Mystic Moods Orchestra - One Stormy Night [Philips, 1965]

Like John Travolta’s character Jack in the movie Blowout, Brad Miller was infatuated with sounds and spent many hours capturing various live audio samples with directional microphones pointed towards everything from ancient steam locomotives to the bustling crowds in Mexico’s Toluca market. For his troubles, Jack got himself involved in mystery and intrigue when he discovers a governmental assassination attempt thanks to a gunshot he inadvertently captures late one night while out recording ambient sounds for a local film production. Miller’s adventures in recording were a little less dangerous, though no less interesting as he began a journey through the world of commercial recording studios and marketing hyperbole, which in turn, allowed him to bring his cherished personal recordings to a larger listening audience.

While bringing "true life" ambient sounds into the recording studio certainly adds a new dimension to any recording project, the musical interpretations provided by producer Don Ralke for the fabricated "Mystic Moods Orchestra" can’t quite escape that land of popular music lorded over by Percy Faith’s weaker moments and thousands of hours worth of string recordings. The LP Mexican Trip attempts to create an audio travel experience through the landscapes of Mexico, including sounds captured from local markets, pi*ata parties, traffic in Mexico City, crickets and crashing waves. However, the musical accompaniment (all originals written by Don Ralke with the exceptions of Cielito Lindo and Maria Elena) fails to create any type of excitement. Ralke’s orchestrations pale greatly in comparison to the dozens of similar-themed Mexican platters crowding the local record store shelves at that time.

Having said all of that, the first Ralke/Miller collaboration "One Stormy Night" was distributed by the Philips record label and became Philips’ best selling album for 1965. A series of ten additional albums followed under the release of Philips, including Mexican Trip, Emotions, and Stormy Weekend. The success of these releases allowed Brad Miller to continue his more eccentric recording projects as he continued to produce "specialty" LP’s containing nothing more than the sounds of various endangered steam locomotives still operating commercially before eventually being "retired" to make way for newer models.

Some of Miller’s enthusiasm for old locomotives is apparent in the Mexican Trip liner notes, which mentions that the three-minute sound recording called Queretaro-Tula Fast Freight is a "short excerpt (of) the best of one hour (!) of recording of this famous, nearly extinct locomotive which will be scrapped in 1968." Likewise, Local Freight, a track included on One Stormy Night is a lengthy five-minute sound clip of a locomotive approaching Brad’s microphones and exiting with mighty blows of its whistle.

One Stormy Night utilizes the sound of an approaching rainstorm recorded by Brad Miller, to underscore Don Ralke’s musical arrangements to create what the album describes as "…a time of soft and glowing sentimentality when the drops tapped out their special message on the window pane." The sound effects of the pounding thunder and rain never cease during the length of the album and provide "intro" and "outro" ambiance to every track. The eloquent Harlequin-romance inspired liner notes continue with the promise that this album will "transport you to a new world of time and space, with the forces of nature blending beautifully with the man-made music of today."

Listeners could only hope that the album was half as good as it’s trumpeting descriptions; it’s not, but it comes frustratingly close. Ralke creates a musical parade of average arrangements that hold promise before abruptly ending without reaching any type of satisfying denouement. With the exception of a boring cover of Autumn Leaves, the music isn’t bad; and on occasion it’s quite listenable, but more often than not, you don’t remember the songs immediately after hearing them. All of the elements are there – male/female voices, a strong percussion section, sound effects and a range of instruments from bass, guitar, strings, chimes, and tambourine, but most of the tunes ultimately fall flat.

Ralke has a penchant for percussion, at times giving his arrangements the odd sound of a military marching band providing back-up to his studio orchestra. Side one’s title track, One Stormy Night belies the romantic nature of the album with a heavily percussive beat accented by sharp snare drum strikes. Strings and a female chorus carry a melody backed by orchestration that strangely mimicks a 50’s doo-wop rock ‘n roll song which, combined with that omnipresent crashing percussion, creates images of a nation marching off to war over a sunlit horizon.

The most interesting cuts all occur on the second side of the album and include Hot Bagel, Aja Toro and Fire Island. Fire Island sets up a simple melody repeated by flute and guitar, with small flourishes provided by pizzicato strings and a chorus of male voices. Prominent rhythms established with the help of sharp triangle strikes make this arrangement sound like an E-Z version of a Spaghetti Western soundtrack.

Aja Toro follows Fire Island’s introduction to side two with a south-of-the-border sounding number again using guitar and strings backed by tambourine, pizzicato strings and an upright bass. Voices shout "Ole!" during the composition while a violin takes over the prominent melody accented with castanets. At this point in the album, the rain storm has reached the listeners living room in earnest and the rain is loudly pouring down.
Given the largely mediocre compositions provided by Ralke, marketing was definitely the key to making these albums such a huge success. Somehow what began as a subtle suggestion that these LP’s were the denouement of a romantic evening spent with the lover of your choice (the cover photo for One Stormy Night features a close-up of a man and woman with their heads together watching the rain through a raindrop spattered window) caught hold of the publics libido and stroked it into a successful campaign of music to get your groove on. Listeners mustn’t have been paying too much attention to the music after all.

This "audio sex" angle was emphasized even more when Brad Miller signed with Warner Brothers, who concentrated on arrangements of current hit songs showcased in album titles such as Love the One You’re With and Erogenous. These albums featured graphics such as a nude couple in soft focus or even a surprise gift in the form of a pair of women’s panties.

Miller continued to release new ambient inspired works as well as his own back-catalog of Mystic Moods recordings under his own Soundbird label well into the nineties until his death in 1999.

Nathan Miner

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Mystic Moods Orchestra - One Stormy Night