For a person who has been writing about music for well over a decade and penning critiques of everything from experimental no-wave efforts to Top 40 pop fluff, it’s rare when I get to describe an album as “unlike anything I’ve ever heard before”.
It’s not that Chicago-based Angel Marcloid’s Fire-Toolz project is necessarily breaking any genres in twain so much as she’s deliberately obfuscating them in the most obvious and fascinating way. Skinless X-1, her debut LP full-length (after several cassette releases), is rife with tracks that veer wildly from one from of electronica into the next, as if she put PC Music, Washed Out, the Thompson Twins, Lita Ford, and Dan Bejar’s Destroyer project all in a blender and hit “frappe”. The genre jumping is as exciting as it is immediate, but oh so frequently, Marcloid adds in some emo-metal screams lightly in the background, frustrating what could’ve been your secret playlist jam of the year. It is a record that has frustrated me to the point of wanting to give up on it, but instead I keep coming back, wondering why Marcloid did what she did and dirtied up her sound so deliberately, so gloriously inhumanely.
So while Skinless X-1 is assuredly an album like no other to come out in 2018, a part of me was wondering if there’s any way Marcloid could tip her hand and show us her inner musical workings. Fave Five is a piece where an artist can pick their favorite five albums of any topic (all-time, best Keith Richards guitar licks, best soundtracks, whatever), and to my personal delight, she decided to go with Her Top Five New Age Jazz Records She’s Discovered Recently.
“I’ve recently been in hunting mode when it comes to the new age jazz of ’80s and ’90s,” she tells us. “For any given month in the last year or two, I’ve probably immersed myself in another 50 digitized and uploaded albums in scouring the internet. So I sorted my iTunes folder by the date I added the files, and came up with my absolute favorite finds from the month of August.”
1. Philippe Saisse – Storyteller (Philips, 1991)
Oh my god, this record is exceptional. For a few months now I’ve been overplaying his record Valerian from ’88, which is only better than this one by a few fretless bass solos. I grabbed this one earlier this month and have been jamming it ever since. It’s absolutely new age/world music, but the jazz fusion element is really strong here. It’s lively and dynamic, with lots of movements and moods. In that way it actually reminds me a bit of Yanni, although Philippe’s music in this era rarely sounded orchestral.
One of my favorite musicians, a bassist named Mark Egan (Elements, Pat Metheny), plays all over this record. It’s also got the incredibly talented flute player Dave Valentin, as well as Hiram Bullock on guitar and Omar Hakim on drums. All four of them have been all over a number of other favorite records of mine. This is high quality new age electronic jazz. Richly composed, perfect for an adventure around the world. It’s drenched in moody pads, ethereal voice samples, chorused-out pianos, “tribal” percussion, and emotive chord progressions that relentlessly yet tastefully change keys. (You know how jazz is.) It’s quite a production, too. Very hi-fi. Listen with headphones!
2. Hawk on Flight – Bermuda Triangle (Public Road, 1989)
Note: the American release of this Swedish record was called Moonroom (Heads Up, 1990). Hawk On Flight features Matz Nilsson, who I thought was a guitarist for the longest time. He’s the bassist. And this came out in 1989 so of course the bass doesn’t have frets. In the late ’70s/’80s a lot of Nilsson’s music sounded like the Steely Dan records that weren’t played on the radio. Maybe I prefer his late ’80s/early ’90s material because he started to filter out the blues a little bit more, as did many jazz fusion artists earlier in the decade. No offense to the blues or Steely Dan — they rule — but I’m really just trying to listen to the kind of music my parents hated. I think they hated the saxophone.
My favorite track here is the opening track “Bermuda Triangle”. The keys in the beginning are awesome, and the melody is just so undeniably happy and uplifting. And in checking that my info on this album was correct, I saw a YouTube comment from someone saying the same thing about that track. Even if you think it’s corny as hell, it’ll make you feel good inside. Warning: a little smooth jazz scatting is imminent. But you gotta understand: scatting isn’t just scoppity poop boppity boop all the time. In a lot of the jazz I listen to, it’s more subtle and often blended with another instrument playing the same melody. It’s extraordinarily tasteful.
3. Cliff Sarde – Waiting (MCA, 1986)
I thought Cliff wasn’t a very active artist because his discography has a lot of gaps, and this album took forever to find on the internet. Turns out he’s just busy winning Emmys for soundtracks and theme songs. This album is painfully cookie-cutter sax-led groovy smooth jazz rock/pop of the ’80s, drenched in classic ’80s keyboards & drum machines. Hints of funk and new wave galore. The sax lines are simple and catchy, and could easy sung as pop vocals. A few guitar solos, some vocals, but mostly sexy sax on the go. LOL, this description doesn’t make you wanna listen very much, does it? Well, jokes on you because I love this kinda shit. If anything, you should work out to it. Or ride the hotel elevator up and down in sunglasses!
4. Clifford White – The LifeSpring (Start Records, 1989)
Ah, another Cliff. Lots of great vibes on this diverse new age record. Tracks like “Rain Trek” and “LifeStream” have some poignant electronic beats that give things a little bit of a disco, new wave, or funk feel. But then “Plateau” is a straight up ambient/drone number, and “Shimmering Gold” is a synth/sax duo piece with a loose meter and lots of sparkly stuff. Standout track: “Hym-Halaya”. Why? Because it starts out with my favorite classic keyboard preset sound, the M1’s “Pan Mallet.” Then the only thing that makes sense happens… the sax comes in and hypnotizes you by the fireplace.
I know nothing about this artist at all. I don’t even recognize any of the names of the people who played on the record. Let me look him up. Oh, it seems he released something on New World Cassettes in 1985 under the moniker “Karma.” Cool! That label is legendary. It was started by a psychologist who wanted to release uplifting, positive music for relaxation and healing and there’s a lot of great stuff on it. Pretty sure the label was operated from a farm somewhere in the hills of the United Kingdom.
5. Tim Story – Glass Green (Polydor, 1987)
I’ve been a Tim Story fan since I first heard his collaboration with Dwight Ashley on Windham Hill records five or six years ago, yet I just got around to this one. Tim is a modern classical composer, but you’ll find his records filed under ambient, new age, jazz, and easy listening. It’s hard to talk about this album specifically, as most of my compliments about it apply to his other albums. Some may consider this background music, but it’s strong emotional quality and emphasis on subtlety so effective that it’s actually powerful enough to distract you from whatever activity you’re putting the music to. Is that a thing? Where the subtlety is so perfect that you can’t help getting sucked into it? Tim isn’t afraid of synths on this piano heavy album.
But it doesn’t sound like a 1987 record. Much of Tim’s material isn’t indicative of the time it was produced. He seems to bypass all that stuff. I’m sure he used cool synths like the Korg Wavestation or the Roland D50 just like everyone else at the time, but these patches aren’t the ones you’d knee-jerk associate with the ’80s. You deserve to take 47 minutes of alone time to lay in the grass, or on your floor, and just listen intently. Yes, it sounds like simple soundtrack music. But it’s no surprise because many of Story’s releases are soundtracks. That’s how you know he has a gift for captivating. You won’t be able to help dreaming your own film while listening, but it will be a minimal, silent film. Slow. Hazy but vivid. A little dark, but still friendly like a blanket, or like the sky in the morning before sunrise. Nothing fancy or flashy. Music like poetic and profound, moderately-paced sentences spoken softly into your ear. Noticing the spaces between the words as you watch something you know is graceful and elegant but your vision is too blurry to make it out.
So, you relax the few muscles you were using to keep your eyes open, and you let yourself drift off to sleep. (Sorry to ruin the mood here, but I wanted to add that you’re not going to sleep because the music is boring by any means. It’s totally not, it’s really quite good.)