Various Artists: Microcosm: Visionary Music of Continental Europe, 1970-1986
Light in the Attic's lovingly curated collection is an excellent introduction to such a massive influence on modern music.
The genre known as “New Age” has an identity problem. In the expansive and glorious liner notes for Light in the Attic’s new release Microcosm: Visionary Music of Continental Europe, 1970-1986, the editor states that, “…at least one artist on this collection made it known that they would not take part in any project describing their music as ‘new age.'" It doesn’t end there, though. Throughout the interviews with different artists, the artists refer to their music in many different ways: cosmic, visionary, ambient, mood space music, psychedelic, mystical, world, and wellness music. For me and most, though, New Age has always been easily categorized: Light, airy music made by corny dudes that are probably wearing a beaded headband and are probably not wearing shoes. This description is not accurate, of course, and the eccentric re-issue label Light in the Attic has been leaning heavily into the genre to take away the stigma out of the term “New Age".
In their first release focused on New Age, I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age in America, 1950-1990, the label dug deep, substantially delineating the birth, growth, and demise of the genre in America. Microcosm is a companion piece, but its focus is much simpler: the best of the best from across the pond. So instead of a collection of crate digs with names we don’t know, we get to see some of the big hitters in the field. Vangelis of Chariots of Fire fame kicks it off. Later we hear Popul Vuh (the musical disciples of legendary director Werner Herzog), Ash Ra Tempel (one of the few bands that embraced the term New Age), and Roedelius (frequent Brian Eno collaborator and member of electronic band Kluster). The rest of the collection is full of names many would not know, but the quality of the music is no less.
The music in the collection fits the common descriptions; many of the tracks are long and minimal. For example, the opening track by Vangelis is ten minutes long and hangs on to notes for incredible lengths of time, starting as a single lingering note and slowly morphing into a slightly less glacial composition. There is a little variety here, though, and some tracks sound more like Steve Reich or Philip Glass (Peter Michael Hamel’s “Einklang”), while others might even look forward to IDM (Suzanne Doucet and Christian Buehner’s “Shiva’s Dance”). One through line is clear, though: all of this music is chill.
If the collection was intended as a primer, it has met its goal. Listening to the album, I did not develop any new opinions about the genre, but I did get interested in individual artists. I've searched out and delved into Roedelius’ solo work, never before realizing there was so much of it. I've placed Ah Ra in my ears as I went to sleep many nights over the last month. Furthermore, after hearing the baffling closing track “Ship Beetel”, I searched out Gigi Mason’s record Talk to the Sea, which sounds like something that would have come out in 2016, but it was recorded in 1986. This lovingly curated collection is an excellent introduction to such a massive influence on modern music. Dig in.