Last year, I published a brief summary of Sheffield improvisational genre-defying sound architect Martin Archer’s releases on his own Discus Records imprint. One of those albums was the double-disc debut of Archer’s large ensemble, Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere, released in 2012. Not long after my piece, that group’s second offering, another massive double CD entitled θ2 hit the virtual shelves.
A vast trip into the Kosmische beyond, this then is what we did, the week after we joined Satchidananda on a trip into the innermost vast expanses, running the gamut from dark industrial ambience of Stapleton-like glower through improvisational Krautrock and on to delicate space noise received from an unimaginable distance, via chamber rock, funk and modern classical music, this is BIG music so you better strap yourself in.
Melodies come and go, often led or propelled by Steve Dinsdale’s anchoring rhythms and Terry Todd’s meditative bass playing, occasionally channelling PIL-era Jah Wobble to great effect, and on Modus his empathetic funk is deep and on the one, fleetingly joined by the ghost of Miles to create a sparse but resonant vibration coming all the way from the Tutu era. The bassist and the drummer lend the entire ensemble a proper “group” feel to what otherwise may have sounded like a rarefied studio-confined project. Indeed, this is a proper band, and they have performed live, and here is the evidence:
Judging by the lighting, or lack of it, one can only assume that OAU are blessed with faces made for radio! Fleeting half-lit glimpses of various band members occur throughout the video, crafting sonic sculptures in real time.
Echoes of the electronic atmospherics of Terry Riley are intermittent features, and the attendant looping is a technique used in just the right amount and in the right places, as the final four or so minutes of opener Dominant Growth Direction testifies, beginning with a repeated and haunting flute refrain as the piece drifts rudderless into the great beyond.
Fully formed wordless vocals make an appearance on Paratacamite, and again looping is used to create layers of ethereal sound. The voices are provided by Juxtavoices, an “anti-choir” whose extraordinary and quite captivating album I reviewed a while back. The looped and layered voices with the attendant repeated instrumental refrain, topped off with disembodied synth space whispering, chattering percussion and fractured organ create a mantra-like experience reminiscent of early Krautrock. Like that now ancient but nonetheless ground-breaking music, OAU are free of any standard Western rock/blues tropes, and are at large to roam where they will. Paracatamite is my personal album highlight, as I find it completely hypnotic and always offering something new.
Although based on improvisation, the fact that this second outing for the collective was recorded over a matter of weeks and then followed by later additions and production tweaks lends O2 a more composed and structured feel than the debut, which took far longer to put together, and was an altogether more disparate project.
This is a “big band”, but of course not in the traditional sense. Keith Tippett’s Centipede, or Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood Of Breath come to mind, but with much added modernistic electronic pizzazz. There is a strong Krautrock influence, and I can only imagine that Martin is a fan of the more obscure corners of the German underground music scene, for I am sure I can hear a fleeting visits from the ghost of Eroc here, the spirit of Xhol Caravan there, as well as the more well-known bands from that wonderfully free and unrestricted scene. Not that this is an attempt to recreate the past, far from it, for all these influences and more come together to form an organic and living whole.
The first CD of O2 is the more dynamically energised of the two, and epic opener Dominant Growth Direction weaves synth trails through the sky to the backing of the insistent drums and bass. The sawing string section and keyboard cake icing eventually lead to a plateau of looped flute as the piece becomes becalmed, arriving at an alien synth-symphonic awakening before drifting off in an unsettling percussive and vocal stirring of darker things.
Strangeitude is on offer aplenty on the snappily titled Bilateral Coordination Activities Are Calming and here an avant direction into Stapleton territory is taken. The piece is, given its title, strangely disquieting and deliberately disjointed, full of weird aural surprises.
And so it goes…uncompromising yet engaging, spiky yet loveable, this creature repays the time invested in it by the listener with added interest. The remaining three pieces on CD 1 are equally as interesting as what has gone before, with soundtracks from the alien cinema giving way to displaced spatial jazz accompanied by dub rhythms. Space may indeed smell of strawberries in this alternate universe where the stately progress of a space junk across the Kosmische expanses encounters monstrous sweeping string sections and nervous alien chatter bowing before Zeuhl choirs. Becalmed, slowly drifting through the inter-galactic debris, carried on unseen currents and buffeted by solar winds, with the bass, drums and percussion once more playing a leading role, the first CD pitches and yaws to a close.
The skilled production techniques on all of this are sympathetically epic, and suffice to say this is music for those of us who are always looking for the edge of the envelope, but having said that, none of this is wilfully strange or deliberately alienating. The conservative music fan may even find it awakens a dormant or even hitherto undisturbed questing spirit within – one can but hope!
The second CD goes off on a (tangerine) dream-trip, commencing with The Breaking Of Bonds & The Rearrangement Of Atoms building castles of sound in the air, looping layer upon layer over an evidently human rhythm. With only four long tracks filling the 77 minutes of this CD, each piece is given all the time it needs to breathe and grow. Nothing is rushed, and this reflected in the slow and measured meter of the tracks, which are never dull, filled as they are with all kinds of sonic embellishment. A problem with long tracks within conventional rock parameters is often a lack of dynamics, or at the other end of the scale, a feeling of being complicated for the sake of it. Neither of those criticisms apply here, for there are no restrictive boundaries or conventions, resulting in an endless capacity to surprise, a characteristic of all good improvisational music.
Curvature Of The Earth while initially calm and meditative slowly builds to a symphonic crescendo courtesy of the swooping and soaring string section that witnesses the sun rising over the horizon in such resplendent majesty that it leaves the listener feeling small and insignificant. This is spacerock baby, but of a different kind.
No journey to the innermost nooks and crannies of the psyche would be complete without a disturbance, and RMMV Asturias quietly builds a palpable tension, atonal strings following by doom-laden bass and drum taking us to a land of disquiet. This continues into Potent Lunation, where Steve Dinsdale’s drums clatter around the beat taking on the role of an agitated monkey in a cage aware that the drugs are wearing off. The simian patient is stirring to the sound of the dislocated string section and chattering reeds and brass. The anti-choir appear near the end in a Magma fashion, the drums now locked into a monolithic beat with the bass as shards of mellotron-like synth compete with sawing strings in an effort to break free of the ties that bind.
A suitably big end to a big album, Potent Lunation is, like the album itself a piece of music with true scope, vision, and fully realised ambition. O2 deserves far more attention than it will likely get in this crowded modern music world.
It is with a sad heart that I learn of the passing of Edgar Froese, a vital force in the formation of Tangerine Dream, a band that for the first eight or so years of its existence followed a uniquely creative path in music. Tangerine Dream are obviously an influence on Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere, as they were on numerous other bands and musicians. RIP Edgar, you gave us many hours of musical pleasure, and your music inspired countless others.
01. Dominant Growth Direction (14:46)
02. Paratacamite (12:14)
03. Bilateral Coordination Activities Are Calming (5:58)
04. Modus (11:11)
05. Noctilucent (11:33)
06. Space Smells Of Strawberries (9:18)
07. Across the Atmospheric Eddies (14:36)
Total Time – 79:37
01. The Breaking Of Bonds & The Rearrangement Of Atoms (25:40)
02. Curvature Of The Earth (14:21)
03. RMMV Asturias (14:09)
04. Potent Lunation (23:04)
Total Time – 77:15
Martin Archer – Organ, Electric piano, Electronics, Eb saxophones, Clarinets, voice, VST trumpet
Chris Bywater – Organ, Synthesizers & Electronics, Samples, Percussion, Voice & Electric Violin
Steve Dinsdale – Drums, Floor Percussion & Synthesizer
frostlake – Voice, Electronics & Glockenspiel
Yvonna Magda – Electric Violin, Loops & Electronics
Walt Shaw – Percussion, Voice & Electronics
Terry Todd – Bass Guitar, Effects & Voice
Mick Somerset Ward – Concert, Alto and Bamboo Flutes & Bb Saxophones
Paul Schatzberger – Violin
Heather Cordwell – Violin
Aby Vulliamy – Viola
Angela Rosenfeld – Cello
Juxtavoices – Choir
Record Label: Discus Music
Catalogue#: Discus 47CD
Date Of Release: 1st March 2014
Orchestra Of The Upper Atmosphere – Facebook | Bandcamp