There was a time during the mid to late eighties when it wasn't clear -- at least to a Midwestern listener like me -- which way New Age music was going. It wasn't all smooth jazz back then; a number of synthesizer-based artists whose work might eventually have been tagged as ambient, had this audience not embraced them, were drawn into the genre, differentiated primarily from "mainstream" electronic music by their age and general lack of trendiness. If you took the time to sift through the growing crush of New Age material you stood a decent chance of striking gold, or at least bronze.|
During that time (as longtime Splendid readers will repeat in a bored monotone because I bring it up every few months), I worked in a bookshop that did a vigorous trade in New Age cassettes and CDs. As with a proper record shop, in-store play was key here -- so in the course of an eight hour shift, I'd hear an average of ten New Age records. That's fifty albums a week -- long hours of Kitaro, Suzanne Ciani, Patrick O'Hearn, Yanni, Michael Hedges, Laraaji, David Arkenstone, Andreas Vollenweider, Liz Story, those effing Solitudes discs, and Ray Lynch.
A classically-trained guitarist, multi-instrumentalist and composer, Lynch turned his back on a nearly twenty year career, moved to California to (ahem) find himself, get his head together, re-evaluate his belief system, et cetera, and began dabbling in electronic music. His first album, The Sky of Mind, was clearly rooted in a classical aesthetic, its spacious synth orchestrations and "real" instrumentation built around gentle, emotionally engaging melodies -- a blueprint that would serve him well throughout his career. Three years later, he hit paydirt with Deep Breakfast.
Every genre has its grass-roots hits, and Deep Breakfast was one for New Age, selling more than 500,000 copies during the eighties without the benefit of significant radio airplay, promotional muscle or, needless to say, a video (the current sales tally has topped 1.25 million copies). When the few radio stations who played New Age music finally woke up, a track from Deep Breakfast became, by the genre's standards, a huge hit. That track was "Celestial Soda Pop", the album's opener -- and if you've ever heard it, you're aware that it effectively defines Lynch's oeuvre. Tiny, brittle synth notes burst like bubbles in the upper register, an economical rhythm plunks away like an upright bass made of plastic and fiberglass, and an insistent melody, half synth guitar and half sighing keyboard, moves jauntily forward, creating an air of mystery and wonder. It's almost at odds with itself -- the "bubbles" are relentlessly cheerful, the main melody borderline sci-fi soundtrack -- but perhaps that's why it works. It's intriguing, energetic and upbeat, and never overtly sappy or sentimental. There's no big finish, no gradual, cinematic shift to a grander scale; there's a human experience at "Celestial Soda Pop"'s heart that even justifies its goofy title.
"The Oh of Pleasure" is a distinct but not unpleasant change. It probably wasn't a deliberate homage to Vangelis's Cosmos soundtrack, but experienced listeners may peg it as "Hearts of Space" music. Percolating synth notes and a languorous, soaring melody suggest broad expanses and spectacular sights, but again, kept very much on the level of human experience. "Falling in the Garden" further narrows its focus -- this is the sort of slow, gentle, crystalline melody that accompanies the long-awaited reunions of popular soap-opera couples, though Lynch's gossamer-light take is far subtler than any televisual sound-prompt.
"Your Feeling Shoulders", the disc's longest track, may also be the most interesting. Sedate, hazy and otherworldy, it moves forward at an exceedingly modest pace, gradually taking on the air of a barge journey through a vast, golden city. The sights grow more ornate and majestic as you move forward; as you reach the song's midpoint, the bass comes in, expanding the tune's scope and suggesting a sudden visual revelation -- the first sight of a palace, perhaps? There's more sightseeing, and then a final two and a half minutes of awesome, mysterious grandeur, complete with rumbling bass and sweeping synths. Here, unusually for Deep Breakfast, there's a sense of greater scale, of the music dwarfing the listener; ironically, "Your Feeling Shoulders" also sounds more dated than most of Lynch's work -- think Doctor Who incidental music circa 1983.
"Rhythm in the Pews" is Deep Breakfast's first (mild) disappointment -- effectively a retread of "Celestial Soda Pop" without the air of mystery and danger (you might argue that a song called "Rhythm in the Pews" should have no room for mystery and danger, but if so, it follows that a song called "Celestial Soda Pop" shouldn't have any either, so there goes your whole argument.) However, to its credit, "Rhythm in the Pews" succeeds at being madly, jauntily optimistic without sounding saccharine. There's nothing churchy about it other than the title.
"Kathleen's Song", after an odd, Alice in Wonderland-ish opening, blossoms into a rich, elegant sort of dream waltz. Lynch's wife is named Kathleen, and the song was clearly written for her; the air of comfort and fulfillment it exudes speaks well of the couple's relationship. The relaxed, cozy "Pastorale" lives up to its name. It's also extremely circular, and highlights one of Lynch's best piano melodies, though one of the synths in the background is doing something -- a really dubious brass emulation, perhaps -- that reminds us that we're listening to an eighteen year-old record.
Closer "Tiny Geometries" is a strong finish. Its title suggests a gradual zoom-in on a fractal; there's a long, slow opening in which effervescent synths burble and chatter, eventually forming percussion as well as melody. Grand, slab-like chords float majestically forward in a mildly twanky fanfare of fake brass, and then we're moving back into inky blackness, strands of detail bubbling away behind us like fading embers.
It's only when you listen to other New Age albums -- and I'm not suggesting that you do that, because most of them suck -- that Lynch's skill becomes clear. Rather than conjuring grand vistas and extensively orchestrated spectacles, he focuses on individual musical "narratives". Some listeners will mistake this for primitivism or cheapness, but that's not Lynch's game; he has simply made a soundtrack for his solitary introspection, his early mornings, his late nights. It'll probably work for you, too. It worked for a lot of people. Deep Breakfast and its poppier, more extensively orchestrated follow-up, No Blue Thing, became mainstays on Billboard's New Age chart for years (in part due to the fact that most small New Age labels had no distribution, or didn't sell through retail outlets that reported to Billboard, and often didn't produce enough copies to register on the chart). They may be there still.
I didn't buy much music while I worked at the bookshop -- I couldn't have if I'd wanted to, as a CD cost half a day's pay back then -- but like many of my co-workers, I gave in and snagged a copy of Deep Breakfast. When I listened to it to prepare for this article, I was expecting to find an embarrassingly dated album full of florid moods and dated instrumentation. However, while it's definitely not a new album, Deep Breakfast has aged surprisingly well. My attitide toward New Age music is definitely less friendly than it was in 1988, but Lynch's work, unlike so many other albums from the era, seems more nobly inspired. It certainly sounds nothing like smooth jazz, thank god. I don't think I'm going to put it back on the shelf just yet...
For more information about Ray Lynch, or to buy a copy of the album, visit RayLynch.com.
-- George Zahora