Saturday, September 15, 2012

Enigma - MCMXC a.D.

Good evening. This is the voice of Enigma. In the next hour we will take you with us into another world, into the world of music, spirit and meditation. Turn off the light, take a deep breath, and relax. Start to move slowly, very slowly. Let the rhythm be your guiding light.

Speaking the words above, a woman’s sensual voice lulls you into a sense of comfort and security, of spiritual awareness, for the journey that is the dually thematic New Age experience of MCMXC a.D., an album that is bold in its combined usage of New Age transcendental serenity and ambient house music. The dueling themes of staunch religiousness (the type that can be seen in the Catholic Church emanated by the choral voices of monks) and passionate sexuality permeate the listener throughout the album, putting one at a constant battle between tranquil meditation and erotic release.

The entire genre of New Age music is often overlooked or simply cast aside as being meditative spiritual nonsense, fit only for consumption by vegan, yoga matt-totting modern hippies. While a key component of the New Age movement truly is meditative relaxation and inner-peace, the genre of New Age music in itself is quite expansive and deep, incorporating upon various other genres such as ambient minimalism and neo-classicism. Enigma’s MCMXC a.D. is no exception in New Age music in that the album makes use of a number of sub-genres to create a wholly ethereal experience. The album itself was a landmark in New Age music, serving as a huge influence for the then-popular movement (the album was released in 1990, which is what the Roman Numerals in the album title read), going double and triple platinum in countries across the world, and even reaching an amazing 4 million sales in the United States. Upon listening to the album, however, it is easy to see why MCMXC a.D. became so hugely popular, as it left a huge impact on what New Age music was and what it had the potential to become.

MCMXC a.D. is largely based on the opposing themes of religion and sexuality, themes which thematically are quite contradictory yet musically mesh together almost seamlessly. Religion is presented throughout the album through the Gregorian-like chanting of Benedictine monks, creating an overall solemnly meditative experience. In contrast, the concept of sexuality is musically represented through the use of erotic bass-beats of ambient dance-hall house music, which (although generic sounding at times) captures the essence of one’s heart thumping sonorously as a sexual encounter climaxes.

Both themes of religion and sexuality duel majestically in a key track on the album Principles of Lust (a 12 minute track composed of three sub-sections), the first section of which, Sadeness, is representative of the albums highest musical and thematic potential. What begins as a sobering monk chant suddenly kicks into a slow, trance-inducing dance beat backed by ethereally synthesized effects and instrumentalization representative of a Peruvian pan flute. The battle throughout the song between a collective of monks and the riveting sexuality produced by the hypnotic rhythm of the synthesized bass reaches its peak with a woman panting, as if worn out by a powerful orgasm, before resuming the regular pace and beat of the song.

Mea Culpa serves to be another key track on the album, and one of the more “danceable” on the album, with its use of a more fast-paced bass rhythm. What this bass lacks in hypnoticism (compared to other tracks like Sadeness) it makes up for with being much more upbeat than many of the other rhythm tracks on the album. While the spoken female words throughout Mea Culpa are representative of the rest of the album in being very sensual, this track also features a major downfall instrumentally that can be seen on various other tracks throughout the album: namely, pathetic sounding guitar solos. These guitar solos give parts of the album a very dated sound, and unfortunately take away from the hypnotic, trance-like vibe of the rest of the album.

At its best, MCMXC a.D. replicates the satisfying mesh of musical stylings as heard in Principles of Lust and Mea Culpa. At its worst, the album can be a bit repetitive in its sampling of generic-sounding house beats that add nothing in particular to the track itself. The album can also tend to be cheesy in its use of guitar solos intended to enhance the overall etherealness, but unfortunately have a particularly stale “generic 1980’s sound” to them. However, as a New Age album it remains nonetheless extremely impressive in its varied use of musical genres and instrumental effects/experimentation, proving that New Age music was not meant solely for a bizarre underground of free-thinking spiritualists, but could also appeal to a wider mainstream audience of everyday people from every stretch of life.

- Richard Cory

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