January 7, 2023

Such an obvious upgrade for Phillips fans, it would feel like sacrilege to refuse it…

Of the numerous impressive aspects of Esoteric’s long-running Anthony Phillips reissue series, the one that truly boggles the mind is the huge cache of previously unreleased material that spills forth with stunning regularity. And these aren’t junky leftovers that will get one cursory listen before being shelved for eternity. These are often full discs bearing period material of such sterling quality, they could have been a part of the original releases and nobody would have batted an eyelash.

In the case of 2007’s Wildlife, Phillips’ hauntingly atmospheric collaboration with Japanese friend and composer Joji Hirota, one might imagine that 45 tracks over 67 minutes was a complete package. ‘No longer!’ sayeth Phillips and trusty resident archivist Jonathan Dann. While the original collection of wildlife television soundtrack pieces may run together beautifully as one unbroken listen, a further 18 tracks totaling 53 minutes comprise a bonus second disc, ballooning this gleaming new Wildlife edition to a whopping two hours in length.

Wild jaguar in the tropical rainforest
Photo © Nick Gordon

Consider that for a moment. While bonus tracks have been commonplace since compact discs were first teething, there are rarely eighteen of them for an individual album. If there are, they can often be weak barrel scrapings of poor audio quality, or high on the ‘repeat factor’ scale (‘Gee, yet another live version of this song.’ or ‘This is take 21, where they use two tambourines.’) But not so here. It’s safe to say that this deluxe series of Phillips’ catalogue titles is multipurposed; it’s lovely to see them all back in circulation for newer fans and those who missed out originally, and the opportunity has been taken to have them newly remastered as well. But even for us Phillips die-hards (‘Ant-heads’?) these brawny reissues are obvious upgrades, with so much extra material it would feel like sacrilege to refuse the offering.

Those 45 tracks on disc one that make up the original release run the gamut from tranquil and placid to swelling and stirring. I’ve not seen the television programmes these tracks were composed for (about fifteen of them, Phillips estimates in the liner notes), but it’s easy to see how such lush, evocative pieces must have provided effective accompaniment. Phillips and Hirota masterfully weave images of dolphins, sharks, bears, fireflies, rivers, and forests into dreamy and exotic compositions that command surprising levels of attention for what is ostensibly background music. Of course, if you’re anything like me, a good score or soundtrack is rarely background anyway; it’s a vital component of the visuals, and often something I find myself investigating further once the film or programme is over.

Disc two finds Dann mining various sources for unplucked gems and shaping a track list that flows like a proper album. Some of these pieces have technically seen the light of day previously, but only on an obscure and out of print TV soundtrack CD from a quarter century ago… so for all intents and purposes, we can safely consider these tracks ‘first timers’. There’s plenty here for fans of the atmospheric synth side of Phillips to love, but there’s a decent variety too; tracks like East of Eden, Eastern Market, and Eastern Rivers are unsurprisingly mystical sounding, while enchanting pieces like Valley Beneath the Sea and Web of the Spider Monkey are coloured with new age vibes. Listeners can also sink their teeth into more substantial arrangements like the lengthy Bay Beneath the Sea Suite and the elegant Loons Suite, while the percussive, up-tempo Fast Train provides a rare foot tapping opportunity amid all this shimmering beauty.

Aerial view of flat top mountain
in Amazonia, Venezuela
Photo © Nick Gordon

The set finally concludes with The Victors, an upbeat 1991 collaboration between Phillips and his old bandmate Mike Rutherford that was quickly put together for an equestrian mini-series. Recorded at Genesis’ studio The Farm, it marked the first time the two old bandmates had recorded together in well over a decade, and while the track isn’t of massive consequence, it’s nice to have it finally available here, closing off this substantial package on a slightly different note. Meanwhile, the accompanying booklet makes for a strong companion piece, with details about all 63 tracks, updated thoughts from Phillips, photos, and a new essay from Dann.

The documentary and library fields of music often consist of pieces written to fit specific requirements, and the individual snippets can sometimes feel frustratingly short as a listener. After all, nobody wants an appealing melody to disappear or fade away after only a minute. But strung together like this, Wildlife: Remastered & Expanded Edition proves a satisfying listen and a colourful journey traversing different moods and themes, showcasing a side of Phillips that doesn’t get the same share of the spotlight his guitar works tend to. Ultimately, I found it brightened the drabness of early January, lifting my spirits and lending itself to a second spin almost immediately. This is beautiful music, and thankfully Esoteric continue to devote so much attention to such a worthy artist.

Wildlife: Remastered & Expanded Edition is released 27 January.