This isn’t New Age music.
No one does expansive, mind-expanding instrumental music better than the Europeans, something that becomes immediately apparent on this latest collection by the almighty Light in the Attic, The Microcosm: Visionary Music of Continental Europe, 1970-1986. In many ways, it can be seen as a companion to the label’s 2013 boxset I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America, 1950-1990, though the truth is a little more complex than that. For one, this collection covers a mere 16-year window, roughly the distance between Krautrock and synthesizer-driven units such as Can and Tangerine Dream (neither represented here) coming onto the scene and fading from it as a new generation of players offered terser, more compact versions of what synthesizer music could be. Second, and perhaps most obvious, is that this isn’t New Age music.
Vangelis, known for his now classic theme to Chariots of Fire as well as his work with Yes vocalist Jon Anderson across LPs such as Friends of My Cairo, Private Collection and Short Stories, was probably at his best on Earth and other, earlier releases. The track featured here, “Creation Du Monde,” from 1973’s L’Apocalypse des Animaux shows why. It’s 10 minutes of slow-building, meditative musical majesty that feels minimalistic in its evolution but never grows tiresome as it moves in unexpected ways across a spectrum of contemplation and foreboding. For its emotional content, it comes closer to post rock and even – if we consider intent – mood-driven metal acts such as Mastodon.
Ash Ra Tempel’s “Le Sourire Volé” (recorded in ’75, but not released until almost 20 years later), provides the missing link between Krautrock and EDM with its combination of drones, worldly rhythms, stasis and delving inward. Popol Vuh, a group that began in 1969 and came to an end in 2001, delivers sweet sonic goodness via “Brüder des Schattens – Söhne des Lichts (abridged),” which owes as much to symphonic rock as it does early New Age and even progressive rock. Gentle, acoustic guitar and piano dominate the tune, hinting at Eastern influences before disappearing over the horizon at an all-too-brief 14 minutes. The original, which appeared on the 1978 release of the same name, is worth every second; it’s also notable for its appearance on the Nosferatu the Vampyre soundtrack.
Ash Ra, Vangelis and Popol Vuh are at least names that pop up with some regularity on American shores, though the rest of the collection hovers over more obscure choices. France’s Ariel Kalma, whose Indian classical flourishes sit nicely beside drones and splashes of minimalism on “Orguitar Soir,” will probably be a new discovery for many. So too will Dutch master Enno Velthuys, whose “Morning Glory” offers a patient exploration of new worlds and is an absolute highlight of the second platter.
Not everything here is all that weighty. Lothar Grimm and Karl Schaffner’s “Caravan” is practically a radio hit at three minutes and change. It is also decidedly commercial in comparison to the pieces it shares space with. Unlike many of the other tracks here, it’s a carefully-sculpted composition with a measured structure one can follow with ease. Deuter’s “Spirales” will give listeners plenty of chills with its horror-cum-sci-fi soundtrack vibe while Gigi Masin’s “Ship Beetel” serves as the perfect introductory study course for Roots of EDM/White Key New Age 101.
Detailed liner notes should provide listeners with plenty to round out the journey with, though digging deeper into the discographies of performers such as Ralph Lundsten and Robert Julian Horky could be the most fun of all. If this compilation is intended as a way for Light in The Attic to roll out more of these kinds of releases, then it should be a welcome campaign once it arrives.
Certainly with the arrival of a new wave of electronic-based acts and a rising tide of darkwave and retro synth music coming, the timing of a compilation such as this couldn’t be more perfect. You’ll probably want to snatch up the aforementioned I Am the Center to round out your education as together they will serve as an ideal reference point for all this modern synth business finding its way into our record collections over the next couple of years.