A document of the missing link between indie rock and new age.
Emily A. Sprague, the smiling, bespectacled avatar of the indie rock band Florist, quietly dropped two of the best recent new age albums. It makes more sense than you’d think. Florist belongs to a latter-day tide of indie rock acts—many led by queer artists, non-men and artists of color—who reject trendy darkness because god knows there’s enough darkness in the world as it is, focus on the ways they keep themselves (and we can keep ourselves) happy and strong and preach positivity while writing candidly about the pain that leads us to seek peace. That was the theme of Florist’s If Blue Could Be Happiness, written after Sprague was partially paralyzed in a traffic accident and turned to accruing an impressive modular synth setup while unable to play guitar. An artist like Sprague is the perfect candidate to make music like this, aware of the utility of new age as a tool to help achieve balance and mindfulness while socially conscious enough to steer away from the dangerous pseudoscience and phony ethnography that have defined the genre for so much of its ignominious lifetime.
Water Memory (2017) and Mount Vision (2018), both freshly reissued, are largely based around Sprague’s exhaustive synth setup. The former is misty and ominous, the sound of lights half-glimpsed on the other bank of a lake, radiating a quiet intensity that suggests staring into the fog and feeling something staring back at you. Like the best ambient music, it’s peaceful but frightening, affirming the vastness of the universe but leaving it up to you whether to find fear or comfort in that fact. Of the two albums, it more completely inhabits a world. “Water Memory 1” is in the vein of ambient tracks like Biosphere’s “Nook and Cranny” or Mika Vainio’s “Viher (Green-Cellular)” that use low tones such as foghorns to suggest a world shrouded in mist. If “1” evokes the inherent grace and dignity of water, “Water Memory 2” suggests the ways humans can act on it, its aquatic blats suggesting the rush of water through a pump or an aqueduct. Water Memory would be pretty much perfect if not for “A Lake,” which occupies the first 13 minutes on the album but isn’t terribly interesting texturally.
Mount Vision is less unified but more interesting, a collection of miniatures mostly named after the instruments on which they’re played, with “Huckleberry” an excursion into the kind of modular abstraction Suzanne Ciani made her métier before hoovering up New Age Grammys in middle age. “Synth 1” and “Synth 2” are neurodrone par excellence, the sound design and stereo spacing suggesting a throbbing beam of light straight through the center of the listener’s head; they’re not terribly far removed from what we find on Laraaji’s Connecting with the Inner Healer through Music. The “Piano” tracks are placid but seem to fall apart in real time as great spaces open up between the notes. Mount Vision more explicitly leans into new age aesthetics, its cover suggesting a hundred thousand healing-shop tapes, but it’s wise to use the physical impact of these sounds to suggest peace and enlightenment rather than the ethnic cues—panflutes, sitars, tablas—that suggest an odious colonial dream of more spiritually connected Third World peoples who lie in wait in misty mountains for us to seek their wisdom.
The ‘10s, more than any other decade, got positivity right. Here was a decade where popular art began seriously engaging with anxiety and trauma, where self-care became a mantra, where millennials rejected the life-ain’t-fair-kid attitude of the 20th century and focused on living the best life possible. One of the most delightful byproducts of this trend so far is the reevaluation of new age music, which started in earnest with Light in the Attic’s 2013 I Am the Center compilation. With its glossy cover art of angels and mountains, I Am the Center told us that, yes, new age could be cheesy, but it could also be glorious and, most importantly, that a new generation with a spiritually and politically enlightened attitude could improve on its flaws. Artists like M. Geddes Gengras, Matthewdavid, Jonny Nash and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith—often working in tandem with older artists like Suzanne Ciani, Ariel Kalma, Laraaji and Gigi Masin—have produced some of the genre’s best work ever. The reissues of Water Memory and Mount Vision are worth picking up not only as a document of the missing link between indie rock and new age in the ‘10s, but as a document of what the latter can do at its best.