Gird your loins, y'all: this is mostly polemic, partly review, and very much needed. I'm taking the opportunity to posit and exposit certain matters, using this CD as touchstone. My apologies to Mr. Wenzel…but, really, I don't think he's getting too bad a deal here, besides a bit of short shrift amid a welter of ranting. He just happened to be the guy who came along at the moment. Every so often I go off. This is one of those times. I usually get in trouble with the business side of the music equation when I do this, so let's see what happens this time.
There are New Age musics and there are New Age musics, the difference 'twixt one and the other lying in the realm of depth. Most who enjoy the genre have forgotten or never knew where their idiomatics came from, which is: progrock and what Ralph Towner and the group Oregon were creating while resident in Paul Winter's Consort. Songs like Icarus and prog ensembles like Between represent the wellsprings as much as anything, though bands like Banco, The Long Hello (esp. that quintessential debut LP), and other ensembles are just as credible, even the more exotic Dzyan was curiously, bizarrely, also a precursor (and rarely emulated).
What separated these progenitors from their later spawn was the study of classical, jazz, folk, and world musics, but with a very crucial extra two elements: intelligence and individuality. I'm not terribly taken with the bulk of New Age for precisely the reason that most of it is a matter of recitals of staves of ink stains on paper alongside somewhat revised renditions of formalisms very familiar, and thus sell-able, to an audience more interested in place than art: petite bourgeois, in other words.
So what, you may ask, incites my affinities in such a direction, when and if they do arise. Well, Timothy Wenzel's River Serene is a good case in point, as it crosses the divide but is still distinctly New Age. What it really is, when all else falls aside, is cinematic scoring but with enough of Wenzel's own thought and flesh to legitimate it as creative beyond the bounds of staple New Age moribundities. When Tim composed this work, as clearly shown in First Dance and elsewhere, he was thinking on his own within the perimeters of the genre. Serialism, mildly outré elements, progressive composition, and so on edge in and out as each cut flows its course.
All really good New Age composers and players inevitably started out in progrock at least in their listening diet—taking in the Moody Blues, Yes, PFM, Focus, Gentle Giant, etc.—and then, lacking, for one, the chops of a Rick Wakeman, a Steve Howe, a Mike Pinder (back in the day, but not over his last few decades), or a Thijs van Leer, and unwilling to sweat to that level, settled on a much simpler format. This is not necessarily a bad thing; after all, would one take Beethoven to task for Moonlight Sonata or hector Erik Satie over his gnossiennes and gymnopédies? Of course not, but New Age has yet to produce anyone faintly in that zone, so the matter is both important and moot simultaneously.
There's also a middle zone to all musics, a realm not composed of masters or hacks but artists creating work that will never challenge genius but sits well above, for instance, mainstream chart musics. Their opuses deserve to be listened to but never used as a milestone for anything, though the thoughts and inventions therein hold quite evident potential for marked growth. Whether such evolutions will ever see their way through dimensions is another matter. One of the more interesting of those in the recent New Age bandwidth has been Uwe Gronau, more over in the space case delimit years ago was Jean-Luc Berthelot (Tales), and even Tim Story was, in days even more of of yore, continually a cat just on the threshold of breaking into something fairly big…though he never did.
I'll take Gronau and Wenzel every day of the week over tepid prog bands like IQ, TennJinn, Rousseau, and etc., every…day…of…the…week, and I'd align Michael Garrison, Chuck van Zyl, and others with Gronau and Wenzel as well. In the end, all these people listened to the right sources but never listened long enough or deeply enough nor woodshedded intensely enough to toe the highwater mark. That's really what New Age is, when it all comes down to it, save for rare instances. If you think George Winston could ever dare to challenge Wakeman, Emerson, Lord, Moraz, Minnear, Banks, or any of the prog keyboard heavyweights, think again…and I'll readily listen to Wenzel over Winston.
At some point, when and if I start up a website, this matter and others are points I intend to undertake as an exercise in re-establishing the rules of the game, the expansion and rectification of criticism as an art, not the domain of publisher/editor dimwits and their knuckle-dragging fanboy drinking buddies. Progrock fell as a main force in music mainly due to the insufficiencies of its critical class, not any wants within the music itself. If it's ever going to reclaim its brilliant 70s heritage fully again, it's going to have to deal with that, toss out 95% of the morons reviewing it, and recognize that it was robbed long ago due to exterior illiteracies—grammatical, aesthetic, metaphoric, etc.—looking in with ill grace.
When I hear discs like Wenzel's pleasant keyboard-dominated River Serene, I'm strongly minded of the benefits and deficits of the prog-story in whole, so this hasn't been a review so much as a fairly gentle polemic, but I take the opportunity beyond my usual enthusiasms and damnations to say what none have so far dared to put into print, even though all the weenie prog crits I've ever known or been apprized of very much extol my exact sentiments over beers and reefer at the back of a dive at the end of their computer geek dayjobs…well out of earshot of musicians, label heads, and the readers of their over-ample drivel. That is: you, dear reader, just don't get to witness or hear it. I did, I used to live there, wrote for all the top prog rags or prog-sympathetic venues this country's ever produced (Sound Choice, Option, Progression, Expose, e/i, I/E, Signal to Noise—and, yes, "top" is a farcical adjective to use in all such cases except STN's), left it all behind long ago, and still chafe at such an important genre being left in the hands of troglodytes, but, well, I incarnated on Earth, didn't I?, and I think that pretty much explains everything…
Maybe I'll be in a better mood later.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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