New age music continues to occupy a strange place in our contemporary culture. It’s still often denigrated and left to gather dust in CD bargain bins and abandoned yoga studios. At the same time, however, groups like Emeralds continue to whet the public’s seeming appetite for just the sorts of synth tones and careful arrangements that comprise the genre’s stock-in-trade. So with one eye towards 2013 and one towards the heavens, let’s take a moment to revisit just a smidgen of the past year’s best nü age material.
Steve Moore – Light Echoes (Cuneiform) A pretty simple recipe here: one part space music, one part Timewind-era Klaus Schulze, and a dash of prog’s feisty restlessness. Patiently unfolding and immeasurably rewarding, Moore’s latest solo venture is also his best–and I was convinced he wouldn’t be able to top Primitive Neural Pathways. Ever-stretching ambient drifts dovetail in quite lovely fashion with synaesthetic arpeggios and tender melodies. Served neither shaken nor stirred; let this one sit out for a while and it’ll settle on its own.
Deep Magic – Closed Eyes (Debacle) Allegedly featuring “field recordings from 5 different continents,” this album certainly embodies a Discovery-Channel-VHS notion of geographic displacement. Like the protagonist of some long-lost Jules Verne novel, Closed Eyes approaches its journey into the unknown and the undiscovered with enthusiasm underpinned by an appropriate trepidation. If it’s true that we fear what we don’t understand, then this record is rather courageous; it’s entirely exploratory yet also somehow cleaner and colder, a refreshing change of pace from Alex Gray’s pot-smoke-clouded output.
David Tagg – WR027 (Wil-Ru) What happens when a noise drone guitarist gets his hands on a couple of synthesizers and what I can only assume is a healthy supply of painkillers? Almost two hours’ worth of hazy, ardently minimal ambiance, that’s what. “Epic” feels like the wrong word to use here; this release is too quiet, too understated for such a label. “Sprawling”? No, that’s not quite right either; these two cassettes feel introverted and private, hardly the stuff of “soundscapes.” And “meditative” feels like an easy way out; what ambient release isn’t meditative to some degree? The best way I can describe WR027 is to not bother trying to describe it at all. Maybe that’s why Tagg didn’t give it a real title; it might not say much, but this music does all the talking.
Bitchin Bajas – Vibraquatic (Kallistei Editions) So I think this is actually an audiovisual kinda deal, with an accompanying movie of abstract psychedelia presumably meant to further immerse the listener in the liquid crystals of this release. With all due respect, however, it isn’t necessary; these keyboard loops, which recall the hypnotic repetitions of Terry Riley’s Persian Surgery Dervishes, are subtly captivating in their own right. Having previously been unfamiliar with Bitchin Bajas–a solo project of Cooper Crane, perhaps better known as a member of Chicago psych rock outfit Cave–I wasn’t expecting “subtle” to be an appropriate descriptor for this music, but there you go. Bitchin indeed.
Je Suis Le Petit Chevalier – An Age Of Wonder (Shelter Press) Earlier this year, Félicia Atkinson released a two-track album entitled On Being Kind To Horses, inspired by Russian writerVladimir Mayakovsky’s poem of the same name. It’s a great listen to be sure, but I’m not quite sure what it has to do with horses. An Age Of Wonder was apparently inspired by “the Amish Community, the northern Wisconsin sunsets and the Indian summer in Belgium.” Once again, I’m at a loss to explain how these things prompted this album’s warbling electronic minimalism and Motion Sickness of Time Travel-esque vocal drifts, but when the results are this good, I’m hardly complaining. Atkinson is wonderful at taking small sounds and not so much magnifying them but rather finely sculpting them into seemingly impossible aural shapes, compelling the listener to zero in on the tiniest details of her work. A++, would contemplate the meaning of existence to again.
Celer – Epicentral Examples of the More or Less (Futuresequence) One of Will Long’s most delightfully active releases to date, Epicentral Examples employs all manner of sound effects–cavernous reverb, rewinding tape, snippets of old-time film dialogue and natural field recordings–to adorn its otherwise typical glaciers of amorphous drone. Of course, where Celer is concerned, “otherwise typical” is still better than a lot of what we’re hearing from today’s ambient artists; even better is the loving care Long clearly puts into each new release, given the sheer number of them he puts out each month year. Epicentral Examples has enough yawning chasms to satisfy longtime fans, but it also features plenty of other elements which make it a great place to start for those new to Celer’s music.
Abul Mogard – Abul Mogard (VCO) An elderly Serbian man released a cassette of haunted synth ambiance. I didn’t think “industrial new age” was possible, but Mr. Mogard and his years as a factory laborer have proven me wrong. Here’s an album that’s beautiful without being beatific, full of (cold, chugging, mechanical, Iron-Curtain-era) life but hardly life-affirming, an album that never lets you get too comfortable with its Moog tones. I mean, it’s great, but it’s also kind of creepy; tracks like “Drooping Off” threaten to eat you alive. Yet once it’s done, you find yourself mindlessly pressing the replay button, almost as though you’ve become a machine yourself. A machine powered by menacingly placid drone music, that is.
Astrowind – Kaidanovsky (Greytone) Latvian sound designer Kriipis Tulo brings us a desolate hour’s worth of lower-than-lo-fi ambiance, unnerving glitches, and the sort of irresistible gloom guys like Leyland Kirby specialize in. The title is a reference to a famed Russian actor and director, but no knowledge of context is required to feel immersed in these drones. This is the kind of release that makes me grateful for the internet; without it, what are the odds I’d even know there was Latvian drone music being made in the first place?
Steve Roach – Back To Life (Projekt) A master at work. Delicately hanging somewhere between Imaginary Softwoods’ The Path of Spectrolite and the dronier parts of Roach’s vast back catalog, Back To Life was one of two full-length albums he put out this year (along with the livelier and more percussive Groove Immersion). Though it’s the quieter of the two releases, there’s still more going on here than just languid, drifting ambient synth; moods, themes, and pulses that seem to approximate rhythm all flow in and out of the listener’s consciousness. It’s nice to see a veteran like Steve Roach continuing to challenge himself and release expansive new work.