Break out your meditation crystals. The New New Age is here.
Last week’s Grammy Awards weren’t a total wash. As has been mentioned before, Phoenix and Stephen Colbert both went home with awards, and—unbeknownst to me—a regional artist was honored with a nomination for best new age album.
Yawn. I know. But I’ve been on a serious new age trip lately, having taken maybe one too many opportunities to discuss how the scoffed-at genre has been given new life by a bold cadre of international cassette-hawking acts. The genres of new age and soft rock may just represent the last sacred temple of musical inspiration (aside from muzak. I shudder at the thought). Music, as with all art, is constantly devouring, digesting, and repackaging its own cultural history. In trying to keep up with the affrettando speed of modern culture, virtually all categories and subcategories of recorded music have been sampled or cribbed from. We are at a point now where the red flags that have long frightened off many artists and audiophiles (namely, new age’s inherent cheesiness, and its utter lack of ambiguity when it comes to what the desired effect on the listener is) are no longer perceived as obstacles. It will be interesting to see how what I’ve been callingthe “new new age” attempts to reconcile some of the genre’s longstanding defects, which run the gamut from an innocuous predilection for homeopathy and hippie-ish “oneness,” to far more problematic undercurrents like phony white-washed shamanism.
It would be easy to shrug off the origins of this trend as nothing more complicated than navel-gazing nostalgia, but it’s my belief that they can be traced back to a singular moment in recent music history. Specifically: the last fifteen seconds of The Field’s “A Paw in My Face” from 2007’s From Here We Go Sublime. When Swedish IDM mastermind Axel Willner lets the track’s fleeting guitar sample finally ride out, it becomes apparent that the clip derives from Lionel Richie’s dentist’s-office jam “Hello.” While it would be hard to brand Richie as a new age performer, the instrumentation of that song is indisputably slathered with soft rock cheese. Willner’s keen feat was to con his audience into grooving on something typically deemed off-limits by the hipster aficionados who shelter their tastes with buttresses of simmering condescension, only accepting the dated, the tacky, and the fairly goofy with a posture of affected irony.
Much more, including my thoughts on the aforementioned Grammy nominee, after the jump.
It was with all this in mind that I decided to check out Laserium for the Soul, the Grammy-nommed new age album by Seattle musician Henta. Admittedly, Henta is not part of the “new new age,” rather she’s one of the (original) genre’s many active performers who comfortably operate outside of most music criticism circles, in the wasteland between “indie” and “mainstream.” As such, the songs on Laserium for the Soul aren’t especially risky or mind-blowing in any way, which is fine—they aren’t trying to be. The record’s instrumental moments are its strongest, and it boasts an impressive, headphones-necessitating blend of everything from the expected verbed-out synths to xylophone melodies and damp ambient samples. There’s an obvious preference for two-word song titles (“Angelic Rays,” “Star Beams,” “Loveaby Waves,” “Sun Blessings,” “Infinite Smile,” and six more), a characteristic that I’m not entirely sure how to interpret. And while Henta’s vocals (though lovely) kind of irk me, Laserium for the Soul is actually pretty sweet at times. On the whole, it’s commendable from a technical standpoint, and the sleepy sub-bass throb of “Shadow Light” is probably going to stay with me for days.
Given that this is new age music, it’s probably unsurprising that the record can be purchased at regional spas. Also fittingly, in describing Laserium, Henta draws largely on new age’s established quasi-flower-child vernacular (much talk about “vibrations”):
“Laserium for the Soul is a concept album and was written with the pure intent of sonic nurturing and healing people through music… I feel very honoured to be part of the new energy of positive change to help make the vision of a wonderful new world become a reality.”
“It really is about peace and love,” she adds. It’s also about impeccable musicianship. One of the other defining aspects of new age/world/soft rock is an audible, perceptible talent at play—no instrument ever sounds half-assedly played, no mix is too crowded with decibels. Almost without exception, new age records sound, at least in terms of production, exactly like what they are: the product of many talented studio musicians deliberately trying to chill you the fuck out. Henta and one of her Laserium collaborators, Marcell Marias, are possessors of such abilities, and they both contributed to another Grammy-recognized release, David Miles Huber’s Colabs. Colabs was up from “Best Surround Sound Album.” Right on. Huber’s name might resonate with you, as he’s the locally based downtempo savant behind ten discs (!) of Relaxation and Meditation with Music and Nature, and has been cranking out academic-minded material for the 51bpm label for the past twelve years.
If you don’t have any spa visits planned in your near future, you can check out Laserium for the Soul on iTunes, or purchase it straight from Henta’s site.