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Dream Cycle
By Michael Whalen
Label: Valley Entertainment
Released 2/24/2017
Dream Cycle tracks
1. Dreams (feat. The New Tarot)
2. Dream Cycle
3. The Distant Light
4. Little Star (Twinkle/ feat. Liz Madden))
5. The Big Sleep
6. Up All Night
7. Waiting to Be Carried Off
8. Hush (feat. Amy Robbins-Wilson)
9. The End of the Line
Michael Whalen is one of the more varied and successful artists in instrumental music, spreading his considerable talent over multiple genres, including new age, ambient, classical, pop, jazz, and soundtracks. However, one of his less prolific personas, but in my opinion, one of his best, is his unique take on a fusion of electronic and spacemusic. First surfacing on the 1996 Hearts of Space release, Nightscenes: Music for the Evening (which was later re-released by Alchemy Records with three extra tracks, all of which were more uptempo than what was on the earlier version). I raved about Nightscenes back in Wind and Wire (the magazine) and I still consider it a landmark recording in the spacemusic genre (its first incarnation) and electronic music (the revised version). Which brings us to his album Dream Cycle.

I have no idea if Whalen intends Dream Cycle to be a sequel to Nightscenes, but I sure hear it as one. It shares the same themes (at least tangentially, with track titles such as “The Big Sleep,” “Up All Night,” and “The Distant Light”) and definitely shares musical aspects and motifs as well, albeit more with the Alchemy re-release than the original Hearts of Space one). In addition, it is not just as good as Nightscenes, but in some ways, I think it's better—more ambitious, wider in scope, and flat-out brilliantly executed. In short, I think it's one of the best electronic albums I've heard in the last three to four years. What may give some of you pause, though, is that the album features three vocal tracks, but trust me, they are some amazing vocals! Whalen opens wide his musical tackle box playing piano, analog and digital synths, organ, Rhodes electric piano, acoustic and digital percussion, percussion programming, vocal samples, EWI (electric woodwind instrument) and loopy/processed guitars. Yeah, he brought it all right! One more guest artist featured on the disc is Bob Magnuson who plays assorted wind instruments (oboe, English horn, sax, clarinet, and flute).

The album opens with a staggeringly gorgeous cover of the Cranberries' classic song "Dreams" with vocals by Karen and Monika Walker (appearing as The New Tarot), and by the time I was two minutes into this track, I was already blown away. Soaring, ethereal vocals mesh with the beautiful lead melody, anchored by some amazing beats that percolate underneath it all with the speed of a bullet train! That rapid pace continues on the nearly eight-minute long title track, and this song cries out for headphones. Like he did on Nightscenes, Whalen piles layer upon layer of synths, piano, and rhythms. Magnuson adds some soaring sax as well and this track just gets into my blood stream and makes my heart race. I have to be careful when playing this song while driving! “The Distant Light” lifts off with a blend of plaintive wistful piano and backing electronic textures in a mid to fast tempo but laced with a sense of haunting mystery which befits the spacemusic genre more than the ambient. Again, what impresses me the most is how Whalen brings in so many layers of synths and other musical elements as well as Magnuson’s accompaniment. There is a sense of soaring through time and space at work on this track that is just flat out gorgeous to hear. The next track, “Little Star (Twinkle)” is the next vocal song, this time featuring the talents of Liz Madden, and yes, the song is based on the riff from “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but with the added embellishment of percolating electronics giving the song an air of playful exuberance. The track is a show stopper and you can’t help but feel cheery with its effervescence and good nature.

The album moves into a more sedate nature starting with “The Big Sleep,” and its gentle blend of piano and soothing electronic elements, playing like a spacemusic lullaby, and again, the work on the track by Magnuson is exemplary. “Up All Night” continues (albeit quite differently) the deep spacemusic theme (as opposed to the more rhythmic feel of the first four tracks), anchored by sparse piano and various spacy sounds and effects as well as, need I say it, some expert work on what I believe is oboe by Magnuson. “Waiting To Be Carried Off” raises the energy a bit and also increases the drama, especially as orchestral strings are added into the mix later in the song, but the smooth-sailing landing deposits the listener back safely in dreamland. The third vocal track is “Hush” with vocals by Amy Robbins-Wilson and it is based on “Hush Little Baby” but as played against a starfield of piano and shimmering electronics and layered synth pads. Robbins-Wilson’s singing is transcendent, soothing in the extreme and Whalen gives her an appropriately romantic/spacy backdrop on which to hang her angelic voice. Dream Cycle closes with “The End of the Line” which is far and away the least electronic number on the album, consisting mostly of piano with only minimal effects in the backdrop. I was hoping for more, but up till now, it has been perfection so I can forgive a less than spectacular ending track.

I won’t lie. I love Dream Cycle and I mean I flat out love it. It may not be as spacy as Nightscenes, but believe it or not, the three vocal tracks are my favorite songs on the album. Filled to bursting with all manner of electronica magic, Dream Cycle is a feast for the ears. Very few artists can do what Michael Whalen does here with total mastery over multiple layers of melody, textures, and rhythms. I hope against hope there is another album like this yet to come from him.
- reviewed by Bill Binkelman on 2/5/2018
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