JAB: Erg Herbe (LP, Shelter Press, March 2019)

In my formative years, the term “new-age” was pretty much an insult. In Thatcher’s Britain, you could revel in the spirit of corporate greed or you could rail against it, but either way the concept of any kind of cosmic harmony seemed hopelessly naive. Well, times change, and these days secular spirituality is quite on trend — and as I’ve matured I’ve certainly learnt to embrace my inner hippy. But I still find myself baulking at the associations my mind throws out when I hear that term “new-age”.

Maybe that needs to change. I mean, I loved the record that Laraaji did with Sun Araw back in 2016, right? And, let’s be honest, plenty of ambient music owes a debt to good old-fashioned new-age. So I think I’m going to try to overcome my mental block. I mean, so long as it has a wee bit of an experimental edge to it, you know? I don’t think I’m ready to go full-on tie-dyed flabby dope-haze music just yet.

Aaaanyway. Here is John Also Bennett (last seen in these parts in a rather charming Zin Taylor-inspired collaboration with Christina Vantzou) with his long hair and his lovely beard and his flutes and his oscillators and his Farsifa and whatnot, making his solo debut. And, yes, much of it really should be classified as “new-age”. And, yes, it does have an experimental edge. And, you know what? Yes, it is really very good. It’s soothing (but not in the least bland), it’s got a touch of exoticism (without falling into the trap of tacky orientalism), and it’s the perfect kind of music to float away to. Oh, and just to avoid any accusations of taking itself too seriously, the artwork (which is by Zin Taylor again) centres on a psychedelic chameleon in what appears to be a rather funky hat.

I bought this from the label’s bandcamp site.

Pauline Anna Strom: Trans-Millenia Music (2LP, RVNG Intl, December 2017)

I normally steer clear of reissues and retrospectives and the like: I struggle enough finding time giving enough attention to all the new music I want to listen to. But this one kind of sucked me in. A compilation of material dating from ’82–’88, it’s floaty synth stuff that I guess you might call new age, except that hardly does it justice. There’s something about the noises she coaxes out of her machines and the way she puts them together that can only really be described as other-worldly. And although I guess the sound palette is pretty identifiably eighties, most of these tracks seem pretty timeless (the most obvious exception being the cod-Japanese Bonsai Terrace, which would smack a bit of cultural appropriation by today’s standards, besides being a bit cheesy). Rather beautifully packaged, too. I’ll even forgive the glaring typo in the album name.

I bought this from RVNG’s bandcamp page.

Laraaji & Sun Araw: Professional Sunflow (2LP, W.25th, June 2016)

Laraaji is an ambient / new-age old-timer who’s been playing music (and collaborating with Brian Eno) since the seventies. Sun Araw (aka Cameron Stallones) is a Californian experimentalist who looks like he probably wasn’t born then. But they have produced a wonderful, effortlessly natural-sounding improvised collaboration here. Stallones does some wonderfully loose work on guitar and keyboard. Laraaji contributes zither and percussion and a wonderfully resonant nonsensical (I think?) chanting (and the occasional slightly disconcerting chuckle). Someone called Alex Gray is credited with “computer synthesis”, which I guess might be something to do with the occasional buzzing and humming noises. This kind of abstract noodling which can very easily disappear up its own fundament… a fate which is magnificently avoided here. It’s relaxed and warm and inspiring and just gently hypnotic. It reminds me in places of another great collaboration: Masayoshi Fujita & Jan Jelinek’s superb Bird, Lake, Objects. High praise, but highly deserved.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Ambient / Drone.

Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe & Ariel Kalma: FRKWYS Vol. 12: We Know Each Other Somehow (CD+DVD, RVNG Intl, April 2015)

Is it just me, or have there an unusual number of exciting collaborations happening recently (and not just on this intriguing FRKWYS series)? This pairs young experimentalist Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, mostly on various modular synth type creatures, and old-time experimentalist Ariel Kalma, mostly on sax, flute, and didgeridoo. The result is pretty impressive. I find the record draws me in with three relatively (!) focussed tracks: Magick Creek is tied together by a sample of a stream, over which Kalma’s sax and didgeridoo and Lowe’s bird-like bleeps and bloops circulate; Mille Voix is dominated by a striking voiceless chant, and is probably what would happen if Gregorian monks made secular drone music; Gongmo Kalma Lowe is underpinned by a clattering percussion line. The effect is… well, it’s hard to avoid the word “meditative” (and it’s no surprise to see on the accompanying sort-of-making-of DVD, Sunshine Soup, that both parties, seemingly Kalma in particular, are that way inclined) but in a very centred way, without any of the flabbiness which can plague new-age music. The next three tracks get progressively more demanding, with Miracle Mile being is probably the most minimal here and clocking in at nearly 19 minutes. I’m willing to admit that this don’t always grip me: if I’m in the zone, it’s great, but if I get distracted, it can be hard to work my way back in. Still, it’s a fitting culmination to a rich and deeply rewarding listen.

I almost wish I’d got the vinyl version, which ends there: I think it would help concentrate the mind. As it is, the digital release (which is on Google Play Music and probably elsewhere) has an alternative version of Mille Voix, distinguished mostly by being almost three times the length of the original (and very welcome for it, as this is a very splendid piece of music); and both the digital release and the CD (which is what I bought) end with a short and disconcertingly chirpy little flute-and-buzzy-synths jig called Palo Alter Reality.

(Aside: I’d been listening to this record for several weeks, and studied the sleeve art, and watched Sunshine Soup through, before I realized where I recognized Lowe from: he was the star in Ben Rivers’ and Ben Russell’s excellent semi-fictionalized ethnographic movie A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness. I should have spotted this earlier, really, as both his look and his voice are quite recognizable. Although there is no Norwegian black metal on this record.)

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Modern Classical / Ambient.