpet motif; he closes with a fractured lullaby carried on his highest keys. Garson, on his “Aladdin” solo, sounded like someone who had managed to soak up every speck of music that he’d ever heard, and who was able to reproduce it at will, like God’s player piano. His work on “Horizon” is nothing as outrageous: it’s more concise, more conciliatory, still crafty. Knowing he could play anything, he often chooses here to keep silent, or just give a hint of some greater pattern.

The track’s weak link is the drum programming (whether Bowie, Kizilcay or David Richards, or some combination of the three): it sounds like someone playing on a tissue and comb when compared to the beats on key house/ambient/dance tracks of 1993 (see “Renegade Snares” or “Aftermath Version One” or “Planet of the Shapes” or “The Nervous Track”). Still, “Horizon” is the work of a restless, renewed mind that, in Garson and Kizilcay, found some fine tools to execute its ambitions.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux (Garson’s piano was recorded ca. July-September 1993, at O’Henry Sound, Burbank, California).

Top: Stuart Griffiths, “Brighton, 1993-1994.”

24 Responses to South Horizon

  1. probably the first person ever to blog about south horizons…love love love it

  2. Gnomemansland says:

    So much of BoS would have been improved by having a real drummer or a nifty drum machine programmer.

  3. Pierre says:

    for an album cut in 10 days, it’s not bad. This track is one of my favorite, would have been nice to hear this live.

  4. Jacques de Molay (The Hunt Sales Memorialist... Tin Man) says:

    Great tune, dreamy instrumental (esp. the beginning), makes me see dreamy landscape with a rising sun. Mike Garson’s (Bowie’s Keith Jarrett) performance… as always is wonderful.

  5. david says:

    For a painter such as myself, Bowie’s instrumental’s are gold, always offering a wonderful aural background to create in. Whilst I prefer the more sombre timbres of Low, or even the Mysteries, this one has a lovely disparate energy for those bold sweeping strokes.

  6. gcreptile says:

    I’m a sucker for trumpets and Garson’s meandering piano notes, so there is an instant appeal to me. But in the end, there could have been a little more meat on that bone. I agree on that poor drum machine.

  7. Maj says:

    This is certainly not for me. I find it quite annoying but it’s more to do with me not being in tune with this kind of music than with it not being good, obviously (well, apart from the drum machine). There are parts of it that I like but overall…no thanks. I’d take a BTWN instrumental over this.

  8. Remco says:

    Garson rules. Too bad about the drum machine, but other than that a fine, fine track.

  9. Momus says:

    “I could make quite a good song out of the bit between 4.22-4.40.”

    This is how I used to think, back in the 90s. I’d buy a CD at Tower Records, Piccadilly Circus, and feel rather, often, rather underwhelmed by it. Then I’d cheer up thinking that it wasn’t ten quid down the drain if I could find a good drum loop or chord sequence or something, and either sample it with my Akai S2800 or use the chords as the basis for something new.

    (I thought this way because I was an avid student of a certain David Bowie, the man who sampled the world.)

    Okay, okay, I’m sensing inspiration… Got it! The new song should be about a character called Spiv the Undertaker, who steals all the best clothes from elegant corpses brought into his mortuary: “Spiv the Undertaker / Strips them on the slab / Something something something / Take the clothes right off your back…”

  10. The Memorialist de Hunt Sales de Molay says:

    “It’s the process, not the result, that matters to me.” this could have been said by the French Philosopher Gilles Deleuze; i agree with that…. Bowie used to say similar things when doing “Outside”.

  11. Diamond Duke says:

    I almost feel guilty for not liking the album The Buddha Of Suburbia more than I do, because obviously it’s a piece of work which meant a great deal to Bowie. It was the gateway to everything else he’s done since then, most of which I really enjoy, and it’s fair to say that without Buddha it probably wouldn’t have come to pass. (And that’s probably more true of Buddha than BTWN, however much more I personally prefer the latter to the former.) That said, however, a track like South Horizon doesn’t really do much for me personally. I don’t dislike it, mind you, it just feels a bit like an avant-garde exercise, and it really doesn’t resonate for me. (Although admittedly, that fact probably says more about me than it does about the track, ha ha ha. So make of that what you will… ;)) I must admit, though, it’s always cool to hear Mike Garson do his thing, and Bowie’s saxophone playing style is always quite distinct. But I personally find Bowie’s account of how South Horizon was put together much more interesting than the track itself.

    BTW…:D…I came across an amusing news while searching Google News! You thought it was just us fans clamoring for Bowie to make a comeback? This is from the Contactmusic site, dated November 28, 2012:

    “Singer Scott Walker has urged David Bowie to come out of his self-imposed retirement and record a new album.

    The former Walker Brothers star, who is a big fan of the Ashes to Ashes hitmaker, is baffled by reclusive Bowie’s prolonged period out of the spotlight and wants him to return to the studio to lay down new tracks.

    He tells Britain’s Mojo magazine, ‘He usually isn’t stuck for words. Well, he’s stuck for words these days, I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing. It’s odd, he was always around, there was always something cooking. I wish he’d make a record.’

    Last month (Oct. 12), fans caught a rare glimpse of Bowie, who has not released a new album since Reality in 2003, when he was photographed out and about in New York.”

    Hey, no pressure, Mr. Jones. No pressure at all… 😉

    (I tried to link to the site while posting a comment yesterday, but it wasn’t accepted and my comment didn’t go through… :()

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Oh, wait a minute! My bad. Apparently my earlier comment did go through and it’s still awaiting moderation, but it just didn’t show up before I filled in my website and user name. I just hoping I’m not making too big a nuisance of myself around here lately! 😀

      • Momus says:

        Oh, it’s interesting that Scott is making the challenge explicit! The first thing I thought when I listened to Bish Bosch was “If this doesn’t shame DB out of retirement, nothing will.”

        Then again, I think the “do nothing” strategy is working very nicely for Mr B. The less he does and says, the more the world talks about him. Scott Walker makes a lot of the silences on Bish Bosch (they were recorded in digital *and* analogue, apparently), but DB’s silence has a scary, enigmatic, final quality which is beyond-Bosch. A silence both Black and Decker, if you will.

      • col1234 says:

        just a note on comments in general. Due to some spamming a while back, any comment with a link in it now (generally )has to be approved by me first (sometimes, they still go through, though, so who knows). So when I’m away from the internet, as I was this weekend, and you write a comment with a link in it, it may wind up in limbo until I get back.

    • gcreptile says:

      Hah! That’s great, considering that Walker is one of the music industry’s greatest recluses himself.

      • 2fs says:

        Yes, but Walker’s released two albums, a long EP, and a couple of stray tracks since 2003…not to mention allowing himself to be the subject of a documentary film. Walker’s been far less reclusive recently than Bowie has.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I’m really enjoying parts of South Horizon.
    Unfortunately I think the “3 blind mice” synth and that drum machine are going to ruin any replay value for me.

  13. diamond dog says:

    at long last bowies finest album in years and his most overlooked. South horizon is for me almost perfect except the drum programming as said previously. The sense of return this album brought me cannnot br over stated. After what seemed like a lifetime he finally produces a work fitting of his reputation amd legacy…..sad to say despite glimpses in later work nothing comes close to this collection. Love it. He should have toured it.

  14. Mr Tagomi says:

    i have always loved this track and have never had a problem with the drum machine sound. I just took it at face value, as being the sound DB wanted.

    I’m slightly discombobulated now that I have been made conscious of it.

    Still a great track on a great album.

  15. postpunkmonk says:

    Full agreement with Diamond Dog andMr. Tagomi! I was just listening to it in the car and the progression of excellent material [I feel the album starts out great and builds from there] reaches the point when “Untitled No. 1” begins, I was just a mass of goose bumps. Just like when I listen to “Beauty + The Beast,” but not “Absolute Beginners.” As much as the material following this album can be quite good, near-great Bowie, it just isn’t in that Bowie pantheon of achievement that so much of his 70s work and this album traffics in. There is nothing about this that I hear and find wanting, with the exception of the superfluous Lenny Kravitz. The cheap nastiness of much of the production technique is to its full benefit, in my opinion. Well, I will admit that while listening to it I couldn’t help but think “too bad they couldn’t get Fripp to play on this.” Had they, this would probably be my third favorite Bowie album. In terms of writing, arrangement and level of inspiration, I think Bowie was on fire here. Hey – Bowie’s On Fire. Cue Fripp!

  16. johnobject says:

    This may be a dull observation and I apologize, but doesn’t anyone else feel the “acid jazz” part sounds like a calm reprise of (I’ve Got) The Power by Snap? The anemic rave synth hits and the drums certainly evoke that flavour.
    Superb article, as always, thank you! I found your blog sometime in 2015 and I still get lost reading for hours.

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