When I first heard that Clifford White was going to follow up his critically acclaimed 2009 album The Gods of Olympus with a sequel to his very first record Ascension (released by New World Music is 1985), I was both surprised and excited. Twenty-five years since the release of that classic work, the news that there would be another album in the style of Ascension certainly had me counting the days until its release. However on reflection this feeling of pleasurable anticipation was offset somewhat by a nagging worry. What with White’s best-selling masterpiece being such a hard act to follow, and with so many years having elapsed, could the artist possibly recapture the mood of the original? Would this latter-day return to his roots live up to expectations? I needn’t have worried.
Inevitably, Ascension II: The Healing Touch will invite comparisons with its successful predecessor. And quite rightly; the entire album features various nods to the original (some of which I will discuss later on in this review), both in terms of melody, choice of sounds and tranquil mood. While the first album is imbued with a charming simplicity, this excellent sequel updates and revisits several of the themes of Ascension, while successfully recapturing the gentle and serene qualities that helped make White’s 1985 work such a hit with New Age music fans.
Before I go on to comment on the individual compositions that make up this album, the superb production is worthy of note. Recording technology has come a long way since the mid-eighties, and it certainly shows here. All the subtleties, textures and layers of instrumentation are allowed to shine through, courtesy of White’s top-notch producing skills. The clarity and balance of his magical soundscapes, apparent throughout, benefit the listening experience a great deal.
With nine delightful tracks and an overall running time of over sixty minutes, there is much for Clifford White fans to savour on Ascension II. The album opens brightly with “A Blessing”. One is immediately drawn to the infectious melody. Here is a piece that quite neatly sets the tone of what is to follow. “A Blessing” is restful, enchanting and with its positive energy, spiritually akin to the first Ascension, albeit delivered with a modern slant. Actually the bass line made me smile, reminding me a little of the one on “Mr. Elemental”, a personal favourite from the original.
The second piece on offer has a more orchestral feel. The sensual harmonies and lead synth line of “Eternity” were clearly inspired by Vangelis, a master of symphonic electronic music who has long been a major inspiration on White’s music. “Eternity” drifts along exquisitely, and is so gentle and pleasant you could easily fall asleep to this one (and I mean that in the nicest possible way!).
Richly atmospheric, the nine minutes of aural bliss that is “Luna” are truly captivating. The slow groove, measured pace, hypnotic beeps and intricate sequences would not be out of place on one of William Orbit’s legendary Strange Cargo albums. This abstract composition builds slowly as more layers of sound are added while the sexy trance-like ambience is sustained throughout. There are so many deft touches: the lush synth-string backdrop that complements a simple, delicate melody; the Latin piano that appears late on in the track, and aha! is that another agreeably funky bass line I hear? (As an aside, I for one wish Mr. White would indulge in this kind of thing a little more; I’ve always felt he has an ear for soulful, even danceable music.) For sure, nice touches such as this enhance the music no end. “Luna” is simply wonderful.
Natural forest sounds provide a backdrop to “Sanctuary”, the fourth and longest piece on Ascension II. The listener is quickly transported into a peaceful place. This stately, unhurried composition evoked in my mind the scene of a secluded woodland glade. One imagines a forest sanctuary indeed, with images of dappled sunlight and leaves rustling in the wind, the hush broken only by the gentle gurgling sounds of a babbling brook. A place of serenity to rest and contemplate the enigmatic beauty of Nature. Whatever mental images the music conjures up, certain aspects send shivers down your spine, such as the haunting flute and crystalline chimes, while as a whole “Sanctuary” is best appreciated if you just allow the music to wash over you. This one reminds me of some of the more ambient pieces on his 1989 album The Lifespring.
To my ears the preliminary chords and timbres of “Reawakening” are reminiscent of the electronic tone poems that comprise much of the gentler side of Chris Franke’s soundtrack work. This is a quite beautiful piece and probably the most accessible track on the album. The understated overture swiftly develops into a catchy, upbeat tune that lingers in the mind and demands repeated listens! With stirring harmonies, nice saxophone and a melody to die for, “Reawakening” is an absolute gem of a track. One of White’s best ever, in my humble opinion.
Following on from this is the marvellous title track, which is gracious, restful and features another delightful melody. The bird sounds and very welcome introduction of an acoustic guitar augment this well-crafted piece. One cannot help but relax and simply enjoy the melodic beauty presented here.
The penultimate track is the emotive “The Answer”. The distinctive keyboard sound, bittersweet aura and overall style are clearly intended as a homage to “The Calling”. This latter I fondly recall as one of the best and most moving pieces on the firstAscension. One wonders at the respective titles … is this a response to the original call of 25 years ago?
“The Power Within” is the short-but-sweet album finale. Rich synth chords and undulating harps contribute to a somewhat grandiose, Vangelis-inspired theme that would fit quite nicely on White’s previous album The Gods of Olympus. Come to think of it, surely this piece belongs in the soundtrack to an epic movie! But failing that, it’s not hard to let your imagination dream up the visuals to accompany this, and indeed all the other tracks. A stirring conclusion to an accomplished musical suite.
The music on Ascension II: The Healing Touch is (as you would imagine) informed and inspired by its much-loved predecessor. In my view this belated sequel more than lives up to expectations. In terms of sound, melodic structure and general tone, this recording contains numerous references to the original and I’m sure other Clifford White fans will have as much fun as I did in recognising these.
Ascension II certainly recalls the majesty and elegance of his debut album, and will no doubt inspire listeners to rediscover that early masterwork. But this is a fine album in its own right, updating and transcending the uncomplicated innocence of Ascension while bringing new sounds and textures to delight the sonic palette.
In essence, Clifford White’s music is really about uplifting the human spirit. This brilliant new album further enhances his reputation as a talented producer, composer and musician, stamped as it is with his customary deft touch. A healing touch.
March 12th, 2010 | By Richard Simms.