WH-1027 Mark Isham Vapor Drawings
Vapor Drawings is the first album by Mark Isham, the 27th Windham Hill release, and the first electronic release on the label.
“Vapor Drawings was my first solo recording, my first adventure into a large-scale electronic music record. I played almost all the instruments on it — in fact everything except the drums. It was a big challenge and took a lot of hard work. I see it as the first of a series of records that experimented with this genre (whatever that genre might be considered – somewhere between New Age and Fusion) the second of which was Tibet, the third of which was Castalia.”
While it is possible to hear the echoes of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis in Vapor Drawings, it stands on its own as a clear new vision of what could be done with electronic music. Humor, pathos, and inspiration are all heard throughout the album, all with lucid orchestral colors.
There is so much to say about Mark Isham that I’ve held off on this review for a long time. Mark has gone on to become one of the most effective and most prolific film score composers in history, while continuing to make beautiful music across genres. I love jazz, I love new age (at least as defined by Windham Hill); I love English art rock (David Sylvian, Brian Eno, Dead Can Dance). I can think of only one person who has crossed all of these boundaries: Mark Isham. In the end, I must send you on your own journey of the man’s work. http://www.isham.com can keep you busy all day long.
Regardless, Windhaming is intended to document the works of Windham Hill on their own merit. Fortunately, Vapor Drawings is as much of a masterpiece as a standalone album as it is the opening album in Mark Isham’s oevre. The music percolates, hums, and marches toward majestic peaks. Coming so early in Isham’s career, one could imagine that he was simply trying new styles in electronic music. But the effect is that the listener is rewarded by a walk through many possibilities.
It probably helps to like electronic music to truly love Vapor Drawings, but the classical underpinnings, organic drums, and emotional appeal give the album a draw much broader than “electronic” would imply. Also, the synthesizers used continue to sound fresh – include any of these tracks on an “ambient” sampler and you would be hard pressed to detect that they are 30 years old.
By the time Vapor Drawings came out, Ackerman had built such a trust level in his taste with Windham Hill, that I bought the album based solely on label and instrumentation. While the later “Interior” albums felt like synthesizer works, “Vapor Drawings” simply felt like music.
The wonderful “Many Chinas” was originally recorded by Isham on the 1976 Rubisa Patrol album (ECM 1081) with Art Lande, Bill Douglass and Glenn Cronkhite. Mark’s influence and horn playing is felt throughout that release, and anyone interested in his early work should seek it out. One of the joys of the Windhaming project is meeting people and learning more about artists I love. It was Record Store Day 2013 that I walked into Grooveyard Records in Oakland CA, and mentioned the Windhaming project to Rick Ballard. Turns out he was the original ECM importer before ECM had a major label partner in the US. A quick run through his bins yielded the Rubisa Patrol gem.
- Many Chinas 4:05
- Sympathy and Acknowledgement 8:17
- On the Threshold of Liberty 7:27
- When Things Dream 2:43
- Raffles in Rio 4:38
- Something Nice for My Dog 2:49
- Men Before the Mirror 6:07
- Mr. Moto’s Penguin (who’d be an Eskimo’s wife?) 3:18
- In the Blue Distance 4:06
On the Threshold of Liberty
Raffles in Rio
Something Nice for my Dog
Men Before the Mirror
Mr. Moto’s Penguin (who’d be an Eskimo’s wife?)
In the Blue Distance
Credits / Liner Notes
Mark Isham: Synthesizers, trumptes, flugelhorn, piano, soprano sax, Steiner EVI, electronic percussion
Peter Van Hooke: Snare drum and electronic percussion
- Produced and Engineered by Steven Miller
- Recorded at Eastcote Productions, London, April-May 1983
- Mixed at Tapestry Studios, London, May, 1983
- Original Mastering by Bernie Grundman/ at A&M
- Matrix and pressings by The Pressing Plant, Irvine, CA
- Cover by Larry Bell “Vapor Drawing LDIF5”
- Art concept and liner photo by Tiare Ferrari
- Graphic Design by Anne Ackerman Robinson
- All compositions by Mark Isham
- All selections Windham Hill Music (BMI) except “Many Chinas” published by ECM Records Verlag, GMBH (GEMA)
- Thanks to Phillip Bagenall, John Kongos, Michael Dignam, David Croft, Neil Richmond, Joe Berger, Ned Hearn, Will Ackerman, the Dutch Balloonist, Ferrari and PC.
- Paul Charles- ASGARD
- 155/157 Oxford Street
- LOndon, WI
- Telex 266982 ASGARD G
- Manufactured by Windham Hill REcords
- Windham Hill Productions Inc.
- PO Box 9388, Stanford, CA 94305
(c) (p) Windham Hill Records 1983
Distributed by A&M Records
On the Threshold of Liberty is named after the Rene Magritte painting:
It’s a pleasure to see that portions of Vapor Drawings were recorded in the same studio as Thomas Dolby’s “The Golden Age of Wireless.”
On Photographer Larry Bell’s work, which was used for the cover art:
Two large bodies of work on paper, Bell’s “vapor drawings” and the more recent “mirage works”, are also the products of Bell’s use of thin film deposition technology. The vapor drawings are created by using PET film to mask paper sheets, which are then coated. Bell describes the advantages of this process and medium:
Masking the paper with thin PET film strips to expose areas related to the shape of the page plane enabled me to generate images spontaneously. This work gave me a conscious glimpse of the inherent power of spontaneity and improvisation. The work happened intuitively…In a short amount of time I created a number of interesting pieces. I liked this way of working. It was different from tediously coping with the weight and risk of glass. In my mind, I was investigating improbable visuals using improbable means.
The mirage pieces, on the other hand, are collages constructed out of pieces of coated materials that are then arranged and laminated. As Bell says, “I colored sheets of various paper materials, strips of PET film, and laminate film. Then I fused them to canvases and stretched them. Tapestries of woven light differentials resulted.” 
You can see more of Larry Bell’s work at Artsy