Andreas Vollenweider’s Moonage Daydream

Andreas Vollenweider Down to the Moon

The winner of the inaugural Grammy for Best New Age Recording is a slap bass neon fairytale, with bells.

In an attempt to better understand what makes New Age Music New Age Music, I’m going to study ever album that ever won the Grammy Award for Best New Age Album.

I’m calling this project the New Age Grammy Challenge: Healing Assessments of Musicians Perceived as Awful, or NAGCHAMPA for short.

Or maybe I’ll just refer to it as my New Age Grammy Challenge Thing.

The Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording was introduced in 1987. The first ever award went to Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider for his 1986 album Down to the Moon. It’s a totally tropical deep dive into a muggy fairy realm. It’s the only album I can think of that could soundtrack both a magical fantasy adventure and a gritty ’80s cop drama. It sounds otherworldly, but it also sounds like pastel shirts in a neon mall.

If all the winners are this interesting, this is going to be a very fun challenge indeed.

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My New Age Mission Statement

New Age Enya

I have 59.2 hours of New Age music in my library.

All the usual suspects are there. Enya. Laraaji. Iasos. Constance Demby. I’ve got a lot of more obscure stuff too, plus a few compilations. Among those is Light in the Attic’s astounding I Am The Center collection, which I hold responsible for getting me into this New Age thing in the first place.

Some of this music is self-consciously New Age music – as in, the artist themselves said “this is New Age music!” Some of it is music that I myself have labelled as New Age. You might disagree with some of my labelling.

Some of this music was specifically recorded to aid meditation or to soundtrack rituals. I’ve got some excellent recordings of Tibetan singing bowls, for example. Some of this music was created for specific occasions or spaces. But some of it is simply ambient music with a worldly, spiritual or “ethnic” feel to it.

And yet, it all sounds like New Age music to me. But what makes New Age music New Age? What separates New Age music from, say, ambient music? Or “world music”? What sets it apart as a genre in itself?

It’s not just that it’s blissfully naff. So what else could it be?

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Ultraprog!

Ultraprog Wizard

Can I shock you? I love prog rock.

This much-maligned genre delivers songs like symphonies and albums like Chinese puzzle boxes. Structures to get lost in and lyrics you can chew on. It’s colourful, expansive, visionary, and oh so beautifully naff.

Today I’d like to talk about a concept that I call Ultraprog. This is where a prog rock song just pushes itself that little bit further. Intensity builds. Maybe the tempo increases, or the band introduces a particularly fiddly riff. Things go interstellar – heavenly, or hellish. It’s one of those things that you just know when you hear it.

To better explain what I mean by ULTRAPROG, I’m going to show rather than tell. Here are a number of examples of moments in songs where things jump from prog to Ultraprog.

Please note: There will be no examples of Ultraprog moments from Tool, Yes, or Emerson Lake and Palmer. This is because these three bands seem to exist in a state of perpetual Ultraprog. It’s all they know. You can’t really take things higher or further when your starting point is so intense already!

So light some incense, pour yourself some green tea, and come along and Ultraprog with me.

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The Wooden Whale, and Other White Whales

Wooden Whale 1

“And this is what ye have shipped for, men! To chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.”

I recently wrote about my long-term hunt for a green man incense burner.

In writing this, I Got To Thinking about certain other white whales I’ve pursued over the years.

Urban Dictionary defines a white whale as “something you obsess over to the point that it nearly or completely destroys you.”

Now, I wasn’t exactly obsesses with any of these things. They’re just things I was “on the lookout for” for much longer than was perhaps reasonable. I caught some of these white whales. But some are still out there, waiting to be found.

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Meet John, the Excitable Ent

Ent 2

For some years now I’ve been looking for a green man incense burner.

I saw one for sale once in that shop that sells everything in Liverpool’s Albert Dock. You know the one.

It was a beaut. It had a long root-lined tray to collect the ashes. The green man himself was a large tree stump with a face. You put the incense stick in his mouth, so it looked like he was smoking.

I didn’t buy that beaut. I saw something similar in a new age shop that existed for a short while in Belper. I didn’t buy that one either. And since then a green man incense burner has been my “white whale”. The monomaniacal hunt’s been on.

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