Space Mirrors – “Stella Polaris” (Atomic Age Records 2015, CD/DL)
Stella Polaris is the third and final installment in the Cosmic Horror trilogy of albums based on H.P. Lovecraft stories. I can’t claim to be well versed in the contemporary Metal scene but I would be surprised if many bands are blending Progressive Metal and Space Rock the way Space Mirrors are. To my ears this is a fairly unique blend of styles and, speaking from the Space Rock perspective, they are taking the music in exciting directions.
Haunter Of The Dark opens with the characteristic Space Mirrors mixture of Space Rock and Gothic influences, as bubbling alien synths mix with dark Mellotron orchestration, melodic flute and vocal narration, before launching into a chunky rocking Metal tale of “cosmic evil”. The steady rocking Metal assault continues on Celephais. Sparky Simmons’ guitar is a commanding force, cranking out chunky chords and killer ripping solos as Martyr sing-speaks in his trademark vocal style. There are some tasty classic Prog keyboard fills too. In my review of the recent The Street Remains EP I commented on tracks where Martyr’s vocals stray into somewhat more conventional “singing”, and that’s what we hear on the upbeat song The White Ship, which includes melodic guitar and bass solos. I love how the title track marches along fiercely against a flowing Mellotron backdrop, plus Nik dueling with himself on sax and flute for the finale. (A Passer) Through The Storm is a short but speedy blast of thrashy Space-Metal, with the alien synths weaving an insect-like path through the proceedings. In The Blood features Space Mirrors at their song-oriented Prog-Metal best, as they blur the lines between ambience, Metal offensive, dark Gothic anthem quality, and melodic tune that you might even sing along with. Burning Chaplet is a surprise, alternating between beautifully pastoral and more sinister passages, and features darkly enchanting vocals from Martyr. Then past the halfway mark it briefly launches into a majestic and heavy rocking instrumental before veering into full blown keyboard led Prog mode. A sense of evil permeates throughout West Of Arkham, a heavy rocker that features blazing Prog-Metal but also has a good old rock ‘n’ roll feel and even swings when Nik jams on the sax. The sax is by no means something one would expect with music like this but it really sounds cool. The Crawling Chaos begins with a spaced out, effects-laden intro with rushing soundscapes and acoustic guitar bits plus Martyr’s narrative vocals. Then the band eases into a funky Metal march, surrounded by Mellotron waves and a flurry of electronic embellishments. At 11 minutes this track is tightly arranged yet manages to take off and explore various thematic themes. It’s Space Mirrors at their Space-Prog-Metal best and is one of my favorites of the set. Essential Saltes Of Humane Dust is a powerhouse Prog-Metal blast. The “official” conclusion to the album is The Master, which consists of spoken word from Nik backed by Mellotron, space electronics and flute. But there’s one more surprise uncredited track, which is The Ancient Ones, a cover of the song by the band Morbid Angel (and also appeared on The Street Remains EP). It’s a head spinning Prog-Metal rocker that zig zags between blazing rock and pure spaced out thrash. No easy landing here folks.
Discussing her new albums has become a tradition and so I asked Alisa Coral the following questions by email:
Aural Innovations (AI): Stella Polaris concludes the Cosmic Horror trilogy series of albums based on H.P. Lovecraft stories. Where did the title Stella Polaris come from?
Alica Coral (AC): This is a good question. I was in Rome and travelling many times on train through the station Stella Polare. I thought what a great title for the album. And there was a Lovecraft story “Polaris” which I really liked. So it all clicked together and we have Stella Polaris.
AI: You and I have been communicating for many years and you know I like the way Space Mirrors has evolved, but I have to tell you that Stella Polaris illustrates how amazingly Space Mirrors has come together as a BAND. I’m blown away by how tightly arranged and played the music is from beginning to end.
AC: That’s because we really became a band. We needed The Other Gods to know each other styles better and when recordings for Stella started we were ready. You know in the past there were basically just me and Michael playing most instruments. I always wanted to move forward to progress. He left Space Mirrors after Majestic-12 and I didn’t know what lies in store for us. But Martyr became a member of the band and together we started to rebuild the whole group. He really helped with his contacts in the metal scene. There were many line-up changes; we became what I called collective. It was very interesting to work with different musicians. But Martyr and I wanted a stable line-up. I wanted to write and arrange songs together. Not just record guest musicians. I wanted them to be involved in the life of the band. Martyr brought Claudio as our drummer and it was a huge boost to the sound. I knew his drumming from his work with such musicians as Blaze Bayley and Tim Owens; mostly live. It was the style I knew would fit us perfectly. I got to know Sparky and Gabriel through Facebook and they really wanted to be a part of Space Mirrors. Their enthusiasm for Space Mirrors’ music was genuine and I was very happy that such professionals joined the band. Their impact already can be heard on The Other Gods album. But on Stella we all became one music entity. That’s amazing knowing that we all live in different places and even countries.
AI: Let’s talk about some of the songs. I love the stylistic contrasts throughout the album. Like on West Of Arkham, which is this blazing Prog-Metal tune but includes swinging sax from Nik. The sax is not something you would expect on music like this but it sounds so cool.
AC: When I composed West of Arkham it was always going to have a sax solo! When I write a song I usually see the whole picture in my mind. So it’s never a sudden idea; the stylistic variety is not accidental. Maybe I’ll disappoint some hardcore psychedelic music fans but I almost never improvise. I think out every line I compose and play. For Nik I left the space for his sax improvisation inside the structure of the song. I have invited Nik Turner for every album since Majestic-12 (2008) and I know his style and where his playing will have the most effect. On Stella, Nik also plays very nice flute and narrates the final track poem. Nik never disappoints. I feel honoured to have the opportunity to record with such a legend.
AI: Burning Chaplet was a bit of a surprise. It covers a lot of stylistic territory but stood out for me as it features some of the most pastoral music I’ve heard from Space Mirrors.
AC: Yes, Burning Chaplet is the most ballad type song from Space Mirrors yet. One morning I got an email from Martyr saying, “hey, I wtote a great ballad for Space Mirrors”. I replied “don’t forget about it, we will use it on the next album.” So the music was written by Martyr and lyrics by Dr. Blackfyre. It’s inspired by a Quest of Iranon story which is pastoral by itself. When I heard the music I couldn’t think about any other story than Iranon, I was sure it would fit very well. So I asked Dr. Blackfyre to write lyrics for it.
AI: The Crawling Chaos is one of my favorite tracks of the set. It’s tightly arranged and played, yet explores a lot of thematic territory and for me it features Space Mirrors at your Space-Prog-Metal best.
AC: I agree, it’s a very Space Mirrors type of track. And the music is composed by Gabriel. I only wrote the lyrics and some arrangements. When I heard the demo I knew it would be a great epic song with everything in it; long, three parts and all. Sparky added great acoustic guitars and really cool solos. But first of all the song went out to our drummer Claudio who had the freedom to create his own thing there, especially in the first four minute intro part. In the end Martyr added the final twist with what I think is one of his best vocal performances which completed the song.
AI: There is a hidden/uncredited Track 12. Any comment about that?
AC: It’s our cover of Ancient Ones by Morbid Angel, a very technical track in the Lovecraftian theme. After the Memories Of The Future album I decided that there will be no cover songs on the concept albums. But after some deliberation I thought it would be still be cool to use that song as a hidden track finishing the album on a high note. I thought it will sound cool after The Master track. And Kevin actually made a hint about the song in the booklet.
AI: Space Mirrors consists of you from Russia, Martyr and Claudio from Italy, Sparky and Gabe from the U.S., and if we count Nik that’s the UK too. It’s a truly international lineup!
AC: That was my ambition to create a project where people from different countries could work together and create great music showing that nationalities and different languages don’t matter. There is only one language – music! I put a lot of effort into this. And it’s annoying that some music journalists don’t do their job and never check the background of the band when writing reviews. They see that I’m from Russia and call us a Russian band. Sometimes it’s getting so ridiculous; they even hear a Russian accent in Martyr’s voice!
AI: This is probably just wishful thinking but I’ll ask anyway… is there any chance of Space Mirrors coming together to perform live? I know you have traveled to Europe in the past.
AC: It is my wishful thinking too. But in reality it’s almost impossible. Even if to set aside my recent health problems and imagine that I can travel to any country without any problems with a visa there is still the financial question. Who will pay for getting us together in one rehersal room, for the travel tickets, who will pay all the expenses? Everyone of us have some other jobs we can’t just leave. There should be a strong financial backing. And many bands now don’t earn anything by playing live. Actually some bands even pay for playing gigs. It’s an impossible situation. This is completely wrong.
AI: Kevin Sommers’ artwork for the album is fantastic and we’re treated to this beautiful 16 page booklet with lyrics and credits. AND he wrote some of the lyrics.
AC: With Space Mirrors you can always expect a full colored booklet accompanying the regular album. It was the case right from the start. It was always frustrating to see that many space rock bands didn’t care about the visual aspect of their releases in the past. So I decided to always give the fans the visual treat along with the music, like it is usually on metal scene. These days when so many people download music the physical album should be something special. Kevin is so good with photos. Most of the pics in the booklet are real photos he worked on. He can do magic with them adding his own artistic view. He really forms the visual aspect of Space Mirrors and he is a member of the band. He joined Space Mirrors the same year as Martyr, creating complex and beautiful artwork for Majestic-12 and we have worked with him ever since. Every official picture of Space Mirrors is his work. I’m also always checking my lyrics with him and this time I asked him to write lyrics for two songs: West of Arkham and Essential Saltes of Humane Dust. The titles for the songs are his. I gave him music and Lovecraft stories which inspired me and he came up with excellent lyrics. The Stella album became a really collective effort and I’m very pleased with how it all turned out.
AI: Speaking of lyrics, who is Dr. Blackfyre?
AC: He is a fan of Lovecraft who wants to remain just Dr. Blackfyre. He likes Space Mirrors and last year he contacted me about writing a song together. He had lyrics for Celephais and I started composing music. Together we finished the song. Then he wrote lyrics for Burning Chaplet and The Master, this dedication to H.P. Lovecraft was his idea. And he thought Nik should narrate it and that every member of the band should say “the master” in the end for the most impact. I agreed. I think it worked brilliantly.
AI: When I interviewed you for The Other Gods, I commented on how quickly it had followed Part I of The Cosmic Horror series, and even at that time (2013) you predicted that Part III would not follow in only a year. You released two EPs since The Other Gods came out, I think in part to raise funds for Stella Polaris.
AC: With The Other Gods I had already started recording when In Darkness We Whisper was released so it was fast. For Part III I only had some ideas. In March 2014 I released The Golden Path EP with some reworked songs from the past and early demos. It was a digital only release for fans marking our 10th Anniversary of the The Darker Side of Art album. Also it was an opportunity to raise some funds for recording Stella Polaris. I never liked the idea of using crowdfunding services. For me it’s like begging. I would rather starve and pay the last money to record drums than be begging over the internet. But to have something for fans which they can buy and through this help with recordings is all right. So that EP fulfilled two functions – we got our first retrospective compilation and raised some money. It wasn’t enough to pay all studio expenses but very heartening to see the messages fans sent when buying that release. Their support is always something special for a musician. By the way, the Bandcamp site brought most of money from the digital release than any other internet service. The second EP was released recently on June 10 in both physical and digital formats. CD has two bonus tracks. The idea for The Street Remains EP was to release a single extended version of the song In The Blood from the Stella album along with three cover songs. You know I didn’t want cover songs on the regular album and they didn’t fit the Lovecraftian concept. I Breathe is my old favourite by Swedish pop band Vacuum and I thought it would sound great with heavy guitars, real drums and Martyr’s vocals. Gabe used an Ashbory bass for it and I did some cool synth arrangements there. Bad Things was a some sort of last minute idea before getting demos to Claudio. I’m a big fan of the True Blood series and wanted to record a cover of the main theme. But these tracks were recorded during the same sessions as other songs on Stella Polaris. So this EP can be considered as a big 41 minute bonus to the main album. The song In The Blood was composed by Sparky and right from the beginning I knew it would be our first single.
AI: Let’s talk about labels. When we spoke about The Other Gods in 2013 you were on Transubstans and very pleased with the distribution and promotion. And now The Street Remains EP that you just released and the new Stella Polaris are on Atomic Age Records. They reissued your Neutron Star album some years back, right? Who are they? I don’t see a web site for them.
AC: Transubstans was a good experience but there were some technical problems and delays with The Other Gods album. The digital version was released before the CD, which wasn’t a good strategy in my opinion. Anyway, I’m grateful to them for the opportunities but we had to part ways. I looked for other record labels for some time. I had ridiculous offers to release the new album and paying them from 2.000 to 5.000 EUR for it. Now it’s a standard practice for many bands with loads of money which they don’t know how to spend. Other labels didn’t want to print the normal CD booklet; they wanted to go cheap and that is not the way for Space Mirrors as I mentioned before. So I didn’t get an offer I liked and decided to ressurect my old record label Atomic Age Records. I had old contacts here in Russia from the Darker Side times and with the help of Irond records could release the new album and EP how I wanted with better quality and for less money. I got distribution through Clear Spot for it. There is a Facebook site for my label @ https://www.facebook.com/AtomicAgeRecords And if I have some success with the new release I will welcome other bands to my record label.
AI: Speaking of labels, promotion, distribution, etc… what is your opinion of the current music industry, both independent and major?
AC: I said it before and will say again – the situation is critical. Gene Simmons of Kiss actually described it all very good recently. He got a lot of criticism because of that but he is right. New bands can’t make any living on their music. Downloading killed the music industry. In one thing he was wrong though. He said “rock is dead”. I say “music is dead”. Not only rock industry is suffering but also classical music has problems. Many people now think, “why should these musicians be paid? They do what they like, they should do it for free then.” And pop music became just a cheap low quality jingle to selling jeans, perfume or whatever. Music doesn’t sell itself anymore. It’s dying out like dinosaurs. If you are not a big band from the past you can’t even earn anything touring if you don’t get a beverage sponsor for example or something like this. Playing live is reducing to local performances where musicians have to play basically for food. Everyone has to take regular non-music jobs to make a living and pay bills. Music becomes an elite thing for the chosen few who still listen to the music. And many of those are musicians themselves. Music is not fashionable anymore. Videogames are. And less and less people actually listen to new music. They want reinvented retro which is a dead end anyway. If less and less people pay for new music it won’t be recorded. Musicians won’t have money to make quality recordings and buy good music instruments. So it will also cause the collapse of the music instruments industry. The instruments will cost more and more and also become a toy for super rich people. Gibson Les Paul for 8.000 USD or ESP Horizon for 4.500 USD is ridiculous. That’s one side of the coin.
Another is the very unprofessional attitude of people who run the music industry. As Meat Loaf pointed out in his autobiography, it started in the 80’s when accountants and managers came to rule the music industry. To sell music is not the same thing as to sell soda or chocolate bars. People with no musical background and no taste in music shouldn’t work at record labels. How can they see what will sell and what not if at best they listen to some radio in the car? Labels don’t try to sell music to earn money, they want to be paid by bands. Not to pay bands. Recently I had a laugh through tears experience with one big record label. I was contacted about the possibility of including Space Mirrors in a new Space rock compilation. I replied that we would be happy to contribute a track of course and sent several songs to choose from like Earth Gods Dance and Strange High House. Then a person responsible for this compilation replies that all is very good but our music doesn’t fit the concept of space rock; that we play straight melodic rock metal. Well, yes, we are metal and melodic but we are space rock too. I ask him what is space rock in his opinion and give my examples: Master of the Universe, Brainstorm and D-Rider. He answers that Brainstorm is a metal band (I know about that band by the way…). I understand that he doesn’t even read what I write or doesn’t comprehend. I tell him about Nik Turner who wrote those songs and seems like he doesn’t know who Nik is. Maybe he never heard Hawkwind. I understand why he didn’t even comment that some of our songs which I sent had Nik playing. It’s like talking in different languages. And of course I never got examples of what is space rock from him. This is the kind of people big labels choose to work in A&R department now. That’s why music industry is in crisis too. So the future of music is not very bright.
AI: Finally, any news about upcoming projects of any kind, or other bands you are working with?
AC: I have plans for the next Space Mirrors album but it’s too early to tell anything exact. It won’t be a strictly concept album. And I want more songs composed together by us as a band. I also recorded for the new Spaceseed album recently. Very interesting stuff. They have many cool ideas for this one. And I want to try to develop my own record label. But it all depends on many things…
Stella Polaris is scheduled for release on August 1st. For more information visit the Space Mirrors web site at: http://spacemirrors.com
Purchases can be made from the Space Mirrors web shop at: http://spacemirrors.tictail.com
Visit the Space Mirrors Bandcamp site at: http://spacemirrors.bandcamp.com
Reviewed by Jerry Kranitz