Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Album Review: 'I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America, 1950-1990'

I was in my late teens before I realized that if I really wanted to enjoy music, I'd have to stop imposing my will and just let it speak for itself. Essentially, I was stuck in a cycle of buying mediocre punk records because they sounded like great records that I knew I liked. Of course there is some logic to the idea; after all, it’s a pretty safe bet that if you like one punk record you’ll like others, but I wasn't feeling incredibly inspired by the lower reaches of Epitaph's catalog. So like most audiophiles, I decided that to get what I want, namely a fresh perspective, I needed to open my mind a little and meet each new genre/artist/work half-way.

Laraaji Photo Credit: Liam Ricketts
This can be a tall order when dealing with a genre like new age music, whose yuppie pandering and re-appropriation of cultural/spiritual precepts for profit left much of the musical community with a sour taste after it’s apex in the 90’s. However, the new comp from Light In The Attic Records, ‘I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America 1950 -1990’ is more than worth the effort it takes to set aside all of that. Composed of 20 tracks culled from DIY releases outside of the big business sound that “devolved into the spaced out elevator music we know and loathe today”, the scope of this anthology is massive. From meandering synths and natural sounds, to delicate piano pieces, to gongs and pulsing drone, there’s a little bit of everything here. 

However, one of the record's most redeeming qualities is not what it has, but what it lacks. Given the emphasis on private issues and the label’s insistence that you “forget everything you know, or think you know, about new age”, you might expect  ‘I Am The Center’ to be an incredibly pretentious affair--emphasizing fringe musicianship at the expense of quality. Luckily, that’s not the case. For one thing, while some of these artists are obscure (e.g. Alice Damon), others like Laraaji, who was ‘discovered’ by Brian Eno, are well-respected big names. Even the album artwork's unapologetic use of mythical aesthetic (complete with fantastic mountains, glowing orbs, and winged creatures) make it clear that this is a celebration, and not a reaction.

With the path clear, and the mood set, I was free to indulge in the more than 2 hours of loving crafted material presented here. I’ll admit I was a little apprehensive when I first pushed play, but at the end I was actually a little shocked by how familiar it sounded. Clear standouts including “Unicorns in Paradise (excerpt)” by Laraaji (below), “Om Mani Padme Hum” by Constance Demby, “Pompeii, 76 A.D.” by Gail Laughton (which was featured on the Blade Runner soundtrack), and “Glide V” by Peter Davidson showcase the undeniable influence that new age pioneers have had on modern experimental and ambient music. In fact, having owned the record for less than 48 hours I’ve already spent time looking for more from several of the artists. In this way, ‘I Am The Center’ is more than a good comp, it’s a gateway through the nonsense to the core of new age for those brave enough to make the journey.

You can pick up 'I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America 1950-1990' at Sonic Boom in Ballard, or direct from Light In The Attic here. It's available in all formats including clear vinyl.  

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