I was actually slightly surprised at how affected I was by the death of Robert Miles earlier this year. After all, he was hardly a superstar like Roger Moore. But he did define an entire (admittedly small) genre of music, dream music, and for a year or so while it lasted, it was actually pretty good, and I suppose he must have had much more of an impact on my life than I realised at the time.
His second album, the confusingly named 23am, was released an astonishing two decades ago this week. It opens with Introducing, a soft pad-and-thunder piece that sounds like something from Chicane but with very silly nonsensical babble over the top, before launching into A New Flower.
It doesn’t take a genius to work the concept of this album is going to be, as the baby noises kick in in earnest, but once the gentle acoustic guitar kicks in, this is actually a pretty nice track. Children it is not, but then neither was most of the first album.
Miles was, at this stage, not at his most creative though – the later albums where he really tried to innovate and explore are much more interesting. Many tracks, and particularly Everyday Life, would not have sounded too out of place on debut album Dreamland if he hadn’t been going out of his way to rehash Children at that point. This track was apparently a single in Italy, but it had to be backed with a couple of mixes of Fable to make people notice even in his homeland.
This album wasn’t the greatest commercial success either – Italy and Germany got another single, a huge package of remixes of Full Moon, but most countries only got Freedom, which reached a respectable number 15 in the UK. The three singles from the first album and the album itself had all hit the top ten, whereas this album fell just outside the top forty.
Which is not to say there’s anything particularly wrong with Freedom – it’s a good song. It does sound a little bit like Children though. Nothing really grabs you for a while during this middle section of the album – Textures is dull, and Enjoy is a pleasant dance track, again very much in the dream music vein, but it does sound pretty dated now.
This is not, to be blunt, an amazing album. Flying Away is unremarkable, and Heatwave is only entertaining thanks to the novelty of jazz-drum & bass-fusion. Which makes it all the more astonishing when Maresias starts. Named, presumably, after the beach in northern Brazil which is pretty much the only thing that turns up when you search for the title. This is a beautiful track, with an actual saxophone lead, some trumpets, and a whole lot of gently trippy drums. This is quite exceptional, and a complete surprise – it’s probably the best track that Miles ever recorded, and yet here it is hidden away towards the end of an unnoteworthy album.
This was, of course, a particularly extreme case of “difficult second album” syndrome – Robert Miles was very capable, as he proved on several individual tracks and some of his later works. He certainly wasn’t wrong to pull 23am together so soon after Dreamland, but under the circumstances it was probably never going to amount to much.
Full Moon is pleasant – again, one of the more interesting tracks on here, with some fun deep tribal beats. If this had turned up earlier in the album, it might have helped a lot. But it feels a bit too late now – all that’s left after this is Leaving Behind…, which echoes the first track, and the album is over.
But while 23am may have been his finest work, and it certainly hasn’t dated well in the intervening two decades, I’m still sorry that Robert Miles is no longer with us. At least once on every album – with Children, Maresias, and Paths from his third release – he pulled something incredible out of the bag. So long live the man who defined dream music, Robert Miles.
You can still find 23am at all major retailers.