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 melts in your memory over the years as VHS quality melts itself, that can take on a ghostly new life. It’s no shock that lots of new age has this effect, whether light or dark. It’s something about how the comfort and ‘fluff’ mingles with this 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. Besides, 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 and uncertain scene with 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
easy listening / sequencer & MIDI / synth pop / new age
RIYL – Donkey Kong, Super Mario and other Nintendo 64 music; vaporwave, Eyeliner
This ‘album’ gathers commissions K. Yamato stashed away for years. Only after seeing the new online interest for 90s game music did he share them. Some tracks glean from other media, but everything has a certain 90s-VGM flair here.
The early lower-bit jingles make a brief but fun cherry on top. The rest is a tour in digitized MIDI bursting with color. Mallets, synth pads, slick bass, bells and adorable flutes are on the menu. Versatile as expected, Yamoto shifts from 16-bit Outrun synth-pop to deluxe 90s chill-out. Somehow “Pleasant Specter Lever 6” merges a heaven-sent unicorn lullaby with summery disco.
Yamoto fills these bite-sized songs with sweet, romantic melodies, never letting them ramble. The “Spa Tape” tracks near this but their refreshing synth textures won me over. Spa music needs space to breathe after all.
CW is like playing Kirby for half an hour: a quick, simple pick-me-up with no pretension. Anyone curious about 90s VGM and/or the cuter side of synths should look here. No more Yamoto albums followed, but his Pleasant Specter EP from months before is your next step.
For more great video game music on the obscure side, see my top five
As mush as I adore synths, my #1 band didn’t actually use them much. Superstition was the one Banshees album to use them beyond cameos. Guitars were their clear specialty, but I do wonder where more keyboard would have led them.
This metaphysical b-side is one in few exceptions. Beyond Siouxsie and one quiet guitar, it’s all misty fairy synths. Believe it or not, “Sea Of Light” sounds like new age Banshee-style. An uneasy mood sneaks in even so via Siouxsie’s vocal as she sings of near-death experiences. The effects on her voice resemble a distant call for help or gathering wind. This results in a unique middle ground between peace and danger.
This is my second Netlabel Day release for Vulpiano after Sea Cave / Indigo (available here). Listen and/or download Gemstone Study at the links above.