Essential albums: Upper Astral

These marvellous artefacts of early American new age music are the work of three Californian musicians who recorded in different permutations under the name Upper Astral...multi-instrumentalists David Storrs, David Naegele and Robert Slap. Listening to Upper Astral's music now, the range of styles and sometimes progressive and experimental nature of the music is surprising.

Upper Astral

country of origin:

New age, environmental, psychedelic, prog rock,

decades active:
80's - 90's

essential releases:

  • Upper Astral Suite (1981, Valley Of The Sun)
  • Manifestation (1981, Valley Of The Sun)
  • Crystal Cave: Back To Atlantis (1982, Valley Of The Sun)
  • Skybirds (1982, Valley Of The Sun)
  • Journey To The Edge Of The Universe (1983, Valley Of The Sun)
  • Astral Massage (1995, Valley Of The Sun)

Reviewed by Mike G

These marvellous artefacts of early American new age music are the work of three Californian musicians who recorded in different permutations under the name Upper Astral. The main players were multi-instrumentalists David Storrs and David Naegele, the latter also a classically trained pianist. Robert Slap, a prolific solo artist, was also briefly involved.

Welcome to the Valley

Upper Astral's home was Valley Of The Sun, a Californian indie label which churned out a huge number of releases in the 80's and 90's and was owned by new age speaker and author Dick (Richard) Sutphen. Upper Astral albums typically feature extended compositions, one per side, on what are mostly cassette-only releases. Six stand out among the dozen or so released between 1981 and 1995. Along with most of the Valley Of The Sun catalogue, they are long out of print but today can be found free online in digital download form thanks to the recovery efforts of a new generation of passionate fans of early new age music. They have - at least in Upper Astral's case - received the unofficial blessing of the artists for their efforts.

It would be fair to say that David Naegele was the group's guiding light - during its most prolific period he was the label's in-house producer and also did the the company's product development and ad copy. Listening to Upper Astral's music now, the range of styles and sometimes progressive and experimental nature of the music is surprising. In an interview in 2014 I asked David Storrs about this diversity: "Dick just handled the packaging and only asked that the tapes be calming and meditative," he says.  "Beyond that direction we had complete musical freedom."

The essential albums

Upper Astral Suite (1981) and Manifestation (1981) are the work of Naegele alone. The title track from Upper Astral Suite is deeply meditative stuff; long, slowly oscillating bass drones beneath with bell-like synthetic tones and subtle strings. "The Awakening", with its electric piano and wind chimes, is closer to conventional new age instrumentation but closer inspection reveals a sophisticated piece with light and shade and unexpected little detours. There are also wordless group vocals on both tracks that have a peculiarly 60's feel about them, like early live Pink Floyd or the waftiest moments of Smile-era Beach Boys.

Recorded the same year as the debut, Manifestation finds Naegele in a magical space somewhere between minimalism, progressive rock, church music and pure new age. The album's rich, dark-edged organ drones and melodic analogue synth explorations resemble the music of Between and Terry Riley at times, while the wordless choral sustains that fade in and out of the mix evoke a palpable sense of awe and mystery.

Like so much of Valley Of The Sun's output, the title and packaging of Crystal Cave: Back To Atlantis (1982) trades on cheesy new age shtick but the music...ahhh the music. This album is the first of Naegele's and Storr's joint efforts. On the title track the dreamy pop-like vocals first heard on the first album return in a more prominent role, swimming in reverberant space, with instrumental colour coming mainly from harp. The second track is pure solo harp, beautifully played by guest Carrol McLaughlin. Skybirds (1982) is another outstanding collaboration. It takes a simple two-chord approach - a major and a minor-seventh - carried by grand piano and careful, harmonious layering using a Juno-6 synthesiser. Skybirds is hands down one of the most weepingly beautiful new age albums of the era.

Completely different is Journey To The Edge Of The Universe (1983), which echoes the psy-ambient of the Berlin school. The title track is built on a slow arpeggio that harks back to moments from mid-70's Tangerine Dream except that it doesn't really sigh and surge like its German progeny. It's more of a long meditation, coloured with enough original analog synth playing and spacey sounds to elevate the music into a quiet realm of its own. According to David Storrs, the album was an experiment inspired by - and incorporating - a set of sounds from the Plasma Wave Experiment which was riding aboard NASA's Voyager space probes, the recordings of which had been released to the public.

It was at this point - 1983 - that David Naegele vacated his role in-house producer at Valley Of The Sun and was replace by Robert Slap, and Upper Astral's most prolific period ended.

A gap of 12 years separates Edge Of The Universe and the final Upper Astral album Astral Massage (1995) which is in fact the sole work of Robert Slap. The stripped-back approach of combining light organ-like chords with flute-like synth phrasing (a Minimoog?) on "Massage One" is brilliantly effective; the 20-minute piece has a poise and Zen-like stillness that's very special. "Massage Two", with its additional instrumentation, sounds bloated and bland by comparison; it's the first track that makes Astral Massage a must-have.

Other projects & legacy

David Storrs, David Naegele and especially Robert Slap also released a fair number of albums on Valley Of The Sun under their own names during this period. Some of these are well worth searching out. Today, Slap lives in Indiana and remains involved in music production. Storrs still records and performs including a role with retro pop and easy-listening outfit The Les Deux Love Orchestra. Naegele has since retired from recording.

Since the late 90's the Valley label itself has released little new music and most of its catalogue is now dormant, but today the music lives again thanks to a new generation of fans online sharing digital rips of old new age cassettes. I asked David Storrs what he made of this renaissance: "I had no idea this was happening. The Hidden Valley Of The Sun blog is written by a 17 year-old! That blew me away. Some of this music that he loves and is writing about was recorded more than 15 years before he was born."

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