From the satisfying metallic clang of opener Sail Around the Sun, this third release from Swiss sound explorers The Universe By Ear ticks many boxes. The harmony vocals work very nicely and the trio of Beni Bürgin (drums), Pascal Grünenfelder (bass & vocals) and Stef Strittmatter (guitar & vocals) deploy their skills in service of the experimental nature of their songs, with bass nicely prominent. The eleven minute opener moves into a satisfactorily spacey drone half-way through a la Floyd’s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, as can be seen in the rather neat video below, driving rhythm supporting the soaring and slightly distorted sustained guitar, which resolves into a nice lead bass. It gets even better in the final stretch as they take on an almost Blue Öyster Cult tone in the “…Wide open spaces…” bit, with a beautifully modulated lead vocal line, something that also comes through in the haunted blues opening of Two Hour Drive and its subsequent swinging mid-section.
The whole track – the album’s longest – is a blast and it’s great to hear from the trio again; I somehow missed their also self-titled 2019 album completely – noted for rectification – after really enjoying the self-titled debut in 2017, in that review suggesting that the sound was “a head-out-of-the-window-at-70 blast of cheek-billowing fresh air, and if King Crimson were looking for a support act it would be an easy step to suggest these guys; the music sounds nothing like KC but the seat-of-the-pants experimentation and passion for ‘different’ mark them out as being cut from similarly patterned cloth.” That still holds true and III is an exceedingly fun way to spend 40-minutes.
Fittingly, the Bandcamp blurb describes III as being “about unknown spaces and uncanny depths”, and there is certainly an uncanny depth to the way the band build their pieces, retaining a rawness that suggests that they would simply fly in the live environment. The dynamic free-flow continues into the more angular Something in the Water, which exemplifies the live feel, raucous lead guitar rasping against the driving rhythms. But wait… the mid-point again sees a change, a slowed tempo and a new direction as an almost Musique Concrète approach drifts over steady drum patterns. The bass here sounds like it could have come from King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black era, and as a whole it certainly draws you in, the band redefining a sound of their own which retains familiarity whilst going with the individualistic flow, spacey and yet earthy with a questioning approach. There is perhaps more space (literally as well as figuratively) than previously, with a maturity in the way the band bend sound to their will. The harmony vocals are again effective as the piece moves forward on chiming guitar and strident rhythms towards the end.
The lyrics apparently take in topics such as dystopian worlds and the search for self, but to be honest I haven’t needed to get too bogged down in that to enjoy the breadth and dynamism of a band that deserve much wider attention. The sound is heavy, but controlled and able to cover a lot of ground, not simply battering the listener into submission but giving them a rich tapestry of often quite emotional sounds that certainly resonate with me.
There’s a seamlessness to the movement through the album, and Lie Alone appears effortlessly in the wake of Two Hour Drive before launching into a thumping power trio workout, bass creating the undulating landscape upon which the guitar can roam. The vocal has a slightly sinister edge as the song prowls, giving their particular brand of psychedelia a grounded and powerful appeal. Don’t go thinking that this is a dour and heavy for the sake of it; there are burgeoning melodies and a keen eye for harmonic detail with plenty of head-nodding moments that get under your skin.
I’ve largely grown more attracted to live music in preference to recorded examples of late, and this album has a beautiful energy that takes you immediately to a small club, an enthusiastic audience and a quality sound guy who knows how to make it all sound just right. The final track, Salty River, takes a slow-burn melody and ramps it up into an epic monolith (I see where they got the subtitle from!) of slamming guitar chords and dextrous bass picking, the steady drums allowing space for the various parts to come together, co-vocalists doing their thing superbly. It smacks of the ’70s and some of the great meandering instrumental trios, but the concise nature and up to date sound make it all so much better. It’s crisp and detailed; no muddy moments and without that clinical sheen that can sap the life out of a recording. This needs to be heard loud and it will repay your time investment.
Brexit being the all-giving pigs ear that it is for touring bands, I suspect that there is less chance than ever of seeing this idiosyncratic and hugely likeable band in the UK, more’s the pity, but I hope I get to see them play one day. I’ve always fancied going to Switzerland… but unfortunately I doubt that the fragrant Mrs R would be up for this kind of a detour; shame.
Very highly recommended for those who quest for new in their old and need to give their ears a good seeing to.
01. Sail Around the Sun (11:55)
02. Something in the Water (9:33)
03. Two Hour Drive / Are We There Yet (6:37)
04. Lie Alone (7:06)
05. Salty River (Incl. Monoliths) (7:05)
Total Time – 42:16
Beni Bürgin – Drums
Pascal Grünenfelder – Bass, Vocals
Stef Strittmatter – Guitar, Vocals
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: Switzerland
Date of Release: 28th October 2022