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Saturday, May 28, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: Space Rock
The term "space rock" was used in separate eras to describe different sounding music that nonetheless shared a certain sonic attitude and purpose.
Originally, space rock referred to bands like Hawkwind, the flagship band of the genre, as well as groups like Pink Floyd and most kraut-rock. It was music that had developed from 60's psychedelia that emphasized long drone, feedback experiments, and trippy textures; all with a solid pulse, if not always a beat.
It was music, essentially, made specifically to accompany drug consumption, although most of the bands that produced it would never admit as such. It often relied on atmospheric texture as much as vocals; often the vocals were subservient to the instrumentation and engineering. It peaked in popularity in the mid-70's and declined rapidly in the punk era; by the early 80's, space rock was dead and presumed extinct. It was considered a 60's relic of the counterculture that was as irrelevant to the day as mood rings.
However, there was a whole generation of people who listened to that stuff, and bonded with it dearly; for them it was no more a 60's phenomenon than drugs are. The late 1980's saw the very first of this new generation sprout up in England; by the early 1990's a robust undergrowth of neo-space-rock was underfoot in America as well.
This new space rock is not your father's space rock, although they are sympathetic cousins. The resurgent space rock artists of the 90's drew from an interesting array of influences cast far more broadly than the 60's bands; these bands draw from psychedelia music, ambient music, experimental, and avant garde. It is usually slow, trancelike, hypnotic, shimmering, exploding in bursts of feedback, or crackling with interstellar dust underneath. It avails itself of studio technology, including those used in electronica, but remains firmly band-based; it is usually music than can be played or approximated live. Few tracks adhere to conventional song structure; each is usually a mini avant epic unto itself, and they can often be lengthy, reaching over 10 minutes and up. All share the otherworldly, ethereal aspects that drugs, particularly LSD and ecstasy provide.
Its forebears are Pink Floyd, both Syd Barrett-era and "Careful With That Axe, Eugene"-era. Hawkwind figures in. There are obvious kraut-rock touches, classical minimalist, Jesus And Mary Chain-style noise-pop, and progressive rock.
Spacemen 3 and tourmates Chapterhouse and Loop get credit for being among the genre's primary architechs. Spacemen 3 minced no words by titling an album Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To. This earned them some heat, but it also defined the concept for the bands that followed in their wake.
In England, space rock and shoegaze developed almost simultaneously and shared many similar characteristics, both being slightly different subgenres of the same essential thing. There are several bands that can be classified as either shoegaze or space rock, among them My Bloody Valentine (considered the flagship band of shoegaze), and The Verve (who ultimately outgrew both tags); there is also kinship with much noise pop, which also can claim My Bloody Valentine as its own.
Spacemen 3's sonic experiments were a cut above their contemporaries, and when the band split in 1991 into two different groups, each following a different space rock muse, two different schools of space rock in general developed. Spectrum continued in a formally minimalist, spare, space filled hypnotic vacuum, similar in essence to Spacemen 3. Spiritualized took the opposite approach and maximized, filling in the space with lush sounds ranging from instrumental washes to gospel choirs, walls of sound, creating and orchestrated rainbow effect of sonic texture. Both schools of space rock have their adherents and fans today.
The later incarnations of space rock included the organic opium-like trance music of America's Bardo Pond, the indie pop of Quickspace!, and the interstellar travels in minimalist heaven like Flying Saucer Attack.
Some important/influential space-rock artists/songs include:
1. Spacemen 3: Call The Doctor
Spacemen 3 was formed in Rugby, Warwickshire, England in 1982 by Sonic Boom (born Pete Kember) and Jason Pierce; joining later were the rhythm section of Pete Baines and Rosco (the band was, in fact, a quartet). Their debut was released in 1986. Spacemen 3 started as a punky garage band given over to pounding drums and fuzzy guitars, however they quicky developed its own strange blend of quirky psychedelia, relying on guitar distortion, over-amped synths, avant-garde minimalist drone, and spacey interludes, inspiring a movement. "Call The Doctor" concludes their sophomore album, a flawless concept album designed to mimic a drug trip from start to finish; the closer is an appropriately drowsy number bittersweet in texture. An essential band for space rock fans of any era; any of their albums are great listening.
2. The Verve: Blue iTunes
The Verve were one of the very best British bands of the 1990's, straddling shoegaze, space-rock, and noise pop convincingly. Their debut is unlike their later two albums; its more explicitly psychedelic, with unconventional song structures, dramatic texture shifts, Richard Ashcroft's rhythmic wails, and Nick McKabe's often propulsive guitar chugging along, or breaking into shimmery fills. It's trance-inducing but also hard rock; a seeming contradiction. "Blue" is a suitable introduction; it features all of the above plus plenty of reverb and feedback, a surprising funkiness to the bass, backwards tapes, and plenty of atmosphere.
3. Flying Saucer Attack: The Drowners iTunes
Flying Saucer Attack, formed in Bristol, England, in 1993, was mainly the work of a duo of David Pearce and Rachel Brook, who had both been in Lynda's Strange Vacation. Flying Saucer Attack was an experimental home recording project that turned into a unique minimalist space rock. Their music draws from a mix of folk, noise pop, dream pop, and kraut rock. At times abrasive, other times eerie and spooky. "The Drowners" is a cover of a Suede tune and is given a hyper-noise workout; coming across as glam rock in a blizzard of feedback.
4. Spiritualized: Shine A Light iTunes
Spritualized was formed by Jason Pierce when flagship space rock pioneers Spacemen 3 broke up. The new band was a rare case of a post-breakup project after a seminal band turning out to be better than the first band. Spacemen 3 were minimalist space rock; Spiritualizes fills the spaces with lush, often breathtakingly gorgeous wall of sound production. It's very difficult to choose a representative cut; no two really sound alike. "Shine A Light", a 9-minute hypnotic gem begins as one of the most lovely melodies they've recorded, a gentle, gorgeous space-rock soft-shoe repeating over and over as the instrumentation grows more intense, reaching a towering wall of sound crescendo that utimately explodes into rubble. Shades of everyone from Phil Spector to Philip Glass in this one.
5. Bowery Electric: Out Of Phase iTunes
Bowery Electric was a duo from New York City consisting of vocalist/guitarist Lawrence Chandler and vocalist/bassist Martha Schwendener. Chandler had been a protoge of avant-garde composer LaMonte Young. They created a swirling, droning, atmospheric space rock with stong minimalist leanings. Moody and ambient, "Out of Phase" is from their 1995 debut on Kranky. The vocals are buried in a shoegaze-esque wash, but the music escapes the shoegaze tag through its shape shifting textures, controlled din, and more pronounced avant influence, and a touch of no wave. Their debut album, Bowery Electric, is a compelling listen; it is space rock of a different flavor than the English variety.
6. Loop: Too Real To Feel
Loop were contemporaries of Spacemen 3, and shared many of the same sonic dynamics. Their sound was discordant and dark, and struck an angular contrast to the sunny sentiments that prevailed in 1986-era British music. "Too Real To Feel" is demented garage rock gone bad-buzz psychedelic; tense, edgy, repetitive, and droning, it and the album it comes from, Heaven's End, are essential listening for the space rock anthropologist. There's also some punk left in this music; in the terse guitars one can hear traces of Public Image Ltd. and Suicide. Paranoid and claustrophobic, this captures a sense of a trip gone bad.
7. Bardo Pond: Inside iTunes
Bardo Pond, formed in Philadelphia in 1993, specialize in a frequently beautiful, frequently unsettling psychedelia that emphasises the musicianship. "Inside" a 2001 recording from arguably their best album among several excellent ones, Dilate, builds into an intense acoustic/electric primal tension-and-release guitarfest that maximizes drone, while alluringly detatched Isobel Sollenberger on vocals. Influenced by no-wave and post-punk, as well as avant-garde, Bardo Pond may well be America's best space rock group. They're also one of the most explicitly drug oriented; their album titles are usually named after a variety of drugs or drug-use symptoms.
8. Godspeed You Black Emperor!: Antennas To Heaven
Formed in Montreal in 1994, Godspeed You Black Emperor! works primarily in long extended suites, creating enormously complex works of chamber rock that passes through any number of dimensions before reaching its conclusion. "Antennas To Heaven" is one such 19-minute cinematic suite, which recalls the best progressive rock of the glory years, but with a spare, hallucinatory aesthetic that prevents them from sounding bombastic. They usually employ a large number of musicians for their albums; Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, from 2000, features three guitars, two basses, French horn, violin, viola, cello, and percussion.
9. Jessamine: Secret iTunes
Jessamine were formed in the college town of Galion, OH in 1993, before relocating to Seattle. They released a droning single for Sub Pop that gained them recognition, before landing a deal with space-rock specialists Kranky Records. "Secret" is from their 1995 Kranky debut, and is a bass-heavy slab of noise pop, not unlike My Bloody Valentine. Most of the album, Jessamine is in a similar vein, leaning heavy on the feedback and reverb, but often with a propulsive bass pushing things along. Their last album appeared in 1999.
10. Sigur Ros: Svefn-G-Englar
Formed by Icelandic vocalist Jon Thor Birgisson, bassist Georg Holm, and drummer Agust while still in their teens, Sigur Ros ("Victory Rose") specialized in an ambient post-rock that frequently crossed over into space-rock territory. "Svefn-G-Englar," was their first release to be distributed outside of Iceland, and was named NME's Single of the Week in 1999, launching a heavy dose of press coverage. Their debut EP lives up to the hype, providing a sparse, desolate, sonic wasteland of funereal noise and space, almost extraordinarily mournful sounding. The success of Sigur Ros led to a brief flurry of interest in Icelandic bands in the early 00's; they are a universe unto themselves, many with some space rock leanings.
Sunday Morning Playlist appears every Saturday Night/Sunday AM.
Listen to Spiritualized: Shine A Light (1992)