Majestica: Auriga to Orion Heart Dance Records
Scott Reich: Instar Heart Dance Records
Ken Verheecke: Tripping the Light Fantastic Heart Dance Records
Founded in 2009 by flutist Sherry Finzer, Phoenix-based Heart Dance Records specializes in music designed to foster healing, relaxation, and meditation. Much of the label's catalogue might be classified as New Age or chillout, with electronic and ambient other specializations. Three recent releases provide samplings of the label's sound, the first a collaborative project by Finzer with multi-instrumentalist Cass Anawaty under the Majestica name and the others digital-only releases by ambient guitarist Ken Verheecke and New Age composer Scott Reich. All three are rewarding releases that argue strongly on behalf of Heart Dance Records; if anything, its soul-calming sounds have never been more needed, one could argue, than now.
Like Verheecke's, Majestica's Auriga to Orion is EP-length (mini-album, if your prefer) at thirty-five minutes. With Finzer on flute and Anawaty credited with guitar, bass, synthesizer, drum, and percussion, the duo crafts radiant, soothing soundscapes where the smooth sheen of synthetic textures blends with the analog sounds of electric bass, electric guitars, and flute. It's the latter in particular that gives Majestica distinguishing character, the woodwind adding a humanizing quality to the pristine perfection of the electronics. Second in appeal to her flute is Anawaty guitars, whose post-rock-styled chime elevates the material whenever it appears. Seven tracks are presented, each one subtly different but all sharing the same fundamental sound. Some of it exudes an earthy character, with “Kesil's Light” bringing a slightly funky edge to the recording and the equally downtempo title track animated by a loping groove. Whereas “Dark Years Away” includes dancing melodic patterns that feel like they originated out of Scotland or Ireland a century ago, “Flaming Star” sees the duo taking a deep ambient plunge before entrancing the listener with one last chillout swoon.
For Tripping the Light Fantastic, Ken Verheecke drew for inspiration from the area surrounding his home on Mullet Lake in Northern Michigan (presumably the source for the field recording elements that occasionally surface). He acknowledges Will Ackerman and other Windham Hill artists as influences, evidence of which is audible in the EP's six tracks; that Steve Morse, Neal Schon, Steve Lukather, and other axe-slingers are also cited is reflected in the material's electric guitar emphasis. “The Dance of Heaven” opens the release with Enya-like flourishes, a sparkling scene conjured in mere seconds by the instrumentalist. Alongside a pretty piano figure and hushed vocal textures, guitar emerges as the lead voice, its twang suggesting a steel guitar as much as an electric and its title well-chosen in how strongly the production evokes a serene, celestial sphere. As soothing are “Breathe,” whose relaxed tempo provides a cozy backdrop for Verheecke's guitar musings, and “Healing Waters,” whose slow rhythms and steel guitar-like textures combine to stirring effect. Elsewhere, a trip-hop vibe animates “The Gift of Grace,” with synthesizers doubling up to lend the material a chillwave character, while shoegaze seeps into “Be Still & Know” in its electric guitar formations. Regardless of the stylistic direction in which a given track leans, Verheecke's pastoralia is marked most of all by his guitar as the central element.
As solid as the EPs are, the jewel in this tripartite crown is Instar, an hour-long collection by Scott Reich whose New Age and ambient-electronic content lifts the spirit with many moments of symphonic beauty. The choice of title is significant, the word a biological term referring to the stage between molts, the process by which an organism sheds its outer shape and structure to grow; consequently, Reich's title centers on concepts of metamorphosis and development, the idea that our lives, like those of organisms in general, are always in a state of becoming and transformation. That the material is so accomplished doesn't surprise; though Reich is relatively new to the recording scene, he brings an extensive background to the project, including a a doctorate in composition from the University of Michigan. In keeping with Heart Dance's emphasis on healing sounds, Instar replenishes the spirit with uplifting pieces, all composed, performed, and recorded by Reich alone.
The soundworld he's created is remarkably natural sounding, with the eleven settings achieving the symphonic grandeur of a chamber orchestra and electronics, synthesizers, and piano figuring heavily in Reich's harmonious design. Gentle, soul-nourishing material is in plentiful supply, with woodwinds and strings merged to stirring effect on representative pieces such as “Love Within You, Without You” and “Paths of the Heart.” Whereas many tracks emphasize acoustic sound design, “Follow the Light” is dominated by electronic elements, with synthesizers prominent and everything, including percussion, sounding digitally sourced.
One of the album's standouts is definitely the opening “Earth and Sky, Light and Love,” a gorgeous creation that perhaps best instantiates the project's symphonic character. With hushed strings and gentle percussive detail (including sleigh bells) sighing in the backdrop, woodwinds and synthesizers establish a serene foundation for Reich's at times jazz-inflected acoustic piano playing. The mood is sustained beautifully throughout this magnificent seven-minute setting, its design exuding wonder and serenity.
Instar's other towering moment, “Purify Time,” arrives during the second half and immediately disarms the listener with its spoken word dimension, its text by Tzvi Freeman (from Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, Book 1) delivered by Reich with sincerity. At the start, an acoustic bass line establishes a lilting foundation over which he drapes shimmering strings, harp, and his gentle voice. As the music rises and swells, he maximizes the impact of the words in his exquisite handling of tempo and pacing, with the utterance “It can rise” followed by a prolonged moment of silence that gives the words all the more impact. In fact, the message, which has to do with treating each day as a gift, a source of beauty, and an opportunity for bringing kindness and goodness into the world, isn't complicated, but it's one well worth attending to. On this affecting meditation, the combination of words and music makes for a deeply moving and even transformative experience. The high point of Instar it might be, but it's hardly the only such moment.