Essential albums: Emerald Web

The Florida-based duo of Kat Epple and the late Bob Stohl were, in a way, new age music superstars. During Emerald Web's 12 year existence their records sold well, their live tours were popular and they forged an extensive career in the 1980's composing soundtrack music for film, TV and planetarium shows.

artist:
Emerald Web

country of origin:
USA

style(s):
New age, soundtrack, spacemusic, ethno-ambient, ambient pop

decades active:
70's - 80's

essential releases:

  • Sound Trek (1980, Stargate)
  • Valley Of The Birds (1981, Stargate/Narada)
  • Aqua Regia (1982, Stargate)
  • Nocturne (1983, Fortuna)
  • Traces Of Time (1987, Stargate)
  • Manatee Dreams Of Neptune (1990, Scarlet)
  • The Stargate Tapes (2013, Finders Keepers)

Reviewed by Mike G

The American duo of Kat Epple and the late Bob Stohl were, in a way, new age music superstars in the 1980's. During Emerald Web's 12 year existence their records sold well, their live tours were popular and they forged an extensive career composing soundtrack music for film, TV and planetarium shows. Both fine acoustic musicians and synth programmers, their partnership ended with Stohl's accidental death in 1990 at age 35, after which Epple continued with a solo career.

Emerald Web's electro-acoustic sound is crafted from keyboards, flutes, bells and a wide array of synthesisers and digital orchestrations. The albums are slickly produced but, at its considerable best, Emerald Web's music retains an exotic, meditative, other-worldly quality that's very special, coupled with a deep emphasis on melody that skilfully avoids veering into new age blandness. A quartet of the band's early albums, plus two latter day ones, best capture these qualities.

The band's third release Sound Trek (1980) is the first album on which the disparate currents in their earliest music - synth-based psychedelia, prog rock, jazz, ethnic music and environmental ambience - coalesce into consistently well-developed tunes. "Nightsong" has a sighing melancholy that echoes Vangelis synth music at its most restrained, while "The Moving Of Mountains" cleverly blends multiple flute lines with reverb and echo and shows both musicians' sensitivity as flautists.

On Valley Of The Birds (1981) - arguably their greatest release - the duo has really mastered the use of synths such as the Minimoog, Oberheim and ARP. The album is a monument to the hypnotic quality of simple arpeggios, stretched out over long distances with only a few chord changes along the way. The throbbing bass pulses of "Openings" and "Photonos" have an extraordinary mysterious quality, only deepened with whistling Minimoog melodies soaring above. "Rain Forest" layers gently rolling melody loops beneath flute solos and is a stellar example of how jaw-droppingly pretty Emerald Web could be without tipping over into new age schlock.

The next two albums - Aqua Regia (1982) and Nocturne (1983) - are both quite different from Valley Of The Birds. A big churchy anthem called "Starfinder" opens Aqua Regia, followed by mostly meditative tracks ranging from quasi-classical to single chord drone-based pieces. The flutes are often joined here - and on subsequent albums - by the Lyricon, an early hybrid synthesiser/woodwind instrument expertly played by Stohl and which variously sounds like a clarinet, saxophone or lead electric guitar. The Nocturne album is almost neoclassical. It emphasises flute, harp and string sounds and is probably the duo's quietest work.

After Nocturne, drum machines configured in rock and pop patterns begin to appear on the band's albums - ageing them quite badly in places - and some of the orchestrations tend towards a more overtly commercial sound which drains the music of its earlier distinctiveness. Two latter-day Emerald Web albums are recommended, however: the best-of compilation Traces Of Time (1987) and the band's final release Manatee Dreams Of Neptune (1990). While the latter is a little erratic stylistically, it's still a must-hear chiefly for the 17-minute epic "On And Off The Planet", an utterly gorgeous piece of spacemusic that starts with minimalistic repetition and slowly builds layers of arpeggios, floating chords and ghostly choirs up to a long euphoric peak.

Some of Emerald Web's original releases are still not available on CD, digital download and/or streaming platforms, though they eventually will be, as Kat Epple has been gradually re-releasing the band's catalogue. There is also the excellent recent compilation The Stargate Tapes (2013), a fine collection from the early years including some tracks from the classic Valley Of The Birds. Kat sells most of the catalogue via her website including some original cassettes and vinyl LP's at www.katepple.com.

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