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.
When I discover a record I really like by an artist with a few releases under their belt, it’s tempting to go back and binge on their back-catalogue. I normally try to resist, having found that it mostly leads to disappointment, and often dilution of the pleasure of the music that kicked the whole thing off. So, despite having loved Christina Vantzou’s No. 4 recently, I resisted the urge to go back and hoover up Nos. 1 through 3.
But I did check out this recent live performance by Vantzou and John Also Bennett (who also played on No. 4) and, you know what, it’s really good, too. It’s a very different record. No. 4 had an impressive list of collaborators and instruments. This is just the two of them with synths, ‘virtual instruments’ (CV), more synths, flute, and piano (JAB). No. 4 has a rich, layered strangeness. This has a sparse, abstract strangeness. It was performed in a gallery, as a response to works by Zin Taylor, or perhaps we’re meant to say as a reconceptualization of those works, or something like that… anyway, it does seem to fit the abstract simplicity of the drawings, and comes with a nice 1.8m-long leporello which you can, I don’t know, look at while you listen to the music, I guess. The music itself is proceeds at a stately pace, and it’s more about the textures and the shapes than about the melodies, but it’s full of lovely little surprises — I love the sound of lapping water which appears somewhere near the end, for example — and it’s thoroughly immersive. In places, it reminds me of another recent live duet, Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Glass — or, reaching further back, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe and Ariel Kalma’s We Know Each Other Somehow. It’s one of those records that I love a little bit more each time I listen to it, and lingers in my memory for a good while afterwards, and those are very good things.
I’m going to call this “environmental ambient”, a term I may or may not have just invented, and by which I mean that it strongly evokes a particular scenario — in this case, the Swiss Alpine setting of Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel Der Zauberberg (aka The Magic Mountain). It does this through a mixture of field recordings, samplings of the music referenced in the book including authentic gramophone noises, some minimal piano pieces (presumably from Rabelais?), and significant studio wizardry. And it is, indeed, powerfully evocative of that scenario, to charming and deeply calming effect.
I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Modern Classical / Ambient, Electronic.
If I have one complaint about this album from (sorry) the less well-known half of Yellow Swans, it’s simply that at 31 minutes it’s too short. Otherwise, it’s magnificent. It’s primarily guitar drones and percussion, although for much of the first part of the record it sounds like the guitar is being bowed or scraped somehow. Album opener Contained Battle / Ascend features a sort of wondrous howling over a tribal drumming. Ear Piercer and Mountain Music are dominated by sparse, abstract percussion — resonant chimes, which create a powerfully ritualistic feeling, feature strongly on the former, and a heavy bass drum on the latter. The climax is reached on the 11-minute Gagaku, which slowly becomes more densely layered until, at about the 6-minute mark, a warm, fuzzy guitar melody gently appears: that particular noise inevitably invokes the mighty Christian Fennesz, although this is definitely late-period anthemic Fennesz à la Bécs, and powerfully uplifting it is too. The closing track is a little bit different: it’s seemingly a heavily-processed take on a Miles Davis recording of My Funny Valentine, all vinyl crackle and submerged dynamics and woozy trumpet, it’s very Leyland Kirby, not at all gimmicky, and strangely affecting. All in all, a fantastic record, warm and approachable despite its experimental nature, that leaves me wanting more.
I bought this from Juno. They call it Ambient / Drone.