Ambient Music

Jean-Michel Jarre’s Odd Techno Shocker and Alice Coltrane Disciple Surya Botofasina’s Meditations

Jean-Michel Jarre's Odd Techno Shocker and Alice Coltrane Disciple Surya Botofasina's Meditations

Jean-Michel Jarre, “Brutalism” (Sony Germany)

French composer/synth savant Jean-Michel Jarre’s best-known and best-selling works such as 1976’s Oxygène and 1978’s Équinoxe traffic in grandiloquent melodies, frou-frou tonalities, and sweeping rhythms—they’re pretty much the stuff of Hollywood soundtracks for movies set in outer space. Though totally instrumental, these albums sold in the millions during the ’70s, perhaps aided by the fluke radio success of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” and disco’s booming popularity, which created mainstream acceptance of synthesizer-based music. 

As thoughtful and well-produced as Jarre’s best work is, though, there’s always been something candy-coated and lightweight about much of it. “Oxygène (Part V)” is an exception; this track—especially in its second half—really gets the rocket engine roaring. The 1988 LP Revolutions contains some weird moments, but overall reverts to Jarre’s inclination for overfamiliar, big-budget bravado. More recently, 2021’s Amazônia ventures into ethnodelic soundscaping, using jungle noises to augment wide-screen ambient compositions. 

With most electronic-music legends in their later years, e.g., Vangelis (RIP) and Giorgio Moroder, we expect diminished creative powers. That goes for musicians in any genre, to be fair. Therefore, it’s somewhat shocking to find that Jarre’s 22nd album, Oxymore (out October 21), goes harder and weirder than anticipated. The press notes reveal that it’s been “conceived as an immersive work in a multi-channel and 3D binaural version,” so that may partially explain the music’s 360-degree mind-bonking nature. 

The title track features jagged guitar stabs, abstract, strange electronics, and the funkiest beats that JMJ’s ever laid down. It sounds more like the Orb at their grittiest than anything Jarre’s done in his 50-year recording career. The disorienting, psychedelic techno of “Neon Lips” is much stranger than anything you’d imagine from a 74-year-old multi-millionaire composer. And so it goes for most of Oxymore, including on the lead track, “Brutalism.”

It’s funny that Sony Music thought a track as uncompromising as “Brutalism” would make for a strong first single, but this move likely speaks to the clout that somebody as legendary as Jarre wields. In it, growling synth borborygmus speckles a fraught, windswept techno vista, sounding like Swiss electro eccentrics Yello got infected with the rave bug and took some dodgy acid before entering the studio. Respect to the label and artist for championing and creating a track this edgy and interesting by a Platinum-selling icon who’s played before millions in concerts worldwide. Ol’ Jean-Michel ain’t playing it safe. 

Surya Botofasina, “Surya Meditation (feat. Swamini Satsang)” (Spiritmuse Records) 

A gentle soul possessed of deep meditative powers, New York City keyboardist/composer Surya Botofasina grew up in the late jazz/New Age legend Alice Coltrane’s Sai Anantam Ashram—and it shows. His new Carlos Niño-produced album, Everyone’s Children (out November 4), lounges luxuriously at the nexus of mellowest spiritual jazz and calmest-toned New Age.

Sprawling over 100 minutes, its nine tracks offer a bounty of beatific beauty. Piano, synth strings, vibes, chimes, chants, and devotional vocals and recitations (by Mia Doi Todd, Radha Botofasina, and Swamini Satsang) dominate the sound field, every detail lovingly placed for optimal peacefulness. 

As someone who’s actively sought chillout music in its many forms for several years, I find Everyone’s Children to be a particularly soothing specimen. Such sounds are always necessary to help one attain a semblance of mental health, but in 2022 that need is more urgent than ever. The album’s serenity-now vibe is just what the guru ordered. Everyone’s Children counters the prevailing culture of instant gratitude, short-attention-span, and inane endless-scrolling that plagues modern life. Botofasina—who also has acted in Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl—is beckoning you to close your eyes, assume a comfortable position, and open your ears and heart as wide as you possibly can, the better to allow his crystalline tone poetry to ameliorate your worries.

This 10-minute excerpt from “Surya Meditation” (another version on the album lasts nearly three times longer) begins with Swamini Satsang stating with benevolent certainty, “Every day should be meditative,” as a resonant, grounding drone and gorgeous vibraphone motif get your chakras humming in perfect harmony. At one point, Satsang exclaims, “The world is becoming blessed!” and while it would be pretty to think so, a quick scan of Google News refutes such optimism. Nevertheless, Surya creates a convincing illusion that all is well, at least while his music circulates through your sensorium.

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