This album was a real sleeper in 2010, a situation I sure didn’t help by taking so long to review it. But if you’ve heard it, you gotta have some sympathy — to turn this record on is to tune into a whole alternate reality, one where piddly little things like writing record reviews stick in your mind about as long as it takes a starship to flicker across the sky of a planet populated by club-wielding savages. Things get real cosmic real quick, and no amount of journalistic integrity is gonna get me, for one, to turn back.
Just take the opening track, with its slow saxophone moans, like those scenes of Spock swimming with a whale in The Undiscovered Country (or was that a different Star Trek?). Weird how hard it is to imagine anything more cosmic than being underwater. What Freud called “the uncanny,” an indefinable expansive feeling he thought people had consistently mistaken for a religious experience, was actually mainly attributable to human beings’ own fears of the unknown and desire for safety.
New Age Outlaws has a little bit of both, not just because it gets across its otherworldly message with synths and reverb that’d keep an Inuit warm, but because it refers back to a period of our cultural history when people really knew how to think about alternate realities. I’m talking, of course, about the stretch between the early 1970s and early 1980s, which gave us Jodorowsky’s insane Holy Mountain, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans (Four songs! Twenty minutes each!), and, maybe the jewel in the crown, John Boorman’s Zardoz.
New Age Outlaws is an unapologetic throwback to that golden era of smart, melancholy, grotesque, and absurdist space visions. On one level, it’s an incredibly slow, bleak record, with almost no beats and very little that could be called melody; the focus is more on recursive, echoing soundscapes, such as on “Penguin Point,” which revolves around two or three anchoring notes occasionally joined by extraneous tweets. But what is there is always beautiful, the minimal melodies always meshing, arpeggios traipsing like crystals.
Everything is resolutely analog, which is what makes the aesthetic Ettinger is honoring so appealing to us now, from that weird worm-world sequence in Buckaroo Banzai to the armadillo with tank treads scrawled on Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus as by a nine-year-old with some markers. How can we not be fascinated by the past’s clumsy, tentatively optimistic imaginings of a future we now know doesn’t have much of a bright side? Ettinger gives us a slowed-down version of Rick Wakeman’s keyboard pyrotechnics, half of the appeal of which was that they were like… computers, or something? And then there’s the real secret reference, to the Fairlight Sampler and, in turn, to the theme from Miami Vice, which was always science-fiction in cool-guy drag.
The time when those weird visions could be so captivating is, clearly, long past. Who’s going to spend hours gazing at an album cover when you can instantly punch up a photorealistic wireframe simulation of that crazy spider-rabbit you dreamed about last night (or, actually, someone else’s deflatingly exact realization of their dream)? Like so much of the new psych, New Age Outlaws is less about imagining than about remembering what it was like to imagine.