Enya is My Shepherd

Enya Shepherd Moons

The battle for the 1993 New Age Grammy was a real clash of the titans. Only New Age heavyweights need apply.

IN THE RED CORNER: Looking to SAIL AWAY with a well-earned gong, it’s the Celtic banríon; the queen of our hearts, our minds, and our souls. It’s ENYA.

IN THE BLUE CORNER: He’s Masanori Takahashi to his parents. But to you and I, he’s the man of love and joy himself, he’s KITARO.

IN THE GREEN CORNER: You swooned to their Folksongs For A Nuclear Village. Tonight they canter to conquer. It’s SHADOWFAX.

IN THE YELLOW CORNER: They dream in orange. They dream in German. Tonight, they dream of victory. You’ve had this dream before. It’s the mighty TANGERINE DREAM.

IN THE MAUVE CORNER (for this battle’s taking place in a pentagonal ring): Is he finally ready to burst forth from his Chryssomallis? It’s YANNI, ya’know?

Picture those five New Age prizefighters, primed by their New Age coaches in their colourful corners. A beaming woman walks into the centre of the five-sided ring, holding a sign aloft. On the sign is a number. The number is one. She’s followed by a grizzled salt-and-pepper ex-sailor in a striped shirt. He turns to each corner in turn, making eye contact with every contender, gruffly demanding a good, clean fight. A bell rings. Our five peaceful fighters rush into the middle. Five potent powderkegs holding five flaming matches. When they meet in the middle, the universe swallows its tongue.

Enya won. A deserved win? We’ll see.

Enya New Age Grammy

Yes, the 1993 New Age Grammy went to Enya for her Shepherd Moons album. This album and I have a history. Revisit my new age mission statement. At the top, an image of the Shepherd Moons CD sharing a white plastic carrier bag with a few boxes of incense. Visiting Bolton, I bought some incense, and I borrowed my dad’s copy of Shepherd Moons. I felt ridiculous at the time. It was the start of a journey. A journey that’s ongoing. And I still feel ridiculous.

A few years ago, a friend of mine got married and made me his best man. I had to organise his stag do. I rented a room at our local independent cinema for a screening of Mad Max: Fury Road. Because the option was there, and because I wanted to make things that little bit more special, I went for the Black and Chrome edition. It’s exactly the same film, but in stark black and white. We later agreed that monochrome didn’t necessarily add anything to the film, but it didn’t necessarily take anything away either.

When booking this room, I was allowed to choose an image to project on the screen before the film started, and some music too. Instantly, I thought of MENYA.

Menya is an idea we’ve talked about a few times. It’s our all-male a capella tribute to the music of Enya. Imagine the majesty of Orinoco Flow arranged for a five-strong choir of deep, untrained male voices. The power, the glory, the beards. That tingling you’re feeling is a shiver running down your spine. We’d own any room we perform in – just as soon as they stop laughing at us.

So when asked for music to play before the stag do screening of Fury Road, as a tribute to our tribute to Enya, I chose the Shepherd Moons album. “Why Enya?” said my box-office buddy when I showed up to claim the room. Because of Menya, I said. And because she’s amazing.

And for the image to project before the film started? Because the film was to be in black and white, I went for a black and white picture too. I chose a tasteful monochrome photo of the stag, a rare picture in which he’s grinning directly into the camera.

Well, it didn’t quite work out like I imagined. The darkened room, the poignant black and white image apparently from a happier time, and the elegiac music of Enya – I’d inadvertently forced our stag to witness his own wake.

When I listen to Shepherd Moons today, my first thought is of that darkened room full of slightly-embarrassed men drinking glow-in-the-dark drinks. It makes me miss my friends, but it’s not a bad memory. And besides, Enya’s voice is like a deep mug of high quality hot chocolate. It soothes the loneliness, and reminds me that this too shall pass. This is music from another time, torch songs ritualistically performed to keep the embers dry and glowing through the storm. Happiness will come again.

Like most Enya albums, it opens with an understated, almost wordless piano miracle. Perhaps it’s redundant to use the word “understated” to describe an individual Enya song. Most of her music’s understated. It’s like talking about  a heavy or aggressive Napalm Death song. But any Enya song that’s not centred around her vocals is bound to be particularly understated.

The opening title track to Shepherd Moons casts a spell. It immediately evokes a world of its own, stretching out an inviting hand and saying, come on in, the water’s lovely. And there is something aquatic about this arrangement. Gentle ripples illuminated by moonlight, emanating from an almost stationary rowboat. You’re lying on a rug, watching the stars. Give it your full attention and it could dispel whatever it is that’s making you feel so bad. Those heart-stopping piano chords stop time too. It’s just you and Enya now. And the stars, and the moon.

There are a couple of other wordless solo piano pieces on Shepherd Moons. They’re peaceful interludes on an album that’s already so peaceful it’s almost static. Much of the rest of the songs have a hymnal quality. Enya’s pristine vocals are pushed to the forefront, backed by an ethereal choir of up to 500 multitracked angelic Enyas. These songs do little to draw attention to themselves. They’re happy to just be – stirring, devotional, essential. But Enya’s voice is so astounding that these gentle, subtle arrangements can’t help but fill the room. And I should know – I had them played at an overwhelming volume in that accidentally-funereal cinema.

But it’s not all quiet hymns and devastating pianos. There are three outstanding tracks. I call them “outstanding” not because they’re any better than the rest, but because they’re so different that they stand apart.

The first is Caribbean Blue, which happened to be the first single. You might know this one! It’s not nearly as ubiquitous as the immortal Orinoco Flow, but I think it’s one of those melodies that’s taken root in millions of minds. It’s the sort of song where, when you hear it, you’re likely to say “oh this song!” Percolating synths, almost operatic vocals – it’s funny to think this album sold over 10 million copies. This is pretty strange music. These aren’t standard arrangements, and this isn’t standard songwriting. Do people still demand surreal dreams in their millions? I hope so.

Ebudae is the shortest song on the album, and there’s something slightly off about this arrangement. It’s like some element of it’s been slowed down, or reversed. This is an otherworldly reel – a folk dance of a forgotten people. I’m reminded of John Martyn’s woozy jams on Inside Out, or Ursula K. Le Guin and Todd Barton’s music for imagined cultures.

Whereas most songs on the album evoke autumnal groves, moonlit bodies of water or shadowy hallways, Book of Days is pure new age fantasy escapism. This is music for riding a dragon, or a huge furry bear-dog hybrid, over a forest and into the stars. Chugging strings, sleigh-bells, and even castanets – when Enya goes cosmic, she’s taking everyone with her!

Who else sounds like this? You could say the music of Enya is like a beatless and even more beatific Cocteau Twins. Or you could say it’s like a more low-key Clannad. But really, the only thing to which you can compare an Enya album is another Enya album. She’s in a class of her own – a world of her own. And Shepherd Moons is her finest album. In that it’s one of the most remarkable recordings ever to sell millions on both sides of the Atlantic, I think we can safely say that Shepherd Moons deserved that New Age Grammy.

Other Nominations For the 1993 New Age Grammy

The first time Kitarō got nominated for a New Age Grammy, it was for a single serene yet desolate composition. 1993 was the second year he got nominated for an album, and the third of around 15 nominations in total. He’s a giant of the New Age world. Get used to that name, that face, and that sound! And that hair. Kitarō once had to cancel a leg of an Asian tour because his hair was of an illegal length.

Dream is an album that combines two of my biggest obsessions. This is where New Age music meets the world of ULTRAPROG – Jon Anderson of Yes sings on three of the songs! Apart from a few outstanding bombastic moments, this is largely slow-motion orchestral cinematic music. It’s soothing, but weighty. The dream it soundtracks must be the sort of dream that bothers you for days with its sorrowful insights.

When Jon Anderson shows up, yep, it sounds like Yes. But slow Yes. Thoughtful Yes. Yes are their most introspective and restrained – more And You And I than Gates of Delirium. 

There’s so much to love about this album. It’s full of surprises – like when the sad carnival waltz of Lady of Dreams suddenly transforms into a melodramatic Bond theme, before soaring with the sort of guitar solo best played topless while straddling a waterfall. It’s power prog, music for a New Age that’s full of sparkling caverns, blazing dragons and mysterious castles. It didn’t stand a chance of winning the New Age Grammy – because nothing compares to Shepherd Moons. But don’t feel too bad for Kitarō. In 1993, he missed out on a Grammy, but he did get a Golden Globe for his Heaven & Earth soundtrack.

Shadowfax won the 1989 New Age Grammy for their Folk Songs for a Nuclear Village album. I wasn’t too impressed with that one. It wasn’t bad, it just sounded a bit too safe. Where much of the New Age music I’ve heard has stirred something deep down, this just sounded inoffensive; painstakingly designed to make as little an impression as possible.

The group’s 1992 album, Esperanto, was nominated for the 1993 New Age Grammy. On paper, it’s a similar album to Folksongs… Analogue and digital horns spiral over bubbling polyrhythms composed of a kitchen sink of global percussion instruments. But gone is the flat and bland production. These songs are full of life, colour, and depth.

Folksongs… sounded like a cheap facsimile of exotica. Esperanto feels closer to the real deal. The rich production gives these tight yet sprawling arrangements room to breathe. Yes, a few arrangements still sound like the demo songs from early 90s Yamaha keyboards. And yes, the vibrant opening and closing tracks are weighed down by a long succession of slower tracks in the middle. But on the whole, it no longer feels like a middle aged package tour of safe and pre-approved climes. It’s more adventurous, more soulful, and it’s definitely a trip I’ll take again.

I consider Tangerine Dream to be one of my favourite bands, but I barely know them. I’ve spent so much time with their Virgin albums that I’m now more Phaedra than man. Cut me and I bleed Rubycon. But beyond that I’m lost. They’ve released hundreds of albums, soundtracks, live recordings, re-recordings, and who knows what else.

And they’ve now become a Trigger’s Brush of bands, ploughing on despite not having a single founding member in their ranks. It’s probably fair to say that not even the longest-serving member of Tangerine Dream could tell you quite how many albums have been released under that name.

Apart from the name on the cover, what makes a Tangerine Dream album a Tangerine Dream album? It’s not the sounds, as 1970s Electronic Meditation is as sonically different to, say, 1981’s Thief as A is to B. And it’s not the musicians. The band were formed in 1967, which is 10 years before their oldest current member was even born. For years, they haven’t been a band in the traditional sense of things. They’re more of an idea, or a state of mind. But just what that idea or state of mind is, I’ve no idea.

Rockoon, their 44th album, was nominated for the 1993 New Age Grammy. It’s a fine collection of robotic spy themes, perfect for your purposeful march through the rainy streets of FutureCity. The synths all sound digital, and some of the melodies sound vaguely Eastern. Occasionally an electric guitar keens over the metallic arrangements like an operatic cyborg. It’s proto-vaporwave. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s very Beyond The Mind’s EyeI wouldn’t call this New Age music, unless you class any music that evokes another world as “New Age”. But I would certainly place this in my top 30 Tangerine Dream albums.

Yanni has a magnificent moustache and a couple of New Age Grammy nominations under his belt. Alas, no wins. But he has had at least 16 albums top of the Billboard New Age chart. He’s every bit a New Age heavyweight as Enya, Shadowfax, Kitarō and Tangerine Dream. This year’s fight was fought on equal footing. Considering the strength of the winning album, no other contender really stood a chance. But that’s not to say they didn’t give their best.

Dare to Dreamthough, is definitely the weakest offering of all the albums nominated for the 1993 New Age Grammy. Don’t get me wrong. It’s very, very good. But as with that sensitive viking David Arkenstone, this is probably how people who hate New Age music imagine New Age music sounding. Emotional piano sailing on a sea of tasteful synthetic orchestral music, with some vaguely ethnic-sounding drums and strings.

I like it a lot. But I can’t deny that a lot of it sounds like the sort of no-thrills music that used to serenade the aisles of Kwik Save. To The One Who Knows, though. Wow. What a song. One of those that makes everything seem fine for as long as it’s playing.

Also, there’s the utterly jubilant Aria, which apparently soundtracked an award-winning British Airwaves advert. According to this archived interview, the track’s the result of a collaboration with Malcolm McLaren. The interview also contains these touching words from Yanni:

“People always criticize me for being optimistic. But I think that being optimistic is a strength. OK, we’re going through tough times in the world now. But the world has always gone through tough times–in every generation. There’s always something.

“And I just believe that human beings with vision and strength–which is something we all have, somewhere–can always make things happen, can always make things change for the better.”

This too shall pass. Thanks Yanni.

NEXT TIME ON NAGCHAMPA: Paul Winter! Clannad! More Yanni! More Tangerine Dream!

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