The 1992 New Age Grammy went to Chip Davis and his Mannheim Steamroller group. Fresh Aire 7 is a concept album about the number seven. It’s well naff.
When you take a deep dive into an unfamiliar music genre, you discover entire worlds you never knew existed. Up until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard of Mannheim Steamroller. But it turns out they’re quite a big deal. They’ve released more than 70 albums, and people seem to go nuts for them. Nine of their albums went Gold, three went Platinum, and four went multi-Platinum. What the ‘ell?!
I first met them during the 1991 Grammy Awards, when their Yellowstone album got a nomination for the New Age gong. I described that collection as “pure Disneyland”, but not necessarily new age. But in listening to it, I discovered Mannheim Steamroller’s formidable back catalogue, which I was delighted to find contained a number of Halloween albums.
Of course, I listened to the first in their Halloween series. 23 tracks, “deranged by Chip Davis”! It’s a strong contender for the strangest album I’ve ever heard. The first half contains a number of seasonally-appropriate classical compositions arranged for affordable synths. Toccata in de Mole, The Hall of the Mountain King, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Night on Bald Mountain – that sort of thing. None of them sound particularly good. It’s certainly unnerving, but not necessarily in the way they intended. It’s uncanny, like a robot humming to itself in the oil shower. But halfway through its mammoth 90 minute run-time, the album transforms into one of those Halloween sound effects records. There’s over 40 minutes of creepy ambiance that includes a long spell spent on an alien spaceship. It’s quite the tonal shift.
The album’s bizarre, and about as far away from cool as it’s possible to get – which obviously makes it an essential listen. It’s definitely going to become a staple of future Halloweens. And as we enter the festive season, I’m looking forward to listening to the group’s Christmas albums. The first two in the series went 6 x Platinum. It’s likely that there are people out there who simply couldn’t imagine Christmas without Mannheim Steamroller. Like I say – a whole world that I never knew existed.
But today, we’re focusing on Fresh Aire 7 – the seventh album in Mannheim Steamroller’s Fresh Aire series of albums, and the winner of the 1992 New Age Grammy. It’s every bit as naff as that Halloween collection, but is it any good? And more importantly, is it new age?
The 1991 Grammy Award for Best New Age Performance went to the man of the movies, Mark Isham!
Mark Isham’s just a guy who can’t say no. He’s recorded a number of superb ambient jazz albums. By 1991, two of these had already been nominated for New Age Grammy awards: 1988’s Castalia and 1990’s Tibet. But he’s mainly known for his soundtrack work.
Since 1983, he’s been involved in at least 137 soundtrack recordings. And looking at his CV, I have to wonder: Has he ever turned any work down?
He’s not just prolific. He’s a machine. And the sheer diversity of the projects he’s taken on suggests that he has no filter. He’s scored trashy action flicks (Point Break, Timecop); slick horror (Blade, The Crazies); kids’ films (Thumbelina, Duck Duck Go); a surprising number of animal adventures (Racing Stripes, Fly Away Home); and enough thrillers and dramas to fill the recent releases racks at your nearest Pick a Flick.
I haven’t seen many of the films he’s scored. And for those I have seen, I can’t really remember the music. Maybe seasoned Mark fans can detect “the Isham touch” in everything he does. But I wonder just how much of himself he puts into his film work.
When scoring a film, I suppose it makes sense to serve the scene, rather than yourself. And it seems that when Mark does add a personal touch to his soundtrack work, he has limited success. For example, his score for Waterworld was rejected for being “too ethnic and bleak”. All that remains from his contribution to the film is that haunting music box melody. The rest is all generic action film bombast.
While I wouldn’t use such adjectives myself to describe what I’ve heard of his solo work, I can understand how someone might listen to Tibet and describe it as “ethnic and bleak”. So perhaps there are two sides to Mr. Isham. The film stuff? That’s his day job. That’s bacon. But his solo work? That’s the real Mr. Isham. That’s where he bares his soul and dares you to look.
Today we’re looking at Mark’s 1990 album, Mark Isham. It’s so personal that Mark saw no alternative but to name it after himself. No worldly concepts or distant lands to hide behind here. It’s like he’s saying: This is me. Hear me. Judge me. Love me. And for this he won the 1991 Grammy Award for Best New Age Performance.
A worthy win? Or should Mark have stuck to the day job? Let’s find out!
The New Age Grammy enters the 90s. Peter Gabriel is a worthy winner. But a new age hyperstar is waiting in the wings…
Peter Gabriel’s Passion is a landmark album. It was the first album ever released on his Real World label. That means it was the first CD to have that lovely earthy rainbow spine. It was the moment WOMAD became an institution, rather than a financial disaster that could only be rescued by the power of prog. And it was very likely the first time many in the west were exposed to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N’Dour, and Baaba Maal.
It also marked the first time the Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording was won by a superstar – and I don’t mean Jesus Christ.
Peter Gabriel isn’t cool now, and he wasn’t cool then. He was and is the exact opposite of cool, and that’s what makes him so wonderful. But though he wasn’t cool in 1989, he was certainly respected. This was three years after So, which went triple platinum in the UK and five times platinum in the US. It was the same year In Your Eyes achieved immortality when it was blasted from a stereo held aloft by John Cusack in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything. And the album in question was the soundtrack to a Scorsese film about Jesus.
No question about it, Passion was an Important Album by An Artist of Note. And it won the New Age Grammy! In previous years, the award went to an eccentric harpist, a jazz veteran and a “chamber jazz” band. In 1990, it was won by an artist everyone knew, and millions loved. Did this legitamise the award, and the genre? Is this the year new age went mainstream?
If the creation of this award was a year zero for new age music, then 1990 was the year the genre came of age. If the term “new age” ever meant anything other than candles, dolphins, crystals and incense, after 1990 it could never mean anything else.
But was the album that forever cemented the idea of new age music any good? Let’s find out!
Middle Earth or Middle Age?
Poor Windham Hill Records. When the Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording was first introduced in 1987, I imagine they started clearing space on the mantelpiece. It must have felt like this new award was created just for them! After all, they were the multi-million selling new age label that may have been responsible for getting the academy to create the new category in the first place.
But despite having two separate label compilations nominated in the first awards, Windham Hill took nothing home. They had a number of horses in the race for the award’s second year, too. Alas, once more, no Grammy for Windham Hill.
Windham Hill missed out on a Grammy at the 1989 awards, too. That year, they didn’t stand a chance: Not a single release from their roster got a nomination. And to add insult to injury? The album that did win, Shadowfax’s Folksongs for a Nuclear Village, was the band’s first album not to be released on Windham Hill!
That must have stung. Many an empty beer can must have been thrown at the TV screen in the Windham Hill office when the 1989 New Age Grammy award winners were revealed.
But what of the album? Was it a worthy winner, or were Windham Hill justified in their (totally imagined by me) contempt?
Let’s find out!
The second album to win the Grammy for Best New Age Recording will certainly take you places. You might not necessarily enjoy the journey, but the destination is bliss.
The late Yusef Lateef was a worldly innovator, a boundary-breaker who never once rested on his laurels. He didn’t so much book studio time as set himself new challenges – fresh fusions to try, fresh frontiers to conquer. His body of work is an ocean of sound, and I’m still paddling in the shallows.
Up until very recently, I’d only heard one of his albums: 1957’s Before Dawn, which I acquired through Jonny Trunk’s astoundingly generous 50p Friday initiative. Trunk describes Before Dawn as “one of the greatest jazz records of all time.” And while I don’t think I’d count it among my very favourites, its irresistibly groovy progressive bop sounds are often exactly the sort of sounds I want to hear.
30 years after Before Dawn, Yusef Lateef would win the Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording for Yusef Lateef’s Little Symphony. As a band leader, it was at least his 37th album. It also seems it was the last record he ever put out.
To go straight from the warm and organic Before Dawn to the austere and paranoid Little Symphony was a bit of a shock. I can only imagine the adventures that took place between his late 50s cool and his late 80s visionary period. I’ve got a lot of listening to do!
But first, let’s munch over the mysterious odyssey that won the New Age Grammy in 1988.
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.
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?
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.
Edgar Froese died on January 20, 2015. That was the day before my birthday, so I didn’t find out until the following week.
Edgar Froese was a founding member of the German electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream. Between 1967 and 2015, he was the only constant member. In that time, the band released over 100 albums, of which I’ve only heard about nine. Though I’ve quite enjoyed each, of those nine, only one has ever truly stood out for me: 1974’s Phaedra.
Phaedra is a masterpiece. I cannot begin to describe the meanings I’ve come to attach to its unearthly sounds and its slow, sad, yawning melodies. There was a six month period about 10 years ago when I would put this album on repeat at a barely audible volume just before I went to sleep. It’s therefore safe to say that the music of Phaedra may very well have soundtracked my dreams.
To wake up to its alien soundscapes, bleary eyed and heady at four in the morning, is an indescribable experience. Phaedra sounds particularly incredible when you’re cold and lonely in the dark.
So farewell, Edgar Froese. He leaves behind an immense, timeless, and peerless body of work, but for me it’s all about Phaedra, and this track in particular:
Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares. One of the most devastating pieces of music I’ve ever heard.
If that were the sum of his work, he could still be viewed as one of the finest, most influential musicians of the past century. That this song is but the visible tip of an unfathomable, ever-shifting iceberg is really quite incredible.
A live version from 2005:
Actually, you won’t have the slightest bit of trouble believing what’s on this mysterious video I found at Glastonbury.
The problem is, nothing gets read these days that doesn’t have a shameless click-baity title. I fully acknowledge that I’m part of the problem. By way of recompense, let me take this opportunity to make you aware of a wonderful Twitter account entitled Saved You A Click. Everyday, they work tirelessly in the war against clickbait, and they deserve every ounce of your love, your support, and your fear.
I found the above three hour TDK VHS at Glastonbury.
Did I mention I went to Glastonbury? I’m not sure I did.
It was in a basket full of free stuff in the beatific depths of The Green Fields. Handwritten on the box, and repeated on the cassette itself, was the word “Babaji”. At the time, I was told that this was an affectionate Indian term for a grandfather.
I’ve finally had a chance to watch the video.
What was on it? The answer will SHOCK YOU.
Except it won’t. Why would it? You’re not so easily shocked.