I wasn't going to pen a blog article about my album Ambient Time, as I thought the concept as a whole was fairly self explanatory. However, it occurred to me, that it's actually not very self explanatory for my audience demographic (considering the average age of my fan base according to my Spotify stats). I'll try and keep this brief, but will aim to fill you in on what Adventure Time is and why I chose to make it the subject of an ambient music album.
What Time Is It...?
Adventure Time is a cartoon series that aired on Cartoon Network and ran for ten seasons from 2010 to 2018. It came at a time when the majority of Cartoon Network's content wasn't cartoons and is widely hailed as kickstarting a renaissance in animation, with key figures from Adventure Time moving on to develop their own shows such as Regular Show, Steven Universe, The Amazing World of Gumball, We Bare Bears and more. It's influence can even be felt in adult cartoons such as Rick and Morty.
So What Makes Adventure Time So Special?
Naturally this is a very subjective topic, and like so many art forms, it will mean different things to different people and I can only tell of my experience and what it means to me.
I first came across this TV show in 2014. My four year old son would get me up in the morning at about 7am and I'd sit on the sofa, bleary-eyed nursing a coffee while he watched TV. His favourite Saturday morning cartoon was Adventure Time. It was loud, bold, colourful, had a zany world with all sorts of bizarre creatures; I understood why it piqued the interest of his four-year-old developing mind. However, I started to observe some really mature and sophisticated elements cleverly concealed just beneath the playful, absurd veneer. The art style was clearly influenced by dystopian science fiction art of the 1970s, coupled with Dali-esque surrealism (albeit filtered through a pastel lens of childlike bold colours and simple shapes). The music was also incredibly well pieced together; often feeling loose and random, but always with a sophisticated logic (much like the stories themselves). The character design was equally as sophisticated and consistent as the visual and musical design. There were constant references to fictional historical events that sounded fascinating and I was getting a real sense that there was a deep and intricate lore to this world. Furthermore, progressive, open-minded lessons about love, friendship, empathy and understanding were being taught in the subtlest of ways. Head over to YouTube and search "Adventure Time Philosophical Quotes" and then remember that this is a Saturday morning cartoon!
The world of Adventure Time (set in a sort of candy-covered post apocalyptic future, 1000 years from now) clearly had a dark and dangerous history to it that not only provided a great backdrop for story telling, but served as a stark warning of where we (in the early 21st Century) are heading if we don't address certain societal problems such as environmental protection, and isolationist politics reliant on military strength. It's riddled with metaphor and symbolism reminiscent of Ted Hughes' literature crossed with Planet of The Apes and Lord of The Rings.
Another important aspect was that the passing of time over the show's run was real-time. In the eight years that the show ran, the voice actor of the lead character Finn, aged from 10 to 18. They mirrored this in Finn's ageing within the show, taking him through puberty and all the emotional trials and errors, experiments and pitfalls that teenagers go through. Whenever my son's grappling with getting older (he's now 10 going on 11), I find myself able to say "remember that time when Finn was..." and we talk about the (sometimes depressing) realities of growing older in a mature and sensible way, based on the lessons that Finn learned across the eight years of the TV show.
Together, my son and I methodically worked our way through the seasons in chronological order. We laughed, we watched in awe at times, we discussed and theorised what might happen in future episodes. Some moments moved us to tears, although we wrestled to hold them in, both hoping the other one wouldn't notice (and laugh about it afterward). This all fell apart in the last ever episode however; a 40-minute feature length that just leaves you an emotional wreck at the end. It's probably the thing we bond the most over (although we share several gaming interests, Adventure Time is king).
To sum up, it's a show with a deep and fascinating lore that mirrors the trials and tribulations of the human condition. It subtly offered lessons to my four year old son on the kind of things I wish I'd been taught as a kid and frankly, lessons about friendship, empathy and understanding that we're all never to old to learn. It never handles lessons in a preachy or on-the-nose way, never in a corny or saccharine fashion; quite the opposite. It often delivers very thought provoking statements in an off the cuff remark amidst banter about slaying silly monsters and fart jokes. It's writing is exquisite and I genuinely believe that I'm a better and more well-rounded person for having watched all ten seasons of this TV show. Furthermore, I like to think it's also had a similarly positive impact on my son, who often shows maturity and open-mindedness beyond his years, especially when talking about issues of acceptance and understanding people different to himself.
I rate it alongside Twin Peaks in terms of quality. They are easily my two absolute favourite TV shows of all time. I truly believe Adventure Time is that good.
So, Why Ambient Time?
It's not to do with the music in the show! The music in Adventure Time is created by an artist called Stay Puft. Those who know me will understand my love of Ghostbusters and I can't help but feel great admiration for any artist who names himself after one Ghostbusters' most iconic characters. However, his name is only the start. The music in Adventure Time is just sublime. It's crafted in a way that perfectly reflects the art style. Cute, yet with a slightly chaotic disorder; seemingly random and colourful, but ultimately making sense by the end of the story (much like the show itself). Without a doubt, he's a far superior and more imaginative composer than I am and I didn't feel it necessary (and I don't feel capable) to attempt to honour his work. Unlike old video-game composers who were hindered by technical restrictions and deserve to have their music modernised, Stay Puft's work is without restriction; without boundaries. There's nothing I could hope to build on or add. Covers or remixes just wouldn't be right, so my decision to approach Adventure Time musically is nothing to do with the original music of the show, instead it was more influenced by the overall tone and awe inspiring wonder of the world building undertaken by the show's creators.
Before ever considering Adventure Time as a theme, I was simply overcome with the urge to make more ambient music following Programmed To Feel, and honestly, I was just taking a shower when the idea struck me out of nowhere: "Ambient Time"! A selection of ambient works based on the world and characters of Adventure Time; it practically wrote itself! I foresaw the Adventure Time logo, only instead of "Adventure" it would say "Ambient" and instead of a sword piercing the word "Time" it would be a music stave (or "staff" if you're not from the UK). It seemed like a simple idea with tons of high-quality source material to serve as inspiration, so I went to work on some Adventure Time inspired ambient music.
I tried to avoid the very obvious tropes of the show and instead tried to focus on intriguing background details that I felt had the potential to be explored beyond where the show had taken us.
Grass Lands - the meadows and fields surrounding Finn and Jake's house (Finn and Jake are the two main protagonists of the show). I snuck in a 1-5(7)-1 phrase on the piano in places, to reference the intro-theme of the show. This seemed like a fitting opener to the album.
Cliff Under a Tree - This is a nod to the lyric in the closing theme at the end of every episode. I wanted this track to seamlessly follow on from Grass Lands and continue to embody the calm tranquility of the countryside setting.
Neddy's Sanctum - Neddy is Princess Bubblegum's brother (Princess Bubblegum rules the Candy Kingdom and is a major character throughout the show's run). He's a timid recluse who's terribly frightened by just about everything. He resides alone, happy and safe in a sanctuary deep within the castle that's built around the giant tree at the centre of the Candy Kingdom. His entire existence is spent suckling on the roots of the tree and secreting some sort of magic, candy-juice from gill-like orifices on his sides and back. This candy juice forms the candy streams that flow through the Candy Kingdom, giving life to all within it. I.e. he's the source and giver of all life in the Candy Kingdom. Few know of his existence and he's a closely guarded secret. His sanctum is quiet, dimly lit, peaceful and magical place.
The Litch's Lair - The Litch is the main antagonist for much of the show. He's a sort of a Lord Sauron/Emperor Palpatine figure; mystical, all-powerful, hellbent on destruction of all life (the usual...). His lair is a scary, dark, foreboding, derelict subway station beneath ground zero of The Mushroom War, a war in which a Mushroom Bomb was detonated. It contained so much power that it opened dimensional rifts allowing long-vanquished demonic spirits to enter into our world to reek havoc; spirits not seen since prehistoric times (this theme is very similar to the one explored in Twin Peaks: The Return, yet this story line predates Twin Peaks: The Return by several years and is meant to be a kids show!).
Time Room - Existing outside of the time-space continuum is the Time Room. It's a calm and spiritual place and the home of Prismo The Wish Master (as per his name, he grants one wish to every visitor of the Time Room and is a generally a benevolent overseer of the cosmos and wider multiverse). Prismo often hangs out with The Cosmic Owl (see picture on the right - a mostly-benevolent entity that sometimes influences the dream realm with premonitions that impact upon serious matters of life and death). Prismo and The Cosmic Owl are central to some major plot points that help Finn and Jake ultimately best The Litch and prevent the destruction of all life across the multiverse (again, yes, this is meant to be a kids show!).
Black Ice Cave - This is the cave where Ricardio lives. Ricardio is the disembodied, sentient heart of Ice King (more on Ice King below). It's a dark and foreboding place full of danger, but has an icy beauty about it. Ricardio (repeatedly) plots to kidnap and forcibly marry Princess Bubblegum, however by spending prolonged time outside of the Ice King's body, he will ultimately kill Ice King (inevitable collateral damage as far as Ricadio is concerned). There are several episodes dedicated to stories about this complicated love triangle of sorts (again! This is meant to be a kids show).
Simon's in There, Somewhere - I believe Simon to be the most complex and nuanced character in the show. He was an arctic explorer in the 20th/21st Century. He discovered an ancient magic crown, but after putting it on, it started to change his physical form and he slowly descended into madness (think Golem from Lord of The Rings, only much more charming, and powerful). The crown possessed him and bestowed him with the magical power to control ice and snow. This power enabled him to survive the Mushroom War and also save the life of the little-girl-vampire who'd grow up to become Marceline The Vampire Queen. As the madness further overtook him, all remnants of Simon were lost and he became the Ice King. He now rules over the Ice Kingdom as a depressed, self obsessed, crazy person who just wants to be loved. He also yearns for friendship, but his madness makes him often insufferable to be around.
We only learn of the Ice King's origin several seasons into the show. In early seasons he's a comedic, non-threatening antagonist, who is always kidnapping princesses and regularly duelling with Finn and Jake, but is always easily bested. As the show develops and we learn of his origins, we're shown that Ice King was once Simon and that as he descended into madness his fiancé Betty (whom he affectionately named his "Princess") left him. Now, having fully descended into madness, he's obsessed with finding a "Princess" who will love him (clearly somewhere in all the madness, Simon's love for his "Princess" Betty is still present - heart breaking stuff! Reminder - this is a kids show!).
Some of the Simon and Betty pieces throughout the show left me in tears. I liken the Ice King to someone who failed to address or receive help and support when descending into depression. The depression descended into delusional madness and paranoia, and Simon became lost to this alternate person; Ice King. The other characters in the show come to realise this over the years and stop viewing him as an antagonist and gradually welcomed him into their clique as a friend. In doing so, Ice King actually becomes more warmhearted, sometimes doing nice things whilst not fully understanding what he's doing or why (which of course, is the inner-Simon, something the other characters and viewers can see, but Ice King cannot - seriously heavy!).
There are fleeting moments throughout the show when we get to see Simon shine through the cooky exterior of Ice King. One such episode contains a lovely song that Simon penned shortly before he lost his mind to the crown. In it he's explaining to child Marceline that he doesn't want to use the magic of the crown as it's making him crazy, but he has to use it's power to save her from dangerous monsters and demons and he's asking who's going to save him once the madness overtakes him. It shows Simon's heart and the the sacrifice he made; an eternity of madness, trapped inside the mind of Ice King; the price paid to save a little girl from demons arisen from the fallout of nuclear war. IN A KIDS SHOW!!!
Anyway, I've hinted at some of the melodic phrases from this above-mentioned song to Marceline in this ambient piece. It's my favourite of the album.
Egress - One of Adventure Time's most intriguing episodes comes near the end of the show's run. Finn discovers "The Hall of Egress". The only way out is through a bricked up doorway that can only be passed through with closed eyes, but the moment you open them you are back in The Hall of Egress and time has reset to when he first entered.
Finn attempts many times to leave and keep his eyes shut. He spends days, sometimes weeks before braving opening them, but as soon as he does, he's back in The Hall of Egress and time has reset. He tries to be methodical, using trial and error doing things the same up to a point and then trying a different permutation of decision making. None are successful. It's not explicitly shown, but it's implied that Finn lives many years, many lives, over and over again, sometimes growing much older, never opening his eyes, only for time to eventually reset back in The Hall of Egress (yet with the memories of every previous escape attempt still present).
A sort of hitting rock bottom and coming of age story, Finn eventually gives up, shedding all possessions, he stops trying to control the outcome. Instead of returning home to friends and loved ones he simply walks blindfolded for a very long time. Eventually he comes across another Hall of Egress that returns him to life before he entered the original Hall of Egress. The experience leaves him with a newfound appreciation for life, his friends and loved ones, yet he doesn't tell them that's he's just spent many years, possibly lifetimes away from them, trapped and blinded in The Hall of Egress.
This story line coincides with Finn's coming of age into adulthood. It is around this time that Finn's character has started to cope with situations in a more level-headed and less hot-headed way; logic instead of emotion; discussion instead of reaction. There are many interpretations that can be drawn relating to controlling repeated events, accepting certain inevitabilities, maturing, appreciating what's truly important and so on. I like to believe there are several simultaneous themes at play. It would take too long to talk about them all now, but suffice to say, it's a fascinating episode and one of my favourite of the show. The mysticism and philosophical themes surrounding The Hall of Egress were more than ample inspiration for some ambient music.
Realistically, considering the age demographic on my Spotify stats, I'm inclined to think that the majority of my audience don't really know about and probably don't have the time or inclination to delve into Adventure Time. I'm also keenly aware therefore that this release is probably being pitched at completely the wrong audience. Nevertheless, it's a TV show that's dear to my heart and something I wanted to honour in my own way.
If you're not familiar with Adventure Time, some of the above probably reads like absolute nonsense and jargon! Nevertheless, I hope you can enjoy the music regardless and if any of the above has piqued your interest and you don't mind a bit of incredibly surreal TV viewing, I highly recommend you give the show a chance. It takes a couple of season to really get into the meat and bones of the world building and lore, but when it does, boy does it take you for a ride!
The album's here if you want to give it a listen. I'm reasonably satisfied with how it captures the moods and atmospheres I intended it to and more importantly, it provided me a platform to further explore my ambient music adventure (sorry, lame pun, I'll get my coat...).
Happy listening :-)