My guest mix for I Heart Noise highlights the surprising darker and sadder corners of new age music. Despite common aims to soothe and uplift, these songs dive into downbeat and/or ambiguous feelings: vulnerable, longing, bittersweet, haunting. The bright synths of a meditation cassette meet the murky lows and fragile heart of your favorite oddly-sinister children’s VHS.
Made from selections off my eponymous Rateyourmusic list: plenty more in this vein over there!
- Suzanne Ciani – The Eighth Wave
- Hiroshi Yoshimura – Singing Stream (Spring Mix)
- Bob Foster – The Water Garden
- Hiroyuki Onogawa – August In The Water 1
- Michel Genest – Reflections On A Moonlit Stream
- Medwyn Goodall – Dolphin Dreams
- Spencer Nilsen – Title Theme
- Peter Seiler – Reef Moods
- Milan Pilar – Way To The South
- Simon Benson & Mike Tauben – Dreamworld
- Graham De Wilde – Underwater World (a)
- Milan Pilar – Nocturne
- Sumio Shiratori – Winter In Moominvalley
- Toshifumi Hirata – Fire And Forever
- Joe Hisaishi – The Huge Tree In The Tsukamori Forest [8Tracks & Mixcloud] / The Path of the Wind (Instrumental) [Youtube]
- Warren Bennett – A Time To Remember
- Bel Canto – Unicorn
- Spencer Nilsen – Skylands
- Happy Rhodes – Ra Is A Busy God
- Miami Vice – Tokyo Negative
- Delicate Features – Taurus Moon
- Mychael Danna – Sky 2
- Áine Minogue – The Grove
- John Hall – Illusen’s Glade [Youtube Only]
- Emerald Web – The Red Vapour of Still Lakes
- Kirsty Hawkshaw – Modern Mermaid
- Milan Pilar – Green Velvet
- David Rogers & Paul Shaw – Ice Kingdom [8Tracks Only]
- Emerald Web – Soft Silence The City
- Patrick O’Hearn – España
Like it’s animation, the new age boom of the 80’s had an odd and not-so-discussed taste for darkness. Let’s consider the common Yamaha synth bells and rhodes, which became THE sound of VHS credit rolls. You hear these in happy love ballads one minute and Twin Peaks the next. It’s a sound that melts in your memory over the years as VHS quality melts itself, that can take on a ghostly new life. It’s no shock lots of new age has this effect, whether light or dark. It’s something about how the comfort and ‘fluff’ mingles with the darkness.
It’s only natural for these themes to mix with nostalgia and give us mixed and/or complex feelings. These feelings can haunt us the same way that one ‘scary’ scene in your old favorite children’s VHS does for years. Fleeting joy feels crucial here. After all, so much new age regards fragile things: crystals, gifts, nature, loved ones. New age is for cherishing and protecting. I’d think meditation makes way for some vulnerability itself.
Likewise, fantasy is inspiring and unleashes real-world limits. It can represent ideals and romance. So often this romance can lead to wishing. For things to be real, for dreams to come true, to go back in time.
It’s the tenderness in how these songs approach such emotions that gives them their grip. When gentle fantasy music ponders, it’s like a deer lost in a forest or a child finding haunted halls in their room. It’s not hard to sympathize.
What makes ‘dark’ new age so odd is how it ‘disobeys’ the genre’s core themes. When we hear ‘new age’, we expect serene sounds fit for a spa. It’s crossover icon Enya has 2-3 songs I could call ‘dark’, after all. If ‘true’ new age is music for happy daydreams, dark new age depicts our questions and fears. Despite this, some songs keep the calming effect.
Of course, I’m not aiming for an edgy substitute here. We hold up ambient as this intellectual counterpart already. I love lighter new age too; I’m just highlighting a deserving sub-niche. This strikes me as a relevant theme with new age’s recent spike in popularity. I intend this more to gather lost gems and challenge cliches, ‘soullessness’ to name one.
I chose this Unico shot because, like this music, it paints a sad, uncertain scene in bright colors. You have a unicorn, the trademark ‘pure fantasy’ creature, with a wind fairy, but both are forlorn. While the Unico film has a warm heart, it follows this unicorn getting stolen from his family and losing his memories. It probably represents this theme better than any other movie.
Milan Pilar (born 1934 in Czechoslovakia) is a master of fantasy melodrama. Once he came to use synths, his music became the soundtrack for finding a magic necklace in a pastel-colored forest where anything can happen. Milan created these images in gorgeously exaggerated detail that can touch your heart if you let it, no matter outlandish it may seem at a glance. He had a talent to induce the most grandiose emotions with impact and genuine tenderness.
Most songs will have sweeping synths and/or strings as a backbone, with digital bells and flutes playing the melodies. Many are wistful and sensitive as if telling you secrets in it’s hiding place, some carefree and happy, others cinematic and awestruck. No matter the mood, they never lose their Moomin-worthy fantasy charm and romantic expression. It’s a shame Pilar didn’t wind up directly composing for children’s fantasy movies.
He also kept a distinct sound across ten-plus years, something rare for library composers. For instance, his 2003 album Nature In Motion has the virtual same approach as his late-eighties work.
I’ve gathered my favorites from across his albums to give a good taster for his style (link above).
1. February – Pastoral Seasons, Coloursound, 1982
2. Reconciliation – Nature Spoiled and Unspoiled, Coloursound, 1983
3. Above / Extensions – Extensions, Sonoton, 19??
4. Industrial Signature 11 – Industrial, Coloursound, 1986
5. Fountain Idyll – Above And About, Coloursound, 1989
6. Birdlife – Above And About, Coloursound, 1989
7. Digital Structure 2 – Digital Structures, 1990
8. Digital Structure 25 – Digital Structures, 1990
9. Softly As The Summerwind – Nature Study, 1990
10. Wind And Waves – Nature Study, 1990
10. Caravanseral – Nostro Mondo, 1993
12. Irish Autumn – Floating Line, 1993
13. Rainbow – Textures And Fusion, 1994
14. Lost Game Blues – Signs Of Wisdom, 1999
15. Call Of The Mountains – Nature In Motion, 2003
16. Deep Sea Romance – Green Planet, 2004
Opposing Moon’s lighter pop sound, “Yogen” resembles Akina Nakamori’s gothic cult favorite Fushigi. Matching the eye-catching cover, this song chooses to dwell in mystery; the sense of void and landscape is strong. “Yogen” channels a lost cave with the moon as the one light source. Yuki’s voice is a whispered warning shrouded in fog, going from hypnotic hums to a nervous drift. Forming this fog are slick, spacious guitars and a murky fretless bass.
library music / progressive electronic
At this point I’m convinced this Czech composer was in a home stretch in the late 80s-early 90s. He could do no wrong.
One of my personal music missions is to hear just about every ‘aquatic’ library album I can manage, as it’s almost always a sign of quality. Therefore, I HAD to listen to Milan Pilar’s take on it. It turns out this album began as Digital Structures for the unusual Coloursound label, with no true song titles – “Digital Structure #3”, “#12”, and so on. This Selected Sound re-issue has a new title plus a true name for every song. In fact, it turns out I’d heard Digital Structures before, and got fooled into thinking this was different. Library labels are weird like that; something unfamiliar will turn out to be another, older album, even from another label!
Even so, I’m glad that I wound up hearing this one again. I picked up on a lot more great tracks this time. Plus, the re-titling helped me tell them apart. Even though SS branded this with space/water themes, it does veer into other moods/imagery at times, like the twinkling fantasy that was the trademark of his also-quality Nature Study. Knowing the album’s origin, this makes some sense.
I’ve written about similar albums before; O’Hearn’s Indigo, Above and About, etc. so many of those same traits apply here. It’s the same fascinating mix of varied moods and soaring synth textures – pads that wash over like shores, glittering arpeggios, warbles, flutters. He really brings out the best in digital synths. The sci-fi/water theme in particular adds some interesting moodier elements to Pilar’s familiar style. It’s the best direction he could’ve taken from his previous albums, and with every song being a mere 1.5 minutes, very digestible. Through their brief length, the songs flourish and establish their grip right on contact.
I especially recommend this if you love a good 80s synth film score. That tension, build and release of a good synth score is here and pulled off in expert fashion. The quality it retains over 43 tracks means this would be one of my favorite scores had an actual movie used it. But, as library music continues to remind me, it turns out some of the best film music doesn’t even wind up getting used.
new age / progressive electronic / ambient
More like this – Vangelis, Azuma, Patrick O’Hearn’s “Rainmaker” + “Between Two Worlds”
An odd recurrence in the 80s-90s that never fails to pique my curiosity is when people you could deem ‘new age artists’ made songs that were unusually dark-sided. Yet at the same time, the synths and production will sound very similar. Is it besides the whole point of the genre, then (sounding peaceful, inducing relaxation) or not? Whatever the intentions may be, albums like this are after my own heart.
You could say Vangelis pioneered this as many of his songs combined the crystal-clear textures of the era with a more cinematic/ambiguous air. That being said, his work is only the surface of this sensation. Patrick O’Hearn of Missing Persons is one of those special few who happened to explore very close territory, with this fan-favorite album Indigo in particular. To be honest, though, I’m tempted to argue this is more consistent than many of Vangelis’ own albums.
The cover’s moody teal-blue was the first hint. Indigo is the most shadowy, murky new age album I’ve come across, one that molds the normally ‘kitschy’ sound of synth-rhodes into haunting dirges (as on ”Coba” and the mournful closer ”Espana”). Songs like “Desire” and “Sacred Heart” alternate between oceanic drifting and thrilling film-score peaks while others (”Upon the Wings of Night”) choose to float by in the murk.
Rhythms are smooth and flowing, forming careful transitions with his tense keyboard patterns (”Sacrifice”). It’s like a cross between Spencer Nilsen’s Ecco The Dolphin music and those sinister incidental cues you hear in Miami Vice. He’s found a fascinating middle-ground here, and it’s something that doesn’t pop up near enough in his other work.
A lot of Indigo’s appeal lies in the insistence to keep lurking around this haunted fantasy world it’s concocted for itself, but a few areas like “Devil’s Lake” can come off a little self-serious for my liking. Other parts can get long-winded or repetitive – I guess this is a given with something this close to ambient music. Still, I think anyone curious about 80s-90s new age and/or who loves Vangelis should be sure to listen to this. It embodies so many of the things I love about the digital synth era, and the level of hypnotic beauty it achieves remains highly convincing.