Monday, January 11, 2010

A To Z: Aerial Boundaries - Michael Hedges

In the last few days, I have uploaded a number of albums in an effort to revitalize this blog and to try my hand at getting better at writing music reviews (for what purpose? I don't know.)

Instead of starting with those albums, I thought that I might go ahead and start a new A to Z series just for the sake of doing it. It forces me to choose albums I want to post and write about. I'll intersperse other things in the blog while this is going on, but it at least gives you something concrete to look forward to, rather than just updates saying I'm going to update.

I recently watched three BBC4 90-minute music documentaries. The first focused on synth-pop and the synthesizer. The second was about Krautrock and its influence on popular music of the mid-70s. Then this past weekend I finally caught the year-old Prog Rock Britannia, chronicling the rise and fall of bands like King Crimson, ELP, Yes and Genesis. These documentaries are all immensely entertaining, and though their oversites are numerous, they still beat just about everything that I can find here on American television.

I tell you this because towards the end of the Prog Rock documentary, the mood that the musicians and contributors possess suddenly changes. They talk about excess, of saturation, of near stagnation in their genre. They talk of punk rock, the simplistic rock n roll model that was triumphing over their preposterous "art." Within a number of years, these musicians went from being some of the biggest, most recognizable names in rock music worldwide, to bands whose allegiance spurred immediate damnation. As writer Johnathan Coe puts it so bluntly: Prog Rock became THE genre in which people were suddenly saying "it's all shit."

Where I come from, who I grew up with, who I look up to: they would disagree. Genesis could be cool, Yes wrote some good tunes, Keith Emerson is a godsend. Instead people would look at me, point at the music labeled "New Age" and tell me "now THAT is all shit."

Like progressive rock music, new age music has more than its fair share of stereotypes. Long hair, nature photos, instrumental passages that don't really go anywhere or accomplish much other than serve as auditory wallpaper. Like many stereotypes, there is some truth in these intimations. Despite knowing better, somewhere a 16-year old me cannot help but envision Tim Robbin's character from High Fidelity whenever anyone mentions the genre by name. Just relaaaaaxxx man.

I'm not reaching beyond my grasp here, this isn't an attempt to validate the artistic merit of music labeled as "new age" nor is it an attempt to brainstorm a better title. It is my guess that somewhere within the souls of each and every musician within this genre, part of them truly is attempting to raise the listener up to a new level of peace, understanding, maturation, perhaps a "new age" of being. However, where many musicians fail and come off as wonky, uninspired synthesizer experimenters with source waterfall tape recordings (say, is that going to be on my Top 50 of 2010?), there is one artist in particular that has the ability to transcend the genre while staying firmly within and his name is Michael Hedges.

Long considered one of the most important figures in solo acoustic guitar instrumentation, Michael Hedges released a string of albums in the early 80s and into the 90s that displayed a fingering style that truly didn't exist before him, but has been found in every coffeehouse since. Often sounding like 3, 4, sometimes 5 guitarists at once, Michael Hedges creates music that is rooted in old-America folk and John Fahey stylings while bringing the otherworldliness factor up by 10. He has often been noted as playing a guitar with two sets of strings, one for bass. He's also known for playing strange instruments no one but elves play. He's also known for braids.

Michael Hedges is a solo act. And what's more is that Michael Hedges is a solo LIVE act. Aerial Boundaries, his second and best album is said to have been recorded live, just Michael in the studio (how much of this I believe is another story). His musicianship is astounding and the hours of preparation that likely went into getting the sound just right for recording is evident. Even on the tracks where Michael has used electronic equipment ("Spare Change"), or has created sounds that aren't guitar (the flute on "Menage a Trois"), everything falls into place the way it was supposed to. It is clear that the album accomplishes the vision that Michael set out with before recording.

I've seen this album considered the best solo acoustic album of all time. Whether or not I agree is irrelevant, the sound is likely the best and the vision is perhaps the clearest. It is new age music. It can serve as audio wallpaper, dentist office music, elevator music. But it can also be a terribly engrossing listen. I've fallen under it's spell 6 times today.

And it's a masterpiece.

Download Here (VBR)


Allez said...

and he recorded a fantastic version of Frank Zappa's Sofa N° 1 ...

Luke said...

Nice review man, written from a very introspective point of view. Michael was definitely not a "new age" guitarist haha. His music touched my life in a way that no other music has that's for sure, my favorite guitarist of all time, rip michael hedges.

The Scenery Within said...

Fantastic record in my opinion.

Keep up the good work ;)

Elliot Knapp said...

Nice review--I do think Hedges qualifies as New Age, but love his guitar playing in spite of that! Just reviewed this one on my blog.

Will S. Houston said...

Good review of the album. He definitely hated being pigeonholed into the New Age category, he liked to call his style "New Edge". I think a lot of people dismiss the new age genre because of its implications and stereotypes (all genres have this), but I think it's just an excuse so they don't have to listen to it. New Age definitely has taken most of the blow

Here's a fun read on Michael if anyone is interested. Great stuff on the experience of recording this album: