Al Conti – Scheherazade

15/03/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: Al Conti
Title: Scheherazade
Label: Shadowside Music Publishing
Genre: New Age

Track Listing:

1 Daughter of the City
2 Desert Nights
3 Shahryar
4 Seven Veils to Midnight
5 Dunyazad
6 A Thousand Tales
7 Palace Gardens
8 Gold and Spices
9 Eternal Majesty
10 Heart Triumphant

I supposed it was naive of me to think that not every genre has a scene. I was thinking – or maybe hoping – that new age music wouldn’t have one, but whatever the new age scene is, Al Conti seems to be dominating the top end of it. Scheherazade has garnered praise from various corners of the new age world, not least ‘album of the month’ three months running for New Age Reporter. That’s not necessarily because of a lack of entries in the genre but because Scheherazade is quite a classy piece of work. I’m sure the new age clubs and tea emporia are bustling with eager Luddites thrilled at hearing this music in its intended setting whilst eyeing up the bead and dreamcatcher displays.

Scheherazade, Al Conti’s third work, is based very heavily around the theme of Arabia, fully represented in its melodies and artwork. The latter is rather modest in its execution, bearing only the slatted eyes of some jilbaabed nymph and a desert skyline. Inside the digipak, Al stands moodily – and frighteningly – close to a lit torch in a basin while wearing one of those traditional Arabian waistcoats that seemed to do terribly well in Lawrence of Arabia or down at Archway Kebabs. The press release that came with the disc is worded with staggering prolixity but at least it gives you enough time to concentrate on the man behind the muzak, if you could be bothered to read all the way through it. It seems that Al had a lot of exposure to the erotic folk tales of Arabian Nights when he was younger, hence the inspiration for this album. I certainly would have preferred that over the copy of The Joy of Sex on my parent’s bookshelf that always seemed to fall open to page 48, which, beset with diagrammatic drawings, is probably the closest anyone will come to seeing their own conception.

Scheherazade is a very toned down and subtle work. There are no energetic, bombastic rhythms mashed out on tabulars, or the rousing battery of Asian percussion: each song is done with a subtle style and different layers of grace. There’s a lot of variety in the album though it excels in the slower and more sultry moments such as the calming Dunyazad and the mystical Palace Gardens. Conti knows how to to create mystical atmosphere and the album’s certainty not lacking in inspiration or methods through which to transmit it.

Even though Scheherazade employs a lot of instrumentation, not all of this is unsampled. There is a heavy use of guitar, violin and piano, whereas other instruments such as the udu, sitar and hurdy gurdy appear to be synthesised. Yes, this is no surprise for many artists in the genre but at least Conti is able to do it without it sounding too contrived, putting the instruments in where they fit rather than intentionally jabbing them in to fill out the album’s variety and sleeve notes. Thankfully, this doesn’t detract too much from the quality of the music: Scheherazade is a highly atmospheric piece for those who wish for their incidental music to be undemanding, ethereal and emotive. It may pale in comparison to bands like Vas and Irfan, but it’s impressive what the imagination of one man is able to conjure.

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Catherine Duc – Visions and Dreams

15/02/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: Catherine Duc
Title: Visions and Dreams
Label: Self Released
Genre: New Age

Track Listing:

01 Essence of Dreams
02 Dancing in The Mist
03 Evocation
04 One Autumn Day
05 Secret Sanctuary
06 Heart of Andalucia
07 Midsummer Twilight
08 Incense
09 Rivulet
10 In The Light of Day

I remember having an argument with a colleague who said that Nora Jones – one of the most insipid artists in the jazz world – wrote little more than ‘background music’. It seemed that this would be the last thing an artist would want to hear as they whiled away their time at great length, putting thought and emotion into their compositions. But looking back, it makes sense to me that some of her numbers would be used as filler for schmoozy parties, nudging its way into the lulls of conversation on last week’s squash game, the property ladder and cushions. Nora Jones is pistachio music – songs to nibble nuts, vol-au-vent and other entrées to whilst waving about a glass of cut-price champagne – whereas Catherine Duc creates the kind of music you’d find playing in the background at a marginally classy Chinese restaurant. You know, one with a carpet.

I’ll be blunt and admit that my knowledge of the new age genre is mostly restricted to what’s piped through the speakers whilst browsing tarot emporia, and what my dad used to play in the car on the way to the Peacocks shopping centre in Woking. Many a time on a journey we’d be honoured with the strains of “Manifestation of the Pyramids” or “From Another Sky” (which has now been re-released under the humiliating rebranding of “Bathtime Bliss”). Catherine Duc’s début, Visions and Dreams, is very similar to these kinds of ambient/new age creations but it’s not quite as cheesy as I was expecting. In fact, I even found myself enjoying parts of it.

Visions and Dreams can hardly be described as a demanding piece for the listener. The ten tracks and forty minutes which comprise its length are filled with mellow, washing synth chords, slow tempos and simple violin melodies. Catherine’s main inspirations are apparently Enya and Enigma and this really shows on the record, especially on tracks like Incense and Evocation, which could have come straight off Enigma’s first album, MCMXC AD. The rest of Visions and Dreams presents itself as a slightly tamer version of these bands, being far more focussed on lusher, minimal ambience than the sometimes dance-inducing rhythms of Era and Delirium.

There may be moments when things get a little dull and naff, but then, this is new age music. You can’t listen to an album all the way through or gaze at the track names without feeling at least slightly ill, so some kudos must be given to Catherine for not laying the cheese on too heavily, which is always a danger. Because of her Asian heritage there is a nice Eastern flavour to a lot of the melodies and much of the album feels like something you’d find a guzheng player coming out with along the streets of Covent Garden, or even the markets in Seoul.

Visions and Dreams could therefore be a tool to conjure up reveries – or play during them. Catherine makes the point that people can contact her if interested in licensing her music for soundtracks, so I may well have found a composer who’s willing for her tunes to be used purely as background music. If your taste is slanted towards the ethereal genre you may find some of this stuff to your liking, or you may run away in terror at the sheer sugary ambience of the record. However, those in the former category will find this is the kind of thing that suits the foundation of a daydream, or indeed the background of a dinner party. You can masticate over those olive and feta salads to your hearts’ delight, and this is one artist who wouldn’t be offended.

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