As we round into the most stressful week of the most stressful year in recent memory, we need frequent immersions into the transcendent sonic world of Terry Riley, the greatest living American composer/improviser… if I may be so bold (and I may).
Now, the great thing about this master of minimalism and mesmerism is that you can dip into almost any record in his discography and find succor. I’m partial to anything Riley’s done from the ’60s to the ’80s. And that’s where Shri Camel falls. Commissioned by West Germany’s Radio Bremen in 1975, Riley started composing it that year and performed an early version of Shri Camel in Bremen the following year. In 1977, Riley cut a different iteration of the work, dividing it into four suites at a San Francisco studio. For some reason, CBS didn’t issue the recording until 1980. Better late than never, he understated.
Using a modified Yamaha YC-45D combo organ tuned in just intonation and augmented with digital delay, Riley applied lessons learned from Indian raga guru Pandit Pran Nath, especially regarding “singing in search of swara, or ‘the knowledge of profound pitch relationships which reigns supreme,’” as Hugh Gardner put it in the liner notes. Suffice it to say, Riley synthesized Nath’s ancient wisdom with modern technology and his own spontaneous creativity to summon a zoner for the (s)ages.
Seemingly sputtering out of a golden spigot in the holiest temple, album-opener “Anthem Of The Trinity” is a fanfare for a benevolent god who only wants you to feel buoyant, warm, and loved for eternity. Throughout most of Shri Camel, Riley dazzles up a momentous motif—a bass-y three-chord figure (da da DAAA)—that sounds as if it could be a sperm whale’s mating call. The track ebbs and flows from elation to sternness, with moments of warped turbulence. “Celestial Valley” unspools more introverted fractals of organ drones, spiraling inward to massage all of your chakras. At times, Riley’s organ swells to revelatory dimensions (no double entendre, sorry), generating flurries of vamps geared to excite and exalt your every atom. You wonder how much pleasure your head can endure under such an onslaught of heavenliness.
Obviously, there’s no way to maintain that level of highness, so Riley downshifts on “Across The Lake Of The Ancient Word” into a more somber feel, like the entrance music for the funeral of a benevolent cult leader. Riley embroiders that aforementioned bass-y three-chord motif with frantic bubbles of keyboard spume. It feels like you’re floating in an ocean of champagne. “Desert Of Ice” starts where “Ancient Word” left off, and then intensifies and embellishes it. Riley appears to be playing a vibraphone made out of said ice with an elegant swiftness that seems supra-human, à la Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano works. The bass-y three-chord pattern’s urgency keeps surging into the increasingly ebullient organ carbonation, and Riley begins to improvise variations on the spacey theme, with every tonality contoured to levitate you light years from earthbound reality. This is how you close an album. Bow down to the master of aural transcendence. -Buckley Mayfield
Inside is a classic chillout album hiding in plain sight in nearly every bargain bin in America. Recorded in 1968 inside the Taj Mahal while flautist Paul Horn was traveling with the Beatles (nice work if you can get it), Inside sold over a million copies—and it seems as if most of those ended up getting sold back to shops. Idiots…
Regarded as one of the first recordings to combine New Age and world-fusion music, the record is distinguished by its 28-second sustained echo, which lends everything a spaced-out, cavernous feeling that’s supremely calming. You like calm, yeah?
“Prologue/Inside” begins with album with sacred chants before the main flute motif enters, an enchanting filigree that the underground hip-hop collective So-Called Artists sampled for their track “I Don’t Know How To Start This.” (It sounds amazing in that context, too.) “Mantra I/Meditation” combines male chants and tranquil flute figures that gently waft into amorphous formations to evoke profound contemplation and serene isolation. This is music to play when you need to decompress and focus on the essentials in your life—like achieving inner peace, aligning your chakras, or organizing your record collection.
“Agra” was sampled by both Prefuse 73 (“Afternoon Love-In”) and Mr Scruff (“Jazz Potato”)—not a bad feat for a forlorn hymn of ethereal poignancy. “Shah Jahan” is an ideal soundtrack to a gentle massage, as Horn transforms the flute into a conduit to the deepest reservoirs of tabula rasa mind state. He saves his most complex piece, “Ustad Isa/Mantra III,” for last, but it’s still a slow-motion floating dream of a composition that freezes time’s frenetic forward motion to a golden stasis.
In sum, Inside is like a long, easy sigh that you dread to hear end. That it came out on a major label shows you how open-minded big corporations were 50 years ago. Either that or the execs were on much stronger drugs… -Buckley Mayfield
All it takes is about 10 seconds of a Woo song to understand that you’re in the presence of utterly distinctive artists who appear to operate in cloistered, idyllic settings, far from the usual circumstances of music-making. British brothers Clive and Mark Ives use electronics and percussion and guitars, clarinet, and bass, respectively, to create music that eludes easy categorization. They touch on many styles, including chamber jazz, ambient, dub, prog-folk, exotica, twisted yacht rock, Young Marble Giants-like post-punk, and winsome miniatures not a million miles from Eno’s instrumentals on Another Green World.
Listening to their releases, you sense that the Iveses are totally unconcerned about music-biz trapping; neither fame nor fortune seems to enter their minds. They simply want to lay down these genuinely idiosyncratic tunes that work best in your headphones/earbuds while you’re alone in nature. That’s an all-too-rare phenomenon.
Recorded from 1975 to 1982 in London, Awaawaa only recently gained wider recognition, thanks to a 2016 reissue by the Palto Flats label. Its 16 instrumentals rarely puncture their way to the forefront of your consciousness. Rather, they enter earshot with low-key charm, do their thing for a few minutes, then unceremoniously bow out. “Green Blob” is the closest Woo get to “rocking out,” coming across like CAN circa Ege Bamyasi (sans vox) burrowing deeply into inner space, with Mark Ives’ guitar recalling Michael Karoli’s yearning, clarion tone. Similarly, “The Goodies” sounds like the Residents interpreting CAN, casting the krautrock legends’ irrepressible groove science in a more insular context.
The pieces on Awaawaa exude an unobtrusive beauty, a congenial mellowness; the cumulative effect is a subtle, holistic well-being. It’s a sprig of joy that will keep you enraptured and hearing new delights with each successive listen. -Buckley Mayfield
Laraaji’s rising profile over the last five years offers at least one glimmer of hope in an increasingly bleak world, proof that perhaps we as a species are not doomed yet. The New Age demigod (real name Edward Larry Gordon), who was discovered in the late ’70s playing his custom-built electric zither in Washington Square Park by Brian Eno, has seen several of his classic LPs reissued, embarked on frequent tours, and collaborated with Blues Control for RVNG Intl.’s excellent FRKWYS series, much to the delight of a new generation of sonic questers who crave feathery levitation. Among the stream of re-releases is Essence/Universe, which All Saints reissued in 2013. It is both essential and universal.
Consisting of two sidelong 29-minute pieces, Essence/Universe—which features the co-production and treatments of Richard Ashman—proffers one of the purest expressions of blissful ambient drift humankind has yet conceived. It’s not at all surprising that Eno would champion Laraaji; in fact, one of Eno’s greatest humanitarian deeds might’ve been his production of Day Of Radiance, which the Englishman selected for his Ambient series on Editions E.G. Records in 1980, and which brought deserved attention to his charge.
Back to the matter at hand… “Essence” wafts, drones, and tinkles in gentle fluctuations, occupying a narrow bandwidth within the aural spectrum, yet inhabiting it with an angelic grace that’s positively therapeutic. This is holy minimalism untethered to any belief system. It’s not a million kilometers from Laraaji’s mentor’s Music For Airports or Discreet Music or Fripp & Eno’s Evening Star in its ethereal grandeur. “Universe” continues in a similar vein, cocooning the listener in wisps of cloudstuff. Whereas many New Age artists err on the side of innocuousness and sentimentality, Laraaji soars above such frailties, achieving an atmospheric clarity and tonal nobility that seem to be an infinitely renewable source of holistic wellness.
Essence/Universe really is a special record, and it seemingly has no beginning or end—just an endlessly restorative middle that will keep you balanced for as long as you let it. -Buckley Mayfield
This may rankle some of his fans, but I’m going to say it anyway: Two of the best albums guitarist Carlos Santana ever played on didn’t come out under the aegis of his most famous band. For certain heads, the LPs the psych-rock deity cut with jazz legends John McLaughlin (1973’s Love Devotion Surrender) and Alice Coltrane (1974’s Illuminations) stand as his creative peaks. That these were released on a major label—good ol’ Columbia—and up until recently have been bargain-bin staples boggles the mind. However, one senses that the general public—and some critics who should know better—still aren’t giving these Eastern-leaning, mystical fusion works their due. I’m here to redress that injustice for the latter overlooked classic; maybe I’ll tackle the former some day.
As the title implies, Illuminations is all about transmitting blazing beams of enlightenment into listeners’ minds. It’s always a great idea to start your album with deep, extended “OOOOOHHHHHMMMMM” chants, especially if you’re a Platinum-selling artist. So listening to “Guru Sri Chinmoy Aphorism,” we gather that this music is going to be about god’s love, which is peachy if you’re into that sort of thing. Honestly, an agnostic like me just cares about the music, but whichever religious route it takes to get to the glory of Illuminations, all should tolerate it.
The one-two feathery punch of “Angel Of Air”/“Angel Of Water” is a profound unfolding of wonderment that preps you for the delights to come. In the former, Turiya and Devadip bestow upon us flute, bass, heavenly strings, pointillistic, crystalline guitar stalagmites, and cymbal splashes. The latter is a glistening pool of almost New Age-y bliss (not a diss, by any means), as these world-class musicians—including Santana electric pianist Tom Coster, and Miles Davis comrades Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland—summon some of the most delicate, celestial aural tapestries in their blessed careers. You know how Kris Kristofferson had a song called “Sunday Morning Coming Down”? Well, this is Sunday morning going up music. You feel like you need more than one heart to appreciate the loving feeling emanating from this song. Side 1 closes with “Bliss: The Eternal Now,” which sounds like something that could’ve appeared on Coltrane’s Lord Of Lords. This is a heroic fanfare of orchestral ambience that portends glimmers of a brilliant new dawn for humankind… but we all know how that turned out.
The album’s peak comes with the 15-minute “Angel Of Sunlight,” the closest thing to Love Devotion Surrender on Illuminations. Elevated by Prabuddha Phil Browne’s cosmic tamboura drones and Phil Ford’s rapid tabla slaps, “Angel Of Sunlight” charges pell-mell into the fiery orb as Santana Santanas at his most Santana-esque. His six-string calligraphy arcs and darts across the sky with grandiloquent fluidity, wailing like some creature beyond any of our thousands of our so-called gods’ imaginations. Then, as if your ears weren’t surfeited enough with pleasure, Coltrane’s Wurlitzer solo flares in delirious, rococo siren tones within the golden-hued tumult. This track is a sonic analogue for the cover, a supernatural lavishment of benedictions from players tilting toward transcendence. What follows can only seem anti-climactic, but “Illuminations” is a denouement of ethereal solemnity and grace. It’s the dignified breather you need after “Angel Of Sunlight”’s ravenous enrapturing.
There’s probably a copy of Illuminations sitting in a used bin near you for under $12. Go forth and grip. -Buckley Mayfield
Remember that one time the flamboyant guitarist for prog-rock juggernauts like Gong, Khan, Arzachel, Clearlight, etc. cut a New Age album around the time the Pop Group’s Y, Wire’s 154, PiL’s Metal Box, and Gang Of Four’s Entertainment! were coming out? Oh, you forgot? Well, here’s a handy reminder. Steve Hillage’s Rainbow Dome Musick is the proto-chillout record of your mildest dreams (compliment!). It’s no surprise that Hillage later went on to collaborate with the Orb in the ’90s. It’s a bit of a surprise that he went full-on techno with his System 7 project, along with Miquette Giraudy. But I digress.
Rainbow Dome Musick—on which Giraudy also appears—consists of two sidelong tracks: the 23-minute “Garden Of Paradise” and the 20-minute “Four Ever Rainbow.” Right away, with its sample of gently running water and tranquilly tintinnabulating and twittering synth emissions, “Garden Of Paradise” sets you at utmost ease. Every sound on this epic zoner seems purified and heavenly (including the Tibetan bells and lambent guitar trills), intended to induce only the most relaxing and beneficent vibes. And that approach makes some people angry, somehow. More highly evolved beings should luxuriate in the bubbly ethereality and levitational beauty Hillage conjures with the saintly patience of a licensed massage therapist. This track makes Popol Vuh sound like Slayer.
“Four Ever Rainbow” carries a bassier tone from the Moog synthesizer and is somehow even more languid and blissed out than “Garden Of Paradise.” Damn, Hillage was beating Klaus Schulze at his own game. This is the ultimate terminus of the hippie-rock trip, brothers and sisters. What began in complex guitar pyrotechnics and kinetic propulsion gradually downshifted into the flowing stasis and crystalized calm of New Age—an oft-scorned genre, but when done right, it’s an effective conduit to inner peace and profound mindfulness. And Rainbow Dome Musick is New Age done very right. -Buckley Mayfield