Finding Enlightenment in the Bargain Bin

There’s nothing quite like rummaging through the record store bargain bins, sifting through all the usual sights – Bobby Caldwell’s fedora, Olivia Newton-John deep cuts – to find something a little out of the ordinary. These records tend to be $1-2, so my bar for purchasing is pretty low: sometimes it’s truly bizarre cover art or even just the vaguest hint of something more inspired than the average artist name/record label. I’ve learned two lessons from my bargain bin finds: the vast majority of bargain bin records are boring (even the ones with really cool covers!), and a lot of the weirder records found in bargain bins tend to belong broadly to the “New Age” genre.

I put New Age in quotes for a reason. It’s a completely bullshit music genre. I don’t mean that in a sense that disparages music classified as New Age. I like a lot of artists that I’ve seen classified at least secondarily as New Age: Steve Roach, Vangelis, and Jean-Michel Jarre come to mind. I mean it in the sense that New Age has less meaning as a music genre than nearly any other music genre. It signifies a certain mood, but there are no defining musical characteristics or a “scene” of like-minded artists.

So What Exactly is New Age, Then?

This is the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on New Age:

New-age music is a genre of music intended to create artistic inspiration, relaxation, and optimism. It is used by listeners for yoga, massage, meditation, and reading as a method of stress management or to create a peaceful atmosphere in their home or other environments, and is associated with environmentalism and New Age spirituality.

This is not a terrible definition, given that it’s trying to find a way to summarize a lot of very different music, but it’s a terribly vague one. Music described as New Age might be good for “artistic inspiration” or “yoga,” but that doesn’t say a lot about how New Age music sounds. The Wikipedia article continues that New Age music can be “electronic” or “acoustic” and “instrumental” or “vocal.” This is accurate even though it’s not saying much, because the large variety of music described as New Age is too varied to fall under one label. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three different strains of New Age that could easily be classified as distinct genres of music without a broader classification of New Age.

  1. The modernized celtic folk of Enya, Loreena McKennitt, and quite a few others. This is generally pretty commercially-friendly music, with a mix of folky melodies, modern pop production, and fairly traditional songs (usually with vocals). This kind of music isn’t really my thing, but it’s definitely a genre onto itself. If you grew up in the 90s, you’ve heard Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” (a.k.a. “Sail Away”). You know what I’m talking about.
  1. The instrumental adult contemporary of Yanni and (ugh) John Tesh. This is probably the kind of music most people associated with New Age until recent attempts to rehabilitate the genre have moved it more towards minimalism and ambience. This music can certainly be ambitious, but it has a formula: crowd-pleasing pop-classical with “world” music touches (e.g. working in some didgeridoo and pan flute) and an unwavering, completely earnest positivity. Yanni doesn’t consider his music to be New Age, and he’s kind of right. His music is bombastic and maximalist, made for the dramatic, large-scale concerts for which he’s best known. It’s impossible to imagine Yanni’s music soundtracking meditation or spiritual contemplation; it’s too damn busy. Unlike a lot of people, I don’t mind Yanni in small doses. His music is pleasant enough when he’s in a more understated mode. He also seems like a genuinely good dude who’s been unfairly made the butt of a lot of cheap jokes.
  1. The more experimental and often synth-based instrumental music that descended primarily through prog-rock and kosmische, with some secondary influence from minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley. This is the kind of music that people associate with the “New Age revival” that started blowing up around 2010. Lumping all the artists together from even this “genre” is dubious. It’s not unusual to see Tangerine Dream name-dropped alongside Laraaji, even though the former were a bunch of German synthesizer nerds and the latter was a New York City busker with an electrified zither. Lines can be drawn through these disparate artists, though, and not just through frequent connections to Brian Eno. Slowly evolving arpeggios, like the ones found in minimalist pieces such as Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air and Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, are common. La Monte Young-esque drones also pop up frequently. You might think this all sounds a lot like “ambient” music, a genre that has always been accorded a sort of academic seriousness while “New Age” is still treated as a punchline even in some of the articles about its revival. You’d be mostly right, although there are some nuanced differences between the two genres. The best thing to come out of the “New Age revival” is greater exposure of artists like Iasos, who was previously marginalized due to his unambiguous embrace of mysticism and lack of “ambient” bonafides.

While the variety of music described as New Age is too broad to form a single genre, there are some commonalities. From the Wikipedia entry, the most accurate descriptor is “optimistic”: Even the darker side of New Age has rays of sunshine peaking through. This is one of the few ways in which a firm distinction can be drawn between New Age and ambient. The “dark ambient” sub-genre is decidedly not New Age. The other commonality is that even the variety of New Age that shares ambient’s superficial trappings is not background music to the same degree as ambient. Good New Age music rewards at least some engagement with its mysticism and spirituality. (Please note that one does not need to be a believer per se, just willing to go along for the ride.) The cool detachment of Eno’s Music for Airports is perfect to calm my nerves before a flight, but Iasos’s Inter-Dimensional Music evokes a sense of wide-eyed awe that commands attention.

New Age Record Reviews

Windham Hill Records

If you come across a New Age record in the bargain bin at an American record store, there’s a good chance it was released by Windham Hill Records. Founded in 1976 and technically still around today (more on that later), Windham Hill was started by guitarist William Ackerman (also one of the label’s most prominent artists) and his wife Anne Robinson as a label for instrumental acoustic music. It eventually expanded to release music with electronics and vocals, but the starting point for Windham Hill is best summed up as “John Fahey, but without the weird stuff.” Generally speaking, my impression of Windham Hill’s discography is that it’s MOR adult contemporary instrumental music — the type of thing you might hear playing in a store that sells herbal remedies and dreamcatchers. These days, Windham Hill exists solely for reissues and compilations. As part of the great consolidation of record labels during the traditional recorded music industry’s collapse in the 90s and 00s, Windham Hill absorbed some other niche New Age and instrumental music labels, which means that it’s possible to find Windham Hill-branded releases from artists that have some New Age association but were never signed to the label during its active days, like Vangelis and Yanni.

Mike Marshall & Darol Anger, Chiaroscuro (1985)

Darol Anger and Mike Marshall are string instrument players (guitar, mandolin, violin, etc., each plays a few different instruments) who are notable New Age acoustic music artists. They seem to be bros, because this isn’t their only collaborative album. So I guess they’re like the Run The Jewels of New Age. This is one of the more engaging Windham Hill albums I’ve heard. Anger, Marshall, and the other players on this record seem to be feeling it. This kind of music really benefits from an ensemble. Unless you’re a Fahey-level reclusive genius, it’s hard to make compelling solo acoustic guitar music. I’m not really sure if I’d call this a New Age record; it’s more like a bluegrass record with some jazz and a few modern elements (like the occasional synth) thrown in. If that sounds like your kind of thing, you’ll probably enjoy it.

Windham Hill Records Sampler ‘84 (1984)

They must have pressed a ton of these samplers, because I see them all the time. This record is a pretty good encapsulation of Windham Hill at its peak. It’s dominated by pleasant, forgettable acoustic guitar and piano noodling. One of the exceptions is Mark Isham’s “On the Threshold of Liberty.” Isham is best known as a film composer, and this mostly electronic piece definitely sounds like something that would play behind a dramatic scene. I enjoyed it, but it’s not exactly something I’d be compelled to listen to a lot by itself. Shadowfax’s “Shadowdance” is some kind of mutant gamelan jazz-funk jam, and they’re the only artists on here that I’d like to investigate further. Everything else left no impression, except George Winston’s solo piano “Thanksgiving,” which unfortunately sounds a lot like the closing music from The Incredible Hulk TV show.

Alex de Grassi, Turning: Turning Back (1978)

Alex de Grassi is an acoustic guitar player. His cousin is Windham Hill co-owner William Ackerman. This is an album of him playing solo acoustic guitar. I listened to this album twice, and that’s still all I can tell you about it. I’m sorry.

Japanese New Age Records

Even though Japanese musicians seemed to really take to New Age music, not a lot of them made much of an impact outside of Japan. The only Japanese New Age artist to really break through internationally was Kitarō. (Unless you count Isao Tomita as New Age, which I definitely do not.) Crate diggers have started to champion some obscure Japanese New Age records recently, though. It’s become increasingly common to see original copies of 70s and 80s Japanese New Age obscurities like Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Green and Midori Takada’s Through the Looking Glass sell for triple digits on Discogs and eBay, and a cottage industry of small press reissues has popped up.

Kitarō, Astral Voyage (1978)

I was only vaguely familiar with Kitarō when I picked this record up. I knew he was a Japanese New Age artist, and that’s about it. After looking him up on Wikipedia, I realized he’s a pretty big deal. He won a Best New Age Album Grammy (yes, this is a thing!) and a Golden Globe for scoring Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth. This is his first album, and it’s also known as Ten Kai or Astral Trip. It seems to be regarded by Internet music nerds at large as a bit better than his later work. His discography is huge, though; it has its own Wikipedia page. This album can be rough, in a good way. There’s a lot of squelchy analog synths, live drums and percussion, nature sounds, guitar, and what sounds like a sitar. It’s a real kitchen sink kind of record. Kitarō’s trademark seems to be a lot of cheesy, stereotypically Asian scales and instruments, which is easily the most irksome thing about his music. (Apparently his later records turn the knobs way up on the Asian stereotypes.) Some tracks on this record just slay, though, like the smoldering mix of wailing synth, guitar, and drums on Side 1’s proggy closer “Fire.” Not a classic by any means, but this one has grown on me.

Yas-Kaz, Jomon-Sho (1984)

“REMARKS: ONLY ACOUSTIC. NO ELECTRIC INSTRUMENTS” reads the back of Yas-Kaz’s Jomon-Sho. I picked this up for a buck a few years ago, and since then it has amassed a small cult following that has pushed it up into the $50+ zone. Thankfully, Jomon-Sho and some of his other records have recently popped up on Spotify. Other than that, though, he doesn’t have a lot of Internet presence besides a Discogs page, a smattering of ecstatic blog posts, and an official website that hasn’t been updated since 2006. He still doesn’t even have an English Wikipedia page. From what little I can glean, he’s a drummer and percussionist who studied gamelan music. There’s a lot of gamelan influence in this album, for sure, especially the tuned percussion. There’s also nature field recordings, flutes, and ghostly vocal chants in the mix. It’s playful, relaxed, surprisingly varied, and weird as hell. There are two longer tracks: The 10 minute “Jungle Book” is one of the more ambient tracks, heavy with nature sounds, and the nearly 8 minute “Relation Between Bisons, Bananas And Rods - The Previous Night” is a gamelan slow-burner. The rest of the tracks tend towards brief ambient sketches and tribal percussive workouts. The closest reference point to this album is probably something like Jon Hassell’s Fourth World albums. If you like those, you definitely need to check this one out.