I am a huge fan of ambient and electronic music, especially when you can tell that a great amount of thought and introspection were poured into the music. Michael Whalen’s new album “Sacred Spaces” contains just that sort of atmosphere. Well, it’s not totally new anymore, as it released on March 6th. I am happy that it crossed my path, though.
Michael Whalen has quite a repertoire. He has two Emmy awards and a BMI award, a Grammy nomination, and thousands of credits to his name for everything from Netflix, HBO, and Oprah to commercials, Pepsi, and Inside Edition. He writes corporate identity pieces, those jingles that stay with you forever. However, what I consider his most interesting achievement is his penchant for creating new synth sounds. You can hear it on this album, too, as fresh and unique synth sounds construct various atmospheres and feelings.
“Sacred Spaces” is an ambient/electronic album, through and through. I certainly call it “progressive” for its ambition, interesting song structures, and proximity to other progressive greats, such as Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. Some call this “New Age”, too, which I can certainly hear. At times, it does remind me of Mike Oldfield’s “The Songs of Distant Earth” in its hopeful and profound style. This isn’t a dark corridor of ambiance or an unsettling collection of melancholy loops, though I love that sort of thing. This album is clearly deeper, more spacious, and more illustrious than many albums of the genre.
The title of the album might give that away, too. This album is about a search for a higher power. According to some interviews, Michael hit a wall a few times in his composing, and he thinks that might be because he secretly didn’t want an answer to this question. Because of this theme, this album comes across as profound, ethereal, and meditative. It will put you in that state of mind, as well. In its arcing light, luscious auras, and beautiful melodies, this record achieves its goal by bringing divinity down to our human spaces: by imprinting the cosmos on our mortal minds. Perhaps a search for the Divine is nothing more than combining Eternity with transience, Infinity and wonder with mortality and normalcy.
I think this represents the genius of “Sacred Spaces”. Michael has somehow made the ordinary feel hypnotically and irreversibly True, as if God, if God exists, can be found in the little things and the everyday. The record has this effect on your mind, putting you directly in a metaphysical mood and a pensive position. Those sacred spaces are the same places that we inhabit every single day: the rising sun, the faces of children, the emotions of the people around us. We can find it in the glassy ocean tide, the weighty silence of night, and the curiosity of the starry skies. We see those places every day, and the search for the Divine leads us directly back to everything and everyone around us.
The album has ten songs, and I really like them all. Some of them are lush, breezy, and full of warmth, such as “A Metaphysical Morning” and “Ordinary Miracles”. Others are more complicated and more spellbinding, especially with a hint of Vangelis in the synth, such as the title track and “Devotion”. You will hear songs with an addictive central melody, and others that are more abstract or evocative. Most of them feel confident and full of light, while a couple do feel uncertain and shadowy. All of them communicate effectively.
Some of my favorites are “The Pure and the Calm”, “The Inbetween”, and “In the Footsteps of the Blessed”. “The Pure and the Calm” has a hint of Vangelis in its sound, but soon transitions to a dreamy mist of feelings and peace. “The “Inbetween” is a slightly darker track. It feels like the ghostly figures that live in your periphery, as if the true nature of the song is always just outside your sight. “In the Footsteps of the Blessed” is a very upbeat track, one that celebrates and enhances the album’s feelings of humanity and everyday spirituality. These three tracks express the diversity and also the unity of the album’s theme.
The album ends with “The Afterlife”, and I find it a fascinating song. It actually has this urban, hustle-and-bustle feeling to it, like living life in a big city. Horns and other light accents are used to heighten this emotion. The track also has a sense of finality and thoughtful retirement about it, as if this bustling life is the afterlife so many have sought for so long. It is an interesting close to the record, something that will leave you in a thoughtful place.
Michael Whalen has certainly given us one of the best electronic albums of the year. I really enjoy the uniqueness of the synths, and also his obvious skill in expressing contemplative emotions and abstract spaces through his compositions. This album feels warm and familiar, yet also adventurous and mysterious, and I find that irresistible. I enjoy it every single time I hear it, and I don’t see that ending any time soon.
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