Geoff Geis

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A Fresh Aire Christmas

The next installment in my “Wonderful Christmas Music” section is A Fresh Aire Christmas, released in 1988 by synthesizer guru Chip Davis (better know by the name Mannheim Steamroller). Click here to listen to the entirety of the album on Lala.

My parents are way into Mannheim Steamroller, and growing up as a grunge-obsessed teenager in the 1990s I was very clear with them that i did *not* like this “new age crap.” As I got older though, it turned out that the Steamroller is pretty awesome. This music is like a sparkly Walter/Wendy Carlos, except the arrangements of classic pieces are a bit more adventurous. I realize now that I didn’t actually dislike the Steamroller – I simply disliked riding in the backseat of my parents’ station wagon while they drove around the neighborhoods of Huntsville, Alabama, looking at a thousand stupidly ornate light displays in the yards of random homeowners who have nothing better to spend their money on than waving Santas and blinking strings of light. The soundtrack to these miserable excursions was, year-after-year and without fail, A Fresh Aire Christmas.

The album suffered, thus, as a result of bad associations.

Oh, but it’s gorgeous. “Hark! the Herald Trumpets Sing” is classic Steamroller, augmenting the well-worn Christmas classic with these extraordinary synthesized horn runs that give the song this whole “bumpy ride on Santa’s sleigh” feel.  Another jam from this record is the version of “Carol of the Bells.” Often performed very quietly with voices, Davis’s version of the song is an outright rocker, complete with a techno-remix breakdown part. Like in “Hark! the Herald Trumpets Sing,” the Steamroller adds some really fleshy and driving sections to the song that don’t exist in the original, propelling it to otherworldly status. “Carol of the Bells” has always been an interesting Christmas song to me because of it’s outright eeriness – despite being a Christmas hymn, the chords give it a timbre that is not necessarily cheery (the only other hymn I can immediately think of that has the same character is the relatively obscure Basque hymn “Gabriel’s Message,” which I’ve never heard outside of my home church). The Steamroller version of this song takes that eeriness to an extreme that could even be described as a bit menacing and antagonistic, with odd vocal manipulations that sound a little bit science-fiction. An interesting place to take a Christmas song.

On the other end of the spectrum is “Still, Still, Still,” traditionally one of the quietest Christmas hymns and one that Davis chooses to keep quiet on this recording. It’s my favorite version of the song.

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Music

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