The Once And Future Kings Of Space

By Charles Van de Kree

Uploaded to Aural Innovations: September 2005

The last decade of the 20th Century-the century of Sputnik and the space race, the mercury astronauts and the Moon, Voyager and Viking-appropriately witnessed the revitalization of space rock as a major genre in contemporary music. Changing its form to fit the demands of a new, more musically diversified age and audience, "post-space rock" assimilated the ever expanding musical vocabulary that evolved out of the first four decades of rock. In this new wave of space rock, one could hear everything from thrash to trance, rave to reggae, ambient to industrial, free jazz to jungle, funk to folk, rap to raga, Goth to grunge, noise to neo-classical. Not merely content to clone their archetypal forbearers or recycle tired riffs and themes, the new engineers of 90s space rock quickly assimilated and adapted these emerging mutant strains of popular music and injected them into the bloodstream of what was, at the time, a dying breed. But, of course, we all trail behind the blazing jets of Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, Gong, Amon Duul II, and others who in the 70s rocketed into the outer limits of the interstellar void and in the process left a seminal travelogue for other would-be galactic voyagers who dared to follow in their wake. While the punk-crazed 80s saw a few brave star sailors chart their crafts for deep space-groups like Suck Electronic, Mars Everywhere, Tangle Edge and Ozric Tentacles-it was the last decade of the previous millennium that proved to be a watershed of sorts for the maturation of what was once considered a bastard form of rock. Not surprisingly, the genre has literally exploded and is currently flourishing in the first five years of the new millennium. Groups like Litmus, Quarkspace, and Alpha Omega - all of whom properly belong to the 21st Century - represent the most recent vanguard of post-space age space rock. Still, it's evident that the decade of the 90s put space rock back on the star map of the rock universe. As a consequence, it's only appropriate that some modest homage be paid to those bold aural explorers who helped reopen the space age for a new generation of astral travelers. Here's a short list of essential discs for future astronauts marooned on distant islands in the star deserts of the Milky Way.

ALIEN PLANETSCAPES-Life on Earth (1997, Galactus/AP music)
Though active throughout the 80s, Doug Walker and crew really hit their stride with this black hole monster from 1997. Heavier than a neutron star but daringly experimental, Life on Earth is an hour spent racing toward the heart of the sun, before zooming off into uncharted territory beyond. Prog-spacers will appreciate the odd meter time signatures (5/4 here, 7/8 there), but spacerockers will revel in the band's willingness to overload the VU meters on the mixing board. From the meltdown sonic attack of "Radiation King" to the cosmic free jazz fusion of "Soft Martian," Life on Earth will point you in the direction of Alpha Centauri and make you forget all about the blue planet. Life on Earth is to post-space rock what In the Court of the Crimson King was to art rock.

ARCHITECTURAL METAPHOR-Creature of the Velvet Void (1997, Black Widow)
1997 also saw New England's Architectural Metaphor deliver their finest work to date and a mini-classic in the annals of space rock. Seething with the primal energy of early Amon Düül II (thanks in large part to Deb Young's gloriously Teutonic-inspired vocal histrionics) and wrapped in the gothic ambiance of Atem-era Tangerine Dream, ArchMet forged its own unique identity with an eclecticism rarely heard in old school space rock. "Creature" is a menacing rocker that recalls Hawkwind and the Düül II at their heaviest while the ornate textures of "Kairos" and "Holographic Caves" echo with all the cosmic baroque drama of the Berlin School. Extra salute for pure guts: a song called "March of the Wooden Potatoes"?!

HELIOS CREED-Lactating Purple (1991, Amphetamine Reptile)
The spirit of Chrome lived on through Helios well into the 90s, and though his first two solo albums were released in the waning daze of punk and new wave, he really didn't reach his creative peak until Kiss to the Brain (1992) and this utterly intense shockwave nightmare from the previous year. Simply put, Lactating Purple is transpsychedelicspacewarpedpunkmetalmadness. The title track lifts off into the stratosphere like a thundering saurian with wings the size of cities. What's left in its trail of vapor is a burned out cinder smouldering in the haze of a nuclear winter. Creed's chainsaw guitar pyrotechnics and mutated voiceovers dominate pieces like "The Radiated," "Big Bang" and "Flying through the Either," but Z Sylver's eerie synthscapes create the perfect hallucinatory backdrop to the holocaust in progress throughout Lactating Purple. Warning: Lactating Purple will cause cellular disruption and permanent brain damage.

FARFLUNG-25,000 Feet per Second (1995, Flipside)
After his untimely abduction by aliens from the Formalhaut system, Tommy Grenas returned to Earth and immediately assembled Farflung as a medium for the broadcast of his travels in hyperspace. Not surprisingly, the group's debut is a masterpiece of the genre and helped ignite a renaissance of the American aerospace program. From the fiery punk of "Solar Electric" and "Hot Fluffy Mind" to the Floydian drift of the epic "Landing on Cydonia," 25,000 Feet per Second is a taut realization of Grenas' most unearthly visions of life beyond this toilet Earth. As the title suggests, the relentless pace will hurtle you straight through the sound barrier. Absolutely essential for any self-respecting space cadet.

LEOPARD MOON-The Dream Archipelago (1996, Third Wave)
An almost unknown commodity, this group from Santa Fe, New Mexico, released one album in the mid 90s and then promptly disappeared-apparently down a blackhole-never to be heard from again. The group's early sound (represented on The Dream Archipelago by the inclusion of a bonus track, "Messiah of Poisons," recorded during an aborted studio session in 1994) was dark and, at times, heavy-not unlike Magma or Peter Frohmader's Nekropolis projects of the early 80s. By the time they released The Dream Archipelago, the group had obviously absorbed additional and quite different influences. In brief, The Dream Archipelago is an adventurous and thoroughly compelling mixture of Can-inspired tribal space rock, Orb-propelled ambient etherscapes, Weather Report-styled high-tech fusion, and early Popol Vuh electronic meditations. The group moves through ethereal and luxuriant ambient séances ("Space Tribe"), cosmic jazz funk ("Paris Orbital"), futuristic tribal jams ("The Fire Bongs of Vulcan," "Peninsula in Gathering Mist") and deep space reconnaissance voyages ("Astral Caverns") without missing a beat or a blip. Powerful Jaco Pastorius-influenced bass grooves and layers of mellotron and synthesizer flank dual percussionists who create hypnotic, otherworldly rhythms. Makes virtually all the practitioners of tribal space rock (Doctor Wize notwithstanding) sound lame by comparison. Weird, but worthwhile and rewarding.

OMNIA OPERA-Red Shift (1997, Delerium)
Roughly contemporary with the Ozric Tentacles, Omnia Opera, like their more praised acid comrades, properly belongs to the 90s, if only because the group's sound was undeniably influenced by the burgeoning rave scene in London circa 1992. Though many prefer the group's debut disc, Red Shift is in some ways more searching, more eclectic and a bit less self-indulgent than the debut. It's a fascinating, if occasionally incongruent, merger of thrash, psyche, rave and ambient electronics-sort of like an interstellar gangbang between Voidvod, Orbital, Steve Hillage and DJ Rap. Absolutely lethal guitar and frenetic synth sequences power songs like "Fly and Burn" and "Timelines" and serve as dramatic counterpoint to the dreamier blue room chillouts of "Astronomica" and "Waiting."

THE ORB-The Orb's Adventures beyond the Ultraworld (1991, Island)
As the ennui of the 80s faded into the gloom of the 90s, The Orb offered a daringly new conception of what space rock could be after the demise of the Floyd and Hawkwind's ossification into a standard issue heavy metal band. Digesting influences from dub, house, ambient, techno and trance, Adventures beyond the Ultraworld is a dazzling acid flash forward to the future of space rock. From the infectious astral groove of "Little Fluffy Clouds" and the serene stratospheric bliss of "Back Side of the Moon" to the cosmically anthemic "A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain that Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld," The Orb was clearly intent on retrofitting the burned out engine of space rock to an entirely new, sleek chassis. In retrospect, Adventures beyond the Ultraworld influenced not only a new generation of trancers and technocrats but also such post-space rockers as Ozric Tentacles, Porcupine Tree and Pressurehed. Now a classic, Adventures beyond the Ultraworld was to the 90s X-ers what Dark Side of the Moon was to the 70s Boomers.

OZRIC TENTACLES-Strangeitude (1991, IRS)
Though the group's early "unofficial" releases (mainly cassettes) appeared in the mid and late 80s, it's inevitable to think of the Ozrics as firmly rooted in the 90s House of Space, which they themselves helped renovate. To select only one Oz disc is, however, a bit of a Herculean labor, but Strangeitude prevails, if only because it broke the band to a wider audience and greater distribution. Everything that made the Ozrics the inheritors to the Gong/Hawkwind psychedelic overload throne is here: storming psyche guitar madness ("White Rhino Tea"), Middle Eastern mayhem ("Bizarre Bazaar"), hashpit electro-dub ("Space between Your Ears") and pure space trance anthems ("Sploosh!" and "Saucers"). Throw in an absolutely mesmerizing live version of "The Throbbe" and what you have is arguably the Ozrics' finest hour on disc.

PORCUPINE TREE-The Sky Moves Sideways (1995, Delerium)
Though the Tree has since moved on to prog superstardom, there's no denying the sublime elegance of The Sky Moves Sideways, the perfect crystallization of Steven Wilson's heady vision of classic 70s space rock fused with the dynamism of 90s rave and ambient styles. The two extended "phases" of the title track, as well as the mind-altering "Moonloop," are like sonic teleportation machines that transport the listener to the velvet voids that stretch infinitely beyond the dark light years. One of the dreamiest albums ever conceived, The Sky Moves Sideways will be the perfect accompaniment for future cosmonauts on their way to distant planets in other solar systems. Though criticized by some for being too obviously Floydian (which admittedly it is), The Sky Moves Sideways still ranks as a grand statement of humanity's wanderlust for the stars.

PRESSUREHED-Sudden Vertigo (1993, Cleopatra)
Certainly one of the first groups to merge 60s psychedelia, 70s power rock and 80s industrialism, Sudden Vertigo is the heaviest of the Pressurehed albums and the apex of Tommy Grenas' dream of science-fiction apocalypse. Dark, disturbing and evocative, it's a nasty acid trip through the neon cityscape of some future L.A. collapsing around the ruins of its own electric decadence. Songs like "Man in Static," "the hyperkinetic "Shockneck" and "Majestic 12" burn straight through the brain like ruby laser light, while the eight-minute "Slo Blo" updates the solar jam aesthetic of The Space Ritual for the children of the micro-chip. Sudden Vertigo is virtually a handbook of cyberspace punk anarchy-intense and innervating. Most definitely not for the squeamish or faint of heart. Answers the question of where the Hawkwind legacy can go without becoming redundant or demeaning.

ST 37-Space Age (1998, Black Widow)
The definitive document from these Texas space rangers, Space Age pays tribute to the past masters (with covers of "Vitamin C," "Orgone Accumulator" and "Deutsch Nepal") while also carving out the group's own distinctive retro-psycho cosmic sound. Punk, psychedelia, industrial and kraut rock all fuse together to form a continuum of sound where distinctions of genre become irrelevant. Pieces like "Concrete Island," "Night Jetz" and "Fight Machine" bend and warp the mind like Einsteinian equations of wormhole trajectories. Plus, anyone who references J.G. Ballard is cooler than a brass bowl of Fangorian batshit in an igloo on Pluto. This is truly what life after Apollo sounds like in the decelerated American wasteland.

TANGLE EDGE-In Search of a New Dawn (1994, Demi Monde)
Though In Search of a New Dawn was privately pressed and originally released on LP in 1989, it seems fitting to include Tangle Edge's debut album in any hagiography of 90s space rock, if only because it was in fact released on CD in the mid 90s. Elusive and difficult to adequately summarize, In Search of a New Dawn reactivates strains of both late 60s psychedelia and early 70s art rock, but merges both with a cosmic sensibility derived from the primal Hawkwind sound of Doremi Fasol Latido. One can hear clear echoes of the esoteric side of King Crimson ("The Centipede's Tune"), the meditative mysticism of Agitation Free ("Mushy Shadows from a Lost Caravan," "Isis at the Invisible Frontispiece"), the Teutonic heaviness of Amon Duul II ("Caesar's Integrated Flaw") and the feverish modal intensity of Gong (the amazing "Solorgy"). An impressive harmonic symbiosis of electric and acoustic guitars along with the more "conventional" space rock gear (synthesizer and string ensemble) and a thundering rhythm section make In Search of a New Dawn refreshingly different and thoroughly satisfying. Much like The Space Ritual, the astounding cover art is a visual gateway into the garden of unearthly sonic delights that lies within. Though now difficult to find, it's well worth a search.

Limited to a mere dozen discs in your jet pack means you'll have to make some very hard choices, and what you might take with you one day, you might leave behind the next. In my case, I might've easily included such gems as Krel's Ad Astra, Dark Sun's Feed Your Mind, Monster Magnet's Dopes to Infinity and Spacehead's …of Stars and Time. On the other hand, maybe Centaurans listen to space rock, too. But just imagine those astronomical import prices!

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