Monday, August 4, 2014 at 09:00AM
The notion of a revival in new age music came stampeding to the attention of the music media sometime last year upon the release of two key reissue compilations: Yoga Records' I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America, 1950-1990 and Laraaji's Cosmic Tape Experiments, 1979-1987. Once these releases impacted, it seemed that every indie-leaning music site on the web had published its own lengthy new age feature. Media giants The New York Times, The Stranger and Boing Boing even grabbed a slice. Suddenly this entire counterculture-shunned musical discipline was a hot talking point and open for reexamination. Entire decades of meditative music were
The coverage of this alleged revival seemed to fixate on reissues and the genre's early works. Artists and labels releasing new music under the new age umbrella were not discussed with much depth. So I've written some thoughts and observations on these emerging projects. My findings have shown me that new age has indeed returned, and it has a newfound reverence of the genre's lost heroes, who were explored on the abovementioned compilations.
Before we get started, perhaps I owe an explanation of what new age is, or at least how I think about it. Like "world music" or "electronic music," "new age music" is less of a genre and more of a broad category concerned with mood and function over any definitive tenants of rhythm or instrumentation. It started as a fragmented movement with roots in California in the 1970s. It was strongly aligned with new age literature, and new age bookstores became a romping ground for artists to peddle their limited-run home recordings. Ambient music pioneer Brian Eno campaigned against conventional "environmental music" in his linear notes for Music for Airports in 1978. (It's easy enough to assume that he was targeting many examples of new age.) "Conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest)," he wrote. In a crueler world, Eno might have written, "Calming music intended for a general audience doesn't tickle my hipster funny bone, so you shouldn't like it either." This was likely a landmark moment in the demise of new age as a credible musical discipline. By the mid '80s it had become identified as a more commercial enterprise.
The new artists and labels I've spotlit here are making music that harkens back to new age's golden age (as covered last year on I Am the Center and similar releases). While many of these artists align their work with the term new age, others do not and likely shudder at the notion of being labeled as such. In any case, this is merely my attempt at navigating a complicated and controversial reemerging genre.
For further fun, listen to these complementary episodes of Gentle Daps, which cover many of the artists and tracks in this feature:
Quest Coast Quarterly
Piano-heavy pieces from the birthplace of new age...
Digital label/series Quest Coast Quarterly is led by Jeremy Harris, whose home is an hour up the road from San Francisco in the small Tomales Bay town of Inverness. Unless you count the project's Bandcamp page, QCQ is off the social media grid entirely—no Facebook or Twitter bios or pretentious press shots for the listener to fawn over. The closest we get to a bio or mission statement is a single tagline: "Tales and relics from the newest age." For new listeners, this curious catchphrase tells us just enough about the series and the ideas behind it. Harris does not dance around the term "new age." He wants us to know that his project owes a nod to it, even if in a roundabout fashion.
QCQ is six entries deep. All six feature Harris' own material, which tends to meander between warm new age solo piano and electric guitar and edgy non-age drone. There are no recognizable names among the roster of QCQ contributors, which is an assemblage of songwriters, solo instrumentalists, poets and ambient producers. Harris' work is the easy standout, but it's clear that he has used his own means effectively in coordinating thematically applicable offerings from his associates.
A.r.t. Wilson aka Andras Fox
An Australian producer and his spa-friendly contender for album of the year...
Melbourne-based Andrew Wilson is best known for quirky, skeletal disco-leaning house music released under his Andras Fox guise. And while gestural new age synth stylings can be heard in much of his dance work, his self-released cassette Overworld, which introduced many listeners to his A.r.t. Wilson alias, is more of a proper foray into new age music. "It involves new age themes, human bodies, female divinity and all kinda of relaxing music," Wilson wrote on a Facebook post teasing the album's J-card back in May.
Originally composed for a Next Wave Fest dance performance, Overworld works wonders even stripped of its visual counterpart. With songs like "Janine's Theme (Earth)" and the infectious "Rebecca's Theme (Water)," Wilson braves headstrong into the unsanctioned territories of Pure Moods-inspired new age. Bongo-laden grooves, spa-friendly pads, and silky smooth chord progressions offer up a sonic platter even your great aunt could gobble up. The album's savory beatless selections like "Sun Sign Cancer" and the tile track "Overworld" are also excellent and feel steeped with Vangelis influence.
You can count on seeing Overworld pop up on many 2014 end-of-year lists.
An Oakland cassette label's "anti-new age"...
There's a common theme you may notice among the acts and labels on this list. Many of them use the term "new age" with a timid reluctance. This is particularly the case with Oakland tape label Inner Islands, who has tagged several of its Bandcamp listings as "anti-new age." The message in doing so is clear: They get along just fine with certain aspects of new age and absolutely abhor others.
This attitude is intriguing considering that the Inner Island catalog's real treasure is the work of an unabashed spiritualist. Presence is a double cassette release by Mike Tamburo, who aligns his lifestyle with that of new age's OG healers, Laraaji and Iasos. Tamburo's curiously descriptive Wikipedia page defines him as "an independent musician, sound healer, relaxation specialist, film maker, inventor, musical instrument builder, story teller, writer, yogi, kundalini yoga teacher, reiki practitioner, installation artist, painter, orgone energy enthusiast and amateur ethno-botanist."
Presence consists of four meditative raga-style pieces, each hitting around the 20 minute mark. Stringed instruments are at the forefront. It is new age music unreserved. Its focus is on healing, and it goes light on elements of tension, which are often assigned as the primary distinguishing factor between ambient and new age.
Softest's Music for Rain is the label's other obvious new age offering, which features delicate drones atop an unceasing soundbed of—you guessed it—rainfall.
A downtempo music veteran dabbles with new age stylings...
Sheffield-born and Ibiza-based producer Mark Barrott came to fame in the mid '90s for his ambient drum and bass work as Future Loop Foundation. By the early '00s, Barrott had progressed the project into downtempo "chillout" territories. The skittering jungle percussion was replaced with tropically informed boom bap breaks, upright bass, jazzy flutes and xylophones.
The 2014-released Sketches From the Island finds Barrott holding onto many of the downtempo themes that have characterized his work in recent years, particularly on the slow-burning flute-funk of "Baby Come Home" (stream below). But new age motifs have found their way onto his sonic palette this time around. The uplifting "Back to the Sea" uses many of the genre's signature elements: crashing waves, seagulls, ghostly synths and bright guitar work. "Island Life" shuffles along with quiet hand percussion that mimics the busyness of terrestrial life, while a lively marimba refrain simulates a trickling stream.
Given Future Loop Foundation's more recent stylistic directions, Barrott could have kept that alias for Sketches, but he opted not to, making it the 45-year-old producer's debut album under his own name.
An upbeat NYC dance label's surprising tribute to kosmische...
The Throne of Blood label is home to some of dance music's mainstay acts, so it wouldn't exactly be the first place you'd look to find contemplative space music. But it just so happens that TOB owner James Friedman is something of an ambient geek, so much so that he he talked himself into compiling an ambient project for TOB sometime last year. The result is Moon Rock, a tribute to various musical disciplines of the spacey variety from the '70s, '80s and '90s: Eno-era ambient, German kosmische, IDM and new age.
Moon Rock may not provide the most polished listen you've heard, and that's because many non-ambient artists came out of the woodwork to contribute, namely Simian Mobile Disco and Jokers on the Scene. But the artists' unfamiliarity with the territory actually makes for an engaging listen, since their sound palettes are a little more punchy and aren't what you've come to expect in ambient music. All in all the compilation is a welcome testament to the far-reaching effects of the ambient and new age revival.
For further context on Moon Rock, stream my Roots of Moon Rock mix for the TOB Podcast.
Hushed experimental music from another Bay-area cassette label...
With a focus on releases coming in seasonal bundles, Constellation Tatsu is yet another Bay Area tape label with spiritual-leaning sensibilities. Most of the Tatsu catalog is not easily pegged as new age, but two recent releases can wear the badge convincingly.
Greg Manata's Washing, which is part of Tatsu's summer bundle, basks the listener in calming, meditative guitar-based ambience. Many of new age's trademark instruments (harps, flutes, sitars) aren't readily learned by or available to practitioners of leftfield music, but guitars certainly are. And Manata's use of them in no way downgrades the meditative qualities of Washing.
Tatsu's other recent overt new age offering is Les Halles' Invisible Cities. Its most memorable feature would be the delay-effected woodwinds playing throughout the album's duration. It's tricky to pinpoint what this woodwind is in particular. Often times it sounds like a flute, and others it gives off a warmer timbre like that of a recorder or clarinet. One could describe Invisible Cities as "eerie" despite being very therapeutic and contemplative. Think the softer, beatless moments of early Boards of Canada, and you're on the right track.
A little-known Swedish producer's exquisite healing soft pop...
Spend a little time with Frida Li Lövgren's bright, inventive ethereal music under her Quiltland alias, and you may find yourself clamoring to learn more about her. Music that emanates such a cleverly intimate aura often constructs a mystery that begs to be revealed, and Lövgren's work is no exception. But considering that no bio seems to exist, we're left basking in that mystery, and maybe it's better that way.
Lövgren's sound exists somewhere between the shimmering, cloudy vintage soft pop of This Mortal Coil or Julee Cruise and the synth-unshy new age of Vangelis or Gigi Masin. London-based experimental electronic label Astro:Dynamics has done us the solid of releasing two back-to-back Quiltland full lengths so far this year: the Sisto cassette and the Quiltland LP. The latter feels like the more cohesive effort of the two, with a similar mood and energy maintained throughout. Sisto is more varied and seems a bit like a collection of EPs—ambient and beat-laden tracks nest side by side, but don't think that's a bad thing. Both are contenders for album of the year.
If Enya and Fennesz had a baby...
Noisy, caustic textures are typically a no-no in new age, and when artists use them, it's all too convenient to ditch the new age tag completely and opt for "drone" or "ambient." Heidelberg, Germany's Gora Sou doesn't shy away from these edgy elements, but unlike most producers in the electronic music landscape these days, he embraces the crystalline factory synth sounds commonly associated with new age—namely flutes and dreamy string-like pads. The cool and the uncool weave in and out of one another as if they're estranged friends celebrating a long-delayed reunion.
Gora Sou's latest album, Living XXL, a 100-run cassette released by Alabama label Noumenal Loom, seems thematically tied to the ocean, which—you know—is not an uncommon theme in new age music. The cover art depicts a surrealist glassy beachside sculpture, while the standout track "Bay of Seven Moons" (stream below) evokes the blare of a tugboat's whistle. It may not do much for the Yanni-coddling masses, but its soft hues and astute use of edgier elements make for some unique armchair listening.
RBMA's foray into new age revivalism...
The world's leading energy drink manufacturer seems an unlikely source of a new age music revivalist project. And yet Red Bull—through its often-engaging Red Bull Music Academy workshop series—has spawned Eternal Bliss, a tongue-in-cheek website of relaxing music, video and interactive scrolling text. It's a simple but charming installation and has the kitschy feel of a bizarro Weather Channel kiosk.
The replay value of Eternal Bliss wears off quickly, but the real takeaway from the project is the music. RBMA recruited an impressively informed lineup of electronic artists, some of whom are featured on this list. The 11 tracks humbly wrap up at the 21 minute mark, but the short length doesn't take away from the listen. While the tracks are streaming on RBMA's SoundCloud page, tragically there's no way to download the set. Perhaps the project's curators felt there would be no demand for downloads, so let it be known that I'm stating my case otherwise.
From RBMA's writeup on Eternal Bliss:
Over the past few months, we have collaborated with research associates in top scientific institutions to build a website that can truly claim to be the most relaxing experience you’ll find on the Internet. Utilizing proprietary, advanced intelligence technology, Eternal Bliss™ is the world’s first guided meditation that puts you in charge.PICKS:
Gentle Daps is my podcast series engaged with navigating the curious worlds of vintage soft pop, new age and fusion. For further listening pertaining to this feature, try my episode on new age in 2014 or the excellent guest episode by Yoga Records' Douglas Mcgowan.