Essential albums: Japetus

Visions of Paradise (1986) is stunningly pretty ambient psychedelia. Its two long pieces - each with three movements - flow like the deepest river, their textures glowing and swirling like luminescent mist.

artist:
Japetus

country of origin:
Australia

style(s):
New age, meditation, drone, psyambient, spacemusic

decades active:
70's - 10's

essential releases:

  • The Great, Great Silence (1983)
  • Visions of Paradise (1986, japetus.com)
  • The Radiant Self (1987, japetus.com)
  • Infinity (1988, japetus.com)

Reviewed by Mike G

While much DIY new age music in its birth country of the USA was already becoming commercialised and diluted as the 1980's wore on, in Australia during this period the genre was enjoying something of a creative peak.

Early new age in Oz was a small, loosely connected scene spanning both city and country, with artists self-releasing cassettes or going through small grassroots music labels. The Sydney-based multi-instrumentalist and sound designer Japetus - who later relocated to alternative lifestyle capital Byron Bay - was arguably the most gifted of them all, and his best recordings from this period are now new age classics. While not as widely known as those of his American new age counterparts, albums like Visions of Paradise (1986) sit comfortably alongside exotic synth-based gems by names like Iasos, Don Roberson, Emerald Web and Upper Astral. Like those artists, his distinctive musical voice has an appeal that expands beyond fans of therapy music to anyone who likes their ambient lush, sophisticated and trippy.

His background before his first new age release included writing and recording songs for his guitar-synth-pop band The Crazoids and running his own commercial production studio in Sydney. But then he discovered meditation and spirituality, and his experimentation with a new generation of synths started shifting from pop songs to instrumental deep ambient, eventually resulting in his striking solo debut The Great Great Silence (1983). While its two long pieces are serene and spacey as you would expect for the genre, the textures and subtle melodic themes are intricate, varied and constantly shifting, the tones swaying between rich harmony and alien dissonance. The album's production and synth sounds clearly mark it as e-music of its time, but that's also part of its charm, and its good ideas still shine through. His next release, the non-essential Once Around The Sun (1984), is not without interest but the diversity of its sources across seven tracks - Aboriginal music, Japanese folk, German synth music and others - comes across as too diffuse for the whole to really gel as an album.

However, his next two releases are bonafide masterpieces of early new age: Visions of Paradise (1986) and The Radiant Self (1987), both of them largely created on keyboard synths and early samplers. Their depth and distinctiveness is at least partly due to the fact that he never even listened to other new age music until the 90's, coupled with the inspiration he found in early progressive rock and kosmische music like Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream.

Visions is stunningly pretty ambient psychedelia. Its two long pieces - each with three movements - flow like the deepest river, their textures glowing and swirling like luminescent mist. An epic progression built on orchestral and harp samples segues into an eerie passage of free-form spacemusic, then onto an awe-inspiring reinvention of sacred music built on vocal samples, the latter with a wordless choral sound that ambient dance music acts like Global Communication would use to such great effect in the 90's. And all this is only the first half. The second-half opener "Cascade" is a glittering wonder, built with a multi-layered crystalline melody that echoes Vangelis at his quietest and most elegant. In contrast, "Bliss" is sweeping landscaped ambient with rich panoramic drones that rise and fall and wash all over you.

The Radiant Self (1987) is his most personal album and also his most ambitious. It's somewhat more fragmented in mood and style than Visions, and deliberately so given its theme of self-exploration. Yet the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. His gift for evoking wide-eyed wonder is still there in all its glory, such as "Forest of Dreams" with it's slow rolling piano figure and counter-melody on synth, the swelling minor-key drones on "Doorway of Light", and the soaring, powerful chord changes that drive "Path of Gold". But there's also a long, highly effective passage of dark-edged abstraction that evokes some kind of extraterrestrial jungle journey. It's striking, both because it works in the context of the album and because few in the new age genre at the time would have even attempted such a piece.

Infinity (1988) dates from the same recording sessions as The Radiant Self but is an entirely different concept: a one hour series of quiet ambient loops designed as atmosphere and background. It was originally released on a 12-minute endless loop cassette, after which he later reworked and extended it to the current one hour piece for CD and digital. Conceptually, it's the same idea as Brian Eno's wallpaper pieces like "Thursday Afternoon", but musically this collection of "colours and moods and shades" has an emotional undertow that Eno's similar efforts lack. It ebbs and flows between grades of shadow and light to quite remarkable effect.

Fans who what to dig deeper into the Japetus catalogue will find several more releases of original music since the 80's. There is also a whole series of other albums spanning his career which feature spoken word "visualisations" accompanying the music, including alternative versions of some of the albums listed above.

 

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