Is there a genre of music more misunderstood than New Age? It is not, of course, strictly necessary to offer a broad defense of the genre of a work being critiqued, because a good critique is not necessarily bound by whether the work in question is in vogue at the time; that said, there are realistic bounds to works such as this that limit them from penetrating spaces they might otherwise, even when the critique, as is the case here, mounts the argument that the work itself is quite compelling and richly delivered. We saw similar such strident defense of nu-metal not too long ago, and look how that’s faring critically now (for better or for worse). So, in that spirit: While New Age music is largely associated with your local (white, dreadlocked) herbs-and-crystals store, hippy music for people who find lame-ass jam bands too intense, it has a second life as the meeting ground of ambient music, contemporary classical music, minimal music, and Krautrock, sharing a bed with kosmische.
It is from this bed that TENGGER, a South Korean married duo, spring. Their earlier records may have been exactly the kind of relatively formless meandering one might expect from independent label ambient/New Age recordings, large scale compositions without much overall attention to the shape of a record as a whole, but Spiritual 2 represents a paradigm shift for the group, a mastery of the album-as-form. The record is structured around a nameless piece presented in three movements. “High,” the first movement, opens the record, establishing an upbeat and borderline danceable electronic track, one of a timbre not generally associated with a New Age album. This segues into the first proper emotionally propulsive track, the inward-spiralling “See,” which punches like a drill into the heart before filling the space below you with sweet-scented clouds. The next track is “Middle,” the second movement of the unnamed piece, which is like the first movement but slower, richer, not necessarily calm but meditative. What follows are two more tracks, themselves setting a slower and slower pace, deeper and deeper, like the descent into the stillness of death and dream, before the third and final movement “Low” plays, spilling out like a deep terminal rumble.
But the album doesn’t close with the end of that broader architecture. Instead, it moves into a different finale, a 16-minute piece of twinkling arpeggios and driving Krautrock, representing the ecstasy of the world beyond the flesh and the world. Spiritual 2 is a guided meditation, arcing the spirit and the body through great contortions of intense stillness, ever-quieting, before exploding into the true joy of the world beyond. It is rare to consistently find time to quiet our lives and put on a record to indulge in the same way we might raptly view a film or be immersed fully into the world of a novel, but Spiritual 2 stakes its psychosomatic territory with patience and grace, stunning like the light of angels.
It illuminates as well that other aspect of good New Age music, one it carries in common with music more broadly; it is not precisely about a specific gesture to a specific topic, but instead a turning of the eye inward, a self-relation, relating the world as a subset of the self that observes it and marking the formal relations within. TENGGER have long been skilled at producing music that invokes that sense of witnessing the internal world, but on Spiritual 2 their sense of pacing and superstructure of the album give them a sense of power and profundity that they previously had been lacking. Ambient music in general and New Age music in specific can be a challenging listen precisely because of the lack of explicit movement within it, requiring more of its listener to inwardly complete the puzzle, but for those up for the task, Spiritual 2 is a profound statement and thus far one of the best ambient records of the year.