BY FRED MILLS
Over the years I’ve come to have a belated, and not necessarily grudging, appreciation for New Age—and no, I’m not talking about the Lou Reed song of the same name that appeared on the Velvet Underground’s Loaded album. I’m referring to the musical genre called New Age, or “New-age,” according to Wikipedia, which goes on to define it thusly:
“New-age music is downtempo music intended to create artistic inspiration, relaxation, and optimism. It is used by listeners for yoga, massage, meditation, and reading as a method of stress management or to create a peaceful atmosphere in their home or other environments, and is often associated with environmentalism and New Age spirituality. The harmonies in new-age music are generally modal, consonant, or include a drone bass, and are often structured as variations on a theme. The melodies are sometimes recordings of nature sounds and used as an introduction to a track or throughout the piece. Pieces of up to thirty minutes are common.
“New-age music includes both electronic forms, frequently relying on sustained synth pads or long sequencer-based runs, and acoustic forms, featuring instruments such as flutes, piano, acoustic guitar and a wide variety of non-western acoustic instruments. Vocal arrangements were initially rare in new-age music but as it has evolved vocals have become more common, especially vocals featuring Native American, Sanskrit, or Tibetan influenced chants, or lyrics based on mythology such as Celtic legends or the realm of Faerie.”
Ah, yes, 30-minute songs dotted with cricket-chirps, waterfalls and other soothing sounds—not to mention that realm of the Faerie! Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters of the harp and flute, but remember, you don’t fuck with mother Nature!
Apparently jazz composer Steven Halpern gets the credit for kick-starting the New Age movement via his 1975 opus Spectrum Suite. I remember hearing that album one “altered” afternoon in my college dorm room, yet while I was already fully attuned to Prog in all its myriad forms—the luminous, glacially grooving Tangerine Dream was a fave—it seemed pretty limp-wristed to me at the time. And though I actually practiced Transcendental Meditation during those days, no amount of proselytizing from New Age adherents (“It’s healing music, friend,” they would urge, smiling beatifically) could convince me that the stuff wasn’t repurposed elevator music.
O me of little faith! Fast forward about 20 years and I’m sitting in the front row of a Michael Hedges concert, transfixed. Hedges, who would die not long after in a tragic car accident, was a master guitarist equally at home with jazz, blues, and intriguing adaptations of Dylan and Madonna, and whose intricate blend of fingerpicking and strums resonated with me in the same way that Leo Kottke had earlier. Yet the fact that he was also a mainstay of the Windham Hill label forced me to rethink my prejudices, given that Windham Hill was essentially ground zero for contemporary New Age artists. Concurrently I’d been getting into ambient electronic music as practiced by a number of American and British refugees from the increasingly bombastic Techno and House scenes, having all along harbored an appreciation of Brian Eno’s more minimalist explorations. Throw on an Eno, Aphex Twin, Future Sound of London or even The Orb record, then follow up with a “classic” New Age title, and you’ll begin to see how I was being forced to revise my thinking.
This is not to say that I’m planning to invite all my bros over and settle in for an evening around the fireplace with I Am The Center, leading chants and sampling white wines. Nor am I ready to sell off those Tangerine Dream, Eno and Aphex records in order to fund a New Age eBay expedition just yet. Still, the esteemed archivists at Light In The Attic have cherry-picked three LPs’ worth of (as the subtitle announces) private-press New Age artists and the resulting experience is quite the cerebral buzz. I can also wholeheartedly recommend this handsomely designed (thick cardboard packaging, separate tip-on LP sleeves, full-sized and annotated booklet) box set if you are a collector as such.
Admittedly, there is the occasional foray into unintentional (or possibly intentional) sonic fluff: Daniel Emmanuel’s “Arabian Fantasy,” for example, which sounds like your local church organist tuning up before Sunday services, or Gail Laughton’s “Pompeii 76 A.D.” (who knew they had friggin’ harps in ancient Pompeii?!?). And Constance Demby, arguably one of the most high-profile names here, is knee-slappingly hilarious, what with her musical adaptation of Sanskrit mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum,” which sounds like every PBS outer space program you’ve ever snoozed off too. The Cali composer—still active, at that—pretty much embodies all the clichés and stereotypes we’ve come to associate with New Age. But if your thing is sandals, long flowing robes, sweat lodges and personal self-improvement “visualization,” she’ll no doubt help you focus your third eye.
Meanwhile, though, there are some genuinely haunting, emotionally pungent moments dotting the collection as well, from Wilburn Burchette’s shimmering, almost Kraut-y “Witches Will” to Michael Stearns’ Moog-tastic, dreamy “As the Earth Kissed the Moon” (it’s got cricket and bird noises, but in a good way) to Aeoliah’s “Tien Fu: Heaven’s Gate,” which with its surging keyboards and treated, wah-wah guitar, sounds uncannily like an outtake from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. There, I said it: New Age is simply Psychedelia and Prog with a more sophisticated marketing plan. Once upon a time you could only find New Age titles in the checkout lanes of health food stores or stuck over in the far corner of an independent book store. As the years have passed, many of the artists have found widespread acceptance from one-time snooty hipsters who somehow managed to discern the lines of linkage between the music they were already into and the music being made under the New Age banner. Keep that Wish You Were Here reference close. Point of fact, one of the tracks selected for I Am The Center is by New York’s Laraaji, and guess who he collaborated with back in the early ‘80s? Brian Eno.
So what do I know? I’ll give it a “5” Dick, ‘cos while you definitely can’t dance to it, you might enjoy smoking up, kicking back, and having tantric sex while it spins. See my comments above about learning to shed prejudice, and then dive in at will.
DOWNLOAD: Aeoliah, Laraaji, Michael Stearns, Alice Damon, Wilburn Burchette.