When the Windham Hill record label started releasing records, I really had no idea what “new age” music was supposed to be. My only encounter with the form came from listening to some of Brian Eno’s late seventies ambient work, like “Music for Airports” and “Discreet Music”, and his work with Harold Budd and Jon Hassell. So when the “oh so” arpeggiated, reductive pop of George Winston, Liz Story, and the group Shadowfax came out, I was not enamored with the genre.
Fortunately, new age turned a few corners through the years and actually led to some tremendous musical achievements through the work of guitarist Michael Hedges, and the ethereal 4AD band Dead Can Dance. For me, Dead Can Dance was a brilliant mixture of what new age always could have been and real world music. Peter Ulrich was the percussionist of Dead Can Dance, and along with vocalist, multi-instrumentalist Brendan Perry and coloratura Lisa Gerard explored thousands of uncharted musical frontiers.
For all of the tremendously satisfying work of Dead Can Dance, Ulrich’s Enter the Mysterium is a disappointment. Perhaps it was lack of budget, or some personal need to separate himself from his work with DCD, but Ulrich’s work here is a throwback to some of the less endearing Windham-Hill type recordings. Throughout, Ulrich works extremely simplistic rhythmic arpeggiations that support some very cheesy, pseudo-mystical, spiritual lyrics which sound like they were written by someone who ate a dose of bad mushrooms.
I kept expecting the central beat to weave into outstanding forays into multi-tracked rhythms meshing into one another into frenzy, a la Zakir Hussein. But this sadly never happens. Ulrich’s emphasis throughout is on the ersatz magical journey of the lyrics. I hate to say this, because I admire Ulrich’s work with DCD very much, but had he just shut up for a little bit and concentrated on the genius of his percussive work, this would have been a much finer album.
In a way, I can understand Ulrich’s trepidations about not going the route I’ve suggested. Ginger Baker and Material made a percussively based album in 1986 called “Horses and Tree’s” that was often horribly didactic and uninteresting. But Baker and Material limited their instrumentation and that choice killed the creative spirit of the album. Ulrich has a massive arsenal of percussive instruments from all over the world at his disposal, giving him the ability to enrich his simple melodies with tremendous harmonic overlays. In the end, what Ulrich presents is like a pinhole view into his talent, and I am amazed at his reticence in displaying his extraordinary gifts with this album.
The promotional material calls Ulrich’s work a combination of darkwave, dream-pop, ancient and medieval, new age, world and ethnic music. And perhaps this is the problem. In trying to replicate so many forms, “Enter the Mysterium” has no form while trying to engage the listener with the superficial spiritualism of the lyrics.
Maybe Ulrich needs to ring up Perry and Gerard, and attempt a cordial DCD reunion. It wouldn’t be anything big, just something between them and the other former members of the band. They can improvise on some themes they’ve all been tempted to try, and cut loose making their way back to their complex compositional structures. After that, Ulrich should make another album, keeping that DCD session in mind while generating his rich and multi-dimensional rhythmic patterns once again, foregoing the dreamy drivel.