A not-so-successful attempt
to list my
top 25 (just a few more?) New Age albums
You gotta hear this!
by Carol Wright
A list of the "best 25 New Age albums"? Been there. Done that with my "New Age Golden Oldies" article for Napra several years ago. New Age Voice had just published a "best" list the month before, and the compiler did as I had done, included PJ Birosek (Musik International), Lloyd Barde (Backroads Music), and others in the judging process.
As I wondered about a unique angle on my list, I was avidly tracking down albums -- anything -- by the Cuban "salsa" diva Albita, whose energy and passion filled that missing something in my soul. I even hungered to hear her softened koo-ban accent and to somehow transfer the sounds to my tongue. I was so taken by this singer, that I separated my friends into those who "got it" and those who didn't. Ah! Sounds familiar…I've done that with New Age albums also.
So, I mentally assembled my list of "you-gotta-hear-this!" albums and found most of them missing from my collection. Of course, I had lent them to my friends, and they told their friends "you-gotta-hear-this!"…and kiss that album good-bye. When I rounded up what I could, I found that my solo assessment could in no way be fair. Over the years, I had somehow collected or reviewed a lot of Michael Stearns but very little Steve Roach or Klaus Schulze, a lot of Iasos and Steven Halpern but not as much Aeoliah, tons of Paul Winter but not too much Oregon, all of Constance Demby but little of David Arkenstone and Tangerine Dream.
When I approached my 25-review limit, I realized I was over budget. How could I fit in Paul Horn's Inside the…albums, Ray Lynch's Sky of Mind (is it out of print?), R. Carlos Nakai, and so many others?
And what happened to some of my favorites?! Where, tell, went Alan Stivell's groundbreaking The Renaissance of the Celtic Harp? And Wendy Carlos' Switched-On Bach [NOTE: Since this I wrote this article, Wendy's restored all the "Switched-On" albums. See my interview with Wendy, and the review of her Switched-On Boxed Set], and the Ravi Shankar / Yehudi Menhuin masterpiece West Meets East? [Just in, the day I post to the internet: West Meets East: Historic Sessions had been re-released on Angel.] A pleasant surprise in all of this involved the Flesh and Bones release Skeleton Woman. "How can this be discontinued?" I asked Silver Wave, "It's a CW Top 25!" What was the matter with these people? The title was sold, and not to Peter Kater's new label, nor to their related Platinum label. Just as I was finishing the article, the album found me.
Allan Kaplan of Authenticity Music (Boulder, CO) was delighted that
I found Skeleton Woman worthy of high ranking. He thought so also,
and bought the title from Silver Wave. He feels he can make it a hit, as
he did with Ray Lynch's Deep Breakfast. Why didn't Skeleton Woman
take off? Kaplan felt the tie to the Clarissa Pinkola-Estes story (pulled
from her masterpiece, Women Who Run with the Wolves) worked for
some people, but didn't register with others. Also, the nudity on the cover
attracted some, but drove others away. He's retitled the album The Passionate
Music of Flesh and Bone and designed new cover art showing a hot flower.
His mission, he says, is to save these masterpieces from the recycle bin
and to give them the life they deserved. I gave him my preservation wish
list, and he promised to find out their status. See Romantically
Inclined, below, for my review of the resurrected Skeleton Woman.
[NOTE: Apparently The Passionate version has not been released.
Will update as I get news.]
ROOTS / CELTIC
Paul Winter Consort / Living Music
Paul Winter Consort / A&M Records
These two albums are groundbreakers for different reasons. Icarus (1972) popularized the world-fusion-folk-jazz genre. Ralph Towner played 12-string for the first time on the title track, which for me, is THE anthem of the New Age (heard regularly as the theme song for New Dimensions). Some of the musicians on this album (Towner, oboist Paul McCandless, and percussionist Collin Walcott) broke away to form the group Oregon. Common Ground pioneered the use of animal songs as intentional voices in the melody and using music to make an environmental statement. The album's songs are very memorable, especially Susan Osborn's riveting "Lay Down Your Burden," Of course, through it all is Winter's soulful soprano sax which often sounds like the calls of wolves. A&M still owns Common Ground, but you still should be able to find it.
Pieces of Africa
Kronos Quartet / Elektra Nonesuch
You may shy from the chamber music sound, but this recording of modern African compositions for string quartet and African instruments is thoroughly refreshing. What probably makes the combo work is the quartet's similarity to the sound of the African kora harp (hear Foday Musa Suso play it on "Tiliboyo.") The pieces represent composers from Zimbabwe, Morocco, Gambia, Uganda, Sudan (Hamza el Din), Ghana (Obo Addy), and South Africa. African and Middle Eastern percussion and vocalists add to the intriguing textures and intoxicating rhythms. The Kronos Quartet is known for commissioning modern works. Explore!
Loreena McKennitt / ADD
Enya may have opened the door for Loreena McKennitt's popularity, but McKennitt's talent, musical intelligence, clear (and understandable) voice, and savvy marketing instincts have made her an impressive and growing presence. With The Visit, McKennitt emphasizes the words, and you'll want to read along with the traditional laments and ballads. Tennyson's 11-minute epic "The Lady of Shalott" is spellbinding, while McKennitt's spooky rendition of "Greensleeves" (written by Henry VIII) will give you goosebumps. The album's medieval flavor also touches the music of Eastern Europe, Persia, and Spain -- music perhaps brought by gypsies.
After the Rain
Michael Jones / Narada
Eric Tingstad, Nancy Rumbel, David Lanz / Narada Lotus
These are similar classics from Narada's early days. Sure, they've all done slicker albums with 20-bit digital recordings, but these early albums are favorites. After the Rain is a dewy-eyed classic by pianist Michael Jones and friends; it's innocent, hopeful, and noble. It's crisp and invigorating, yet restful and renewing. I guess "refreshing" sums up its appeal. Woodlands is soft and restful, like walking barefoot on the soft floor of a forest.
George Winston / Windham Hill
This is the album that started the modern revolution in solo piano playing. Winston's simplicity is elegant, his complexity delightful, his embellishments high art. So few notes, yet still vital after all these years.
The Köln Concert
Keith Jarrett / ECM
This is the "chick flick" of piano jazz. I recall middle aged females sunbathing on a deck. This solo album came over the speakers, and every one of them sighed "oooughhhhaaaaa." Hypnotic, intense, driving, ecstatic, and gripping. There must be some New Age in there somewhere, but until I find it, "oooughhhh-llaaaaal" will have to do (men, you've been warned). Good stuff, four extended pieces, recorded live. Consider also Peter Kater's 1987 Fool and the Hummingbird (Silver Wave), a musical impression of a man in love with a lunatic hummer. It will really make you smile!
Egberto Gismonti / ECM
Egberto Gismonti is a dynamic jazz/folk guitarist/pianist from Brazil. Gismonti begins this solo album with an impressive 11-minute improv for 8-string guitar. When you think he can't possibly continue less he shred his fingers, Gismonti opens the piece to a transcendent chant and the zing of cooking bells. "And Zero" is one of the most sublime and passionate piano compositions I have ever heard. Then comes the remarkable "Frevo" for piano and the multi-layered "Salvador" for guitar and voice. The final ten minutes are spent with cooking bells and piano, whose lyrical theme resembles the streamers of a windsock. A pianistic thunderstorm brews mid-track, but Gismonti leaves us with a sublime peace…and a desire to check out more wonderful recordings on the ECM label.
Tim Wheater / Almo Sounds
Ring in the new millennium with this epic masterpiece. With the encouragement of a Howard Thompson (Almo's A&R), Wheater took his overtone singing and expanded it to fit something the size of the Astrodome. Stuart Wilde assisted with the lyrics, and David Lord helped write the score. Opera soprano Sarah Leonard flew in to sing The Voice of the Heart. John Richardson is The Shaman, Hossam Ramzy plays Egyptian drums, and Frank Perry works the Tibetan bells and Mongolian voices. Add The Winchester College Quiristers, a male chorus (The Tribe), additional female soloists, horns, harps, flamenco guitar, woodwinds, percussion, and orchestral keyboards. Heart Land is an electrifying, operatic saga in four parts that follows a warrior's quest of a return to the heart. Hear angels, an exciting inner battle with a chaos of drumming, chanting, overtone singing, and (of course) Tim Wheater's flutes. The album ends with the heralding of the French horns as spirit welcomes the warrior to the land of the heart. This album shakes me to the core.
Through the Stargate
Constance Demby / Hearts of Space
Constance Demby's monumental two-part Novus Magnificat is symphonic space music at its best. Splurge on new speakers and fill your living room with the orchestra of the century, the choir of the millennium. It's a Bach's organ toccata and a series of massive orchestral expressions worthy of Mahler; it's filigrees of Baroque delight and thundershowers of heavenly light streaming through the stargate to your ears. Originally written for the 1986 Harmonic Convergence, it's time has come again to welcome in the new millennium.
The Journey Home on Wings of Light
Aeoliah / Helios Music
This impressive synthesizer album begins with a heavy-sounding section that seems to pry open the heavy gates of the universe. On your sonic journey, you'll be surrounded by angel choirs and twinkling stardust. Water will cleanse you, celestial harmonics will vibrate your cells at the pace of breathing, and you'll rocket to "Sirius Via Andromeda." Aeoliah calls this album an "interdimensional doorway into the stargates through which we first passed before our physical birth on planet Earth." His inspiration was the anticipated shift to happen in the year 2012. The album ends with a windblown lullaby.
Music to Disappear In
Raphael / Hearts of Space
What's not to like about Raphael's sensually spiritual music? Pick any album…delectable! This one from 1988 is a classic because it contains the angelic-voiced "In Paradiso" section from Gabriel Fauré's transcendent Requiem. On this heavenly album, Raphael stays in reach of Western harmonics and symphonic orchestrations sprinkled with cosmic tonings. Not all is lush-romantic-lush, however. "Resurrection" takes its lead from Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question" -- except Raphael's answer is tantalizingly within reach. Rhythm queen Gabrielle Roth sits in on one track, "I Say Rock 'n Roll Prayers to a Dancing God," however her rhythms are more like rocking rather than rockout. Most of Raphael's albums are on HOS, but check out his tantric music albums with partner Kutira Decosted.
Iasos / Bluestar Communications
This classic album includes two tone poems from heaven: "The Angels of Comfort" and "Angel Play." On both tracks, the sounds shimmer and glitter, and choirs of angels seem to polish the road before you. "Angel Play" is my favorite side. Magic dust swirls 'round your head, while twinkles pick at your ears. Sounds sheer like cascades of light while crickets serenade beside a brook going nowhere. This music has been said to most closely resemble the sounds heard by the near-death travelers. One listen, and you'll know it's true.
Georgia Kelly / Heru Records
Georgia Kelly plays the concert harp, and in the late 1970s, she composed some of the most profoundly deep and eternal music imaginable. The first piece, "Nilapadma (Blue Lotus)," beats with a heartfelt lyricism, a somber yet romantic air. On the title track, Tony Selvage plays electric violin recorded with dynamic echoes. He soars and skitters higher and higher, like a dove freed from the dungeon, then swoops back to touch the earth amid swirls from the harp. At 40-minutes long, Seapeace is the perfect length and flow for a massage or Reiki treatment. I'm glad it's available on CD--Eternity suits it.
Deuter / Celestial Harmonies
What an aptly titled album. This 1979 classic, recorded in Poona, India, still has its ecstatic punch, even after all these years. Here Deuter engulfs the senses with heady, tingly brushes of dulcimer strings, with orgasmic groaning tones, with the alluring call of the recorder. The steel string guitar serenades your spirit to dance soar, while patterns of organ notes swirl you into an ever-increasing state of bliss that will consume your whole body. Chose your ecstasy: It's sensual, it's spiritual.
Steven Halpern and Georgia Kelly / Steven Halpern's Inner Peace Music
You may know Halpern's Spectrum Suite and Eastern Peace. But Ancient Echoes has an improvisational magic that can't be topped. This 1978 album begins with a gentle processional by harpist Georgia Kelly -- so delicate it's like petals floating in a fountain. Halpern's chants give the impression of a nearby temple. "Apollo's Lyre" combines intoxicating harp musings with playful tones from Halpern's Rhodes electric piano. "From Eleusis" stirs up the inky depths of the soul with Halpern's flute groping in the darkness. The "advance echo" technique used on Kelly's "Crotona" is absolutely riveting. Halpern and Kelly improvised in many exotic musical keys to bring you these echoes of times past.
Golden Voyage, Vol. I
Robert Berns and Ron Dexter / Audio Alternatives
What a magical garden these two composers created in 1977. The CD recreates their original record album cover, intense with its mystical geometric symbols. The music, however, is enchanted by water fountains and bird songs. It's a pure delight, "a galactic exploration through celestial harmonics." Instruments include a resonant vibraphone and guitar, synth strings and flute, crystal gongs, chimes, and a slightly out of tune piano. The melodies are charming yet sensual and bittersweet. There's always the sense that this space is a gateway, creating the feeling of mouthwatering, tingling anticipation.
The Poet: Romances for Cello
Michael Hoppé / Teldec
The Poet is Michael Hoppe's set of duets for keyboards/piano and cello (Martin Tillman) inspired by the photographs of his grandfather, E.O. Hoppé (1878 - 1972). The album offers musical interpretations of literary legends Carl Sandburg, Aldous Huxley, Kahlil Gibran, A. E. Housman, Walter de la Mare, Sara Teasdale, and others. The soaring and somber tone of the cello, and the unrestrained yet languid romanticism of the melodies will make you weep. Any one of the pieces would be a showstopper at a classical concert, but I suppose Hoppé's use of keyboard synth orchestrations tossed this album over to the New Age bin. Well, lucky us! Hoppé has two other albums in the series-- The Yearning and The Dreamer -- both with flutist Tim Wheater. Hoppé tells me that his next album will be with Tillman and Wheater on the Hearts of Space label. [It's a done deal. Check out Afterglow.]
The Passionate Music of Flesh and Bones
previously issued as Skeleton Woman
Flesh and Bones / Authenticity Music
This music, pure pathos and passion, is based on the folk tale of the fisherman who can't get rid of a netted skeleton, who then responds to his caring and comes very very alive. With vocals by Peter Kater and Chris White and the seductive drumming of Glen Valez, you'll find this album very memorable for an evening with your loved one. Get out that massage oil! [As of Nov. 1999, this album is not available.]
Bright Red / Tightrope
Laurie Anderson / Warner Bros.
Anderson has been a cutting edge performance artist since 1972. Her brilliant multi-media performances integrate songs/poetry with slide shows, electronically altered voices, spot television cameras, and her signature violin that plays phrases from its recording tape bow. Her wry lyrics deal with biting topics without being preachy or bitter. Anderson uses hip rhythms to build energy, yet her silences are breathtaking. And what a voice! She's intelligent. She's cool. She's got spiky hair. And she occasionally. tours. Check her out.
RELIGIOUS AND CHANT
Heart of Perfect Wisdom / A Sufi Song of Love
On Wings of Song & Robert Gass / Spring Hill Music
Robert Gass and his choir On Wings of Song have created many superior choral chant albums. This double-album contains the Tibetan overtone singing AND luscious choral harmonies. Heart of Perfect Wisdom uses Buddhist Sanskrit words "Gate, gate, para gate/para sum gate/bodhi, svaha!" (gone gone, gone beyond, gone beyond the beyond the beyond/hail to the awakened one!). The first section features both men's and woman's voices as a canon (parts overlap) in an processional. With its deep overtone chanting, track two is grittily, gongily focused. The album ends with "Kalama: A Sufi Song of Love," inspired by Sufi mysticism. One can visualize the singers gracefully greeting each other in a circle dance.
Authentic Music from the
Meditative Traditions of the World
Various Artists / Ellipsis Arts . . .
This four-CD set, with 32-page booklet, continues to be a favorite. Music from 40 countries are included on the four themed discs -- Voices of the Spirit (Songs and Chants), Harmony and Interplay (Ensembles), The Pulse of Life (Rhythm and Percussion), and Music from the Heart (Melody). But just because this music is meditative does not mean it's not passionate or lively. Here, you'll be immersed in an intriguing variety. Included are field recordings (a Vodun-Rada rite from Haiti), modern interpretations (the blistering "Lineage" by Zakir Hussain and the Rhythm Experience), recordings in monasteries (Buddhist monks) and churches (Anonymous 4), meditative dance music ("Semai" Sufi dance music), and a concert recording of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Pakistani Qawwal singer.
CASE FOR SPACE
Seven Modern Dervish Dances
Al Gromer Khan / New Earth Records
Bavarian composer and sitar player Al Gromer Khan calls his heady brand of space music "Paisley Music" or "God Perfume." These seven pieces are intelligently wrought, stately yet hypnotic, dervish "dances" that float and swoon for the love of God. "Dance of the Hydra" is a thirteen-minute swirl that steadily takes the listener or dancer to a state of ecstasy. This high-class creation will creep under your skin-you'll find some unusual and humorous poetry in the liner notes, too. Check in to this hotel, and you'll be forever changed.
Michael Stearns / Sonic Atmospheres
Michael Stearns composed his 1985 space music classic, Planetary Unfolding, on the Serge synthesizer. "In the Beginning" starts with an organ drone, which creates a "visual" horizon as you travel through space. Mind blips, space winds, and engine sounds create the illusion of movement. "Toto I've a Feeling We're not in Kansas Anymore" is the second phase, still space, but an initiation passage through tragic voices. A rocket blasts you to a peaceful emptiness, and you end with an enthralling final ride. Part two begins with the sound of an approaching turboprop, which sucks you from this reality to another realm. Stearns' clear yet wordless song sets a somber tone as you pass through the core of the cosmic heartbeat. On the other side, his voice is victorious, and you float in a pleasure dome alive with birds and crickets. The re-entry finale crescendos around patterned rhythms that converge as a rocket-powered-cosmic-railroad-track-of-the-mind.
Planetary Unfolding is fun, but it may also take the listener through "shadow" spaces: tragedy, uncertainty, sadness, unworthiness. If you have trouble finding Stearns' early albums, get his two Fathom/HOS compilations, Collected Ambient and Textural Works 1977-1987 and Collected Thematic Works 1977-87.
Silk Road, Vol. 1
Kitaro / Domo
This classic has been recently remastered (20-bit digital) to present an impressive clarity of sound. This, and his other Silk Road albums, scored a television documentary about the famous trade route. Thus, the occasional camel lop is not out of place. The eloquent and evocative title track must be one of the most memorable melodies of the New Age. The trippier sections will take bouncing with the caravan, soaring with birds, and wandering the exotic inroads of Oriental mysticism. Many of Kitaro's albums have been remastered, and you may want to obtain his album Best of Kitaro, Vol. 2.
Other Early Space Music Classics:
Jean Michel Jarre, Oxygene (Dreyfus, 1976), a six-part rocket-charged synthesizer extravaganza.
Tangerine Dream, Rubycon (Virgin Records, 1975), a challenging,
larger-than-life, gong-filled synthesizer environment. Side two will get
you buzzing, and its dizzying effects will tie your mind in knots of infinity.
A Remembrance for a Forgotten Earth
Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors / Raven Recording
Gabrielle Roth's music comes from movement -- five rhythm types -- flowing, staccato, chaotic (like tumbling), lyrical, and stillness. The movements catalyze and help move through the emotions of fear, anger, sadness, joy, and peace. The meditative pieces -- played on percussion, bells, flutes and woodwinds, vocal chants, sitar -- focus on flowing, which makes Ritual a sure choice for massage, trance dancing, and love making. To work through her entire rhythm cycle, listen to, and dance to, Invocation.
Planet Drum and
Drumming on the Edge of Magic
Mickey Hart and friends / Rykodisc
With the innovative collaboration between HarperSanFrancisco and Rykodisc, the Drumming on the Edge of Magic (1990) album and book by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart thrust drum magic into the mainstream. A year later, the Planet Drum book-and-CD combo joined set. The music is a creative introduction to the sphere of world drumming and those who keep the rhythms and take them to the future. Some of Hart's drum buddies include Sikiru Adepoju, Zakir Hussain, Airto Moreira, Babatunde Olatunji, Vikku Vinayakram, and vocalist Flora Purim.
How Far? How Fast?
Robin Frederick / Higher Octave
New Age vocal albums can be too folksie-preachy or chanty or sensually goddessy. Here's an album that could have made it to the big time…if only…Composer and singer Robin Frederick's songs are snazzy-sounding, with slick production values. Her lyrics display a mastery of both poetry and advanced metaphysical concepts. Her voice is lovely, strong, and understandable; her skillful overdubbing of herself as chorus is brilliant. The two-part "Reasons to Love" contrasts her mechanical statements of quantum theory against the lyrical melody about love. The "reasons to love" chorus in its angelic harmonies is a mindblower! When you need something to blast over your car speakers -- get this.
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