Listening to the reissue of Mark Banning’s Journey to the Light by Students of Decay took me back to the days of music discovery before the internet, or even forums and message boards. The days when the best music discovery happened during long, leisurely visits to a record store, rummaging through the bins and listening to whatever the people running the store that day were spinning. Specifically, I recall one sunny afternoon in the early 80s when ‘Remedios’ by Will Ackerman (guitar) and Darol Anger (violin) began playing over the speakers (you can listen here).
That moment was really the opening of a door to years of listening to beautiful, sometimes complex, instrumental music that was classified as New Age at the time. I didn’t really know what New Age meant , but I knew this was the section of the record store I needed to visit if I wanted to explore these wonderful sounds. Over time I came to understand the paradox of this enigmatic genre.
There was proper New Age, which was essentially “lifestyle music” meant to enable or achieve a state of relaxation, meditation, healing, or spirituality on the part of the listener. I cast no aspersions on that whatsoever, but it held no appeal to me personally. The paradox, however, is that there was also a rich variety of progressive and experimental instrumental music which was also being filed in the same section as a matter of expedience, which drew on elements of folk, classical, jazz, electronica, and even rock. These albums were more focused on musical expression than the state of mind they evoked in the listener. This was music that told stories, elicited emotion, and even stretched the boundaries of the instruments and how they were played (exhibit A: Michael Hedges)
Journey to the Light, originally released in 1984, arguably falls in this latter category of progressive music that was labeled as New Age largely by default. Certainly these two tracks, which last nearly 47 minutes combined, are very abstract and meditative and are awash in broad, dreamy strums across the zither. But, there are rewarding depths to be plumbed here which fans of modern instrumental music should appreciate. As Students of Decay notes in the promotional press, ‘Everlasting Moments’ draws heavily on the influence “the weblike guitar cycles of Manuel Gottsching“. The guitar work is indeed exquisite and takes the piece into more progressive territory without disrupting the contemplative mood. Banning uses collage of delay, reverb, harmonics, runs, and arpeggios and clear sustained tones that I assume must have been drawn with an EBow.
Whereas ‘Everlasting Moments’ shimmers and glints with sunlight, ‘A Sea of Glass’ strikes more of an evening mood as Banning paints with deeper hues. The piece, ushered in by field recordings of waves washing up on the shore, is aptly described as a “sensuous tapestry of ever-evolving guitar drones and radiant zither filigree”. Processed, wordless vocals are also layered in enriching the sound.
Kudos to Students of Decay for finding this gem which was only previously available as a small, private issue pressing and had to be sussed out by collectors. Fans of the progressive music of the era will find it both nostalgic and enlightening and followers of contemporary instrumental genres should be able to appreciate it’s beauty and forward looking ideas. Credit is also due to James Plotkin for a fine job of remastering.
Follow the link below to order a copy of Journey to the Light from Students of Decay (limited copies available)
Listen to an exceprt of ‘Sea of Glass’