Arc of Ascent and Compactorposted on 2/2014 By:
One persons poison is another’s nectar, and in the spirit of sparking the synapses into gear, Outré Monde is here to illuminate bands that might not be metal per se, but still retain plenty of elements of serious interest for the open-minded metal fan.
The idea behind this ongoing series is simple. Erik Highter and Craig Hayes are here to sell each other on bands they’ve discovered on Bandcamp, and you get to join in the conversation. Highter and Hayes already have what you’d call...interesting musical preferences, but have no fear; all musical bases will be covered in this series of discussions.
So, dig in and join in. The trip to the outer reaches starts here.
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HAYES: Well, Mr Highter, in keeping with the spirit of honest discussion, I’ll lay my cards on the table straight away.
I picked Arc of Ascent’s 2012 album, The Higher Key, as my first choice for Outré Monde for entirely selfish reasons. They’re a band hailing from my neck of the woods (cue the South Pacific cheers), and they’re always the first band I tell someone to check out when I’m asked for a Bandcamp recommendation. They’re an absolutely phenomenal live act, and given our shared love of heavy psychedelic fare, I thought I might be able to start by offering you something you’d be, theoretically, predisposed to enjoying.
I’m presuming you picked an out-of-print, limited edition noise release for me to check out for personal reasons too?
HIGHTER: Well, Mr. Hayes (so formal!), my reasoning was similarly personal, but about the label, not the band.
Out-Of-Body Records is run by my friend Rob Buttrum. Rob's been at the center of the North Texas noise scene for years, and his now defunct House of Tinnitus shows were a home away from home for many local and touring acts. He started the label in 2011, and each release has regularly sold out it's limited print run. Last summer, he started reaching out to the artists to see if they'd be happy to see the music re-released digitally on Bandcamp once the physical copies were gone. Compactor already had a bandcamp page, and was one of the first to jump aboard.
As to why Compactor instead of another of Out-Of-Body's releases, honestly, it's one of the more accessible works on the label; there are some very catchy rhythms under the screeching electronics. In addition, Compactor recently released a collaboration with fellow New York City band Theologian, who has already made inroads into the metal community from the noise spectrum. That imprimatur might be enough for some folks to be more amenable to giving it a spin.
But before we dive in to Compactor, would you mind telling me more about Arc of Ascent's live sound? I liked the record, but as with most psychedelic bands I expect they truly blossom on stage.
HAYES: Blossom is one word for it. There are tracks on Higher Key (and on Arc of Ascent’s debut Circle of the Sun) that are truly glorious examples of heavy-lidded and psych-soaked rock. But, as great as those songs are on record, they pale in comparison to seeing the band perform live.
Witnessing Arc of Ascent on stage is akin to ingesting mothers milk mixed with mushroom tea brewed by Hawkwind and Sleep, and then dancing with fairies and aliens in a space capsule, while Sabbath commits some nefarious act, just out of the corner of your eye. I’ve never had the opportunity to see OM live, but I imagine the cosmic/mesmeric tenor that Arc of Ascent produces on stage offers much the same experience. The band’s frontman, Craig Williamson, has a great spiritual/folk/stoner/space-rock solo project called Lamp of the Universe (also available on Bandcamp), and Arc of Ascent draws from a similar vein of heavy transcendent rock; locking into a guitar/bass/drums groove that sets off for a jaunt to the farthest reaches of the galaxy.
Arc of Ascent are one of very few bands that I’ve ever seen where once they stop playing it takes the audience a few minutes to recover, and then cheer. There’s a collective silent awe when they finish playing, before everyone looks at each other and says, “fuuuuccckkkk.” The band doesn’t tour very often, and they lost a superb drummer last year, so the next time they come through town it’ll be interesting to see if they have maintained that same level of interconnected prowess with a new member in the trio.
Anyway, I’ve enjoyed the experience of seeing the band live, so listening to them means I get to tap into those remembrances for an extra dose of psychedelic punchiness. I’m extremely curious to hear if you’re finding anything transcendent or vaguely mesmeric from only hearing the band’s recorded work?
HIGHTER: To continue our pained floral metaphor, The Higher Key struck me as an album that is in full bud, but not quite in bloom.
From the first moments of "The Celestial Altar" I was taken with the combined bass and guitar tone; thick, pulsing, and a fine mix of hypnotic and crushing. Those Hawkwind and Sleep callouts of yours are the right ones. Their music is heavy but floating, dense yet somehow spacious. They also break out some of the sweetest wah-wah work I've heard in a long time. The effect is pure acid rock, and the way it's splashed overtop their locked in rhythms draws the widest grin across my normally dour face.
However, all is not smiles from my end. I find the vocals inconsistent, ranging from great, to fine, to distracting. Unlike with their very consistent core sound, they seem to try different vocal approaches from song to song. The vibrato Craig Williamson ends each line with is great, and sets him apart; but aside from "Search of Liberation" (an album high point, for sure, with it's "No Quarter" nods and stellar build), his voice isn't always a comfortable fit. When he tries to add force, like on "Elemental Kingdom", I find it hard to accept. He can't sell me with his snarl like he can with his croon.
This is not enough to taint the experience, or come even close to ruining the record. I liked it quite a bit, its psychedelic touches a pleasant surprise in the midst of such serious heaviness. Let's just say their arc is still on the ascent, and I look forward to following their trajectory, hopefully up into orbit.
On the other hand, the Compactor album I chose is very earth bound, urban, and grotty. It's noise, but not an inhuman one. One of the things I forgot over years of living in backwoods isolation is just how loud and incessant urban living can be. The soundtrack of human industry is ever present, day and night. Now that I'm once again a part of it, I find myself drawn back to music that draws on all that competing noise.
Desensitization Processing, with it's strong rhythmic presence and compositional ebbs and flows, is a fine re-introduction to that world. The use of dissonance is done not to confront but to challenge the listener. Take the beginning of "Victim", with it's rhythmic bursts of noise; if that was a wall of tone, the effect would immediately put many folks off listening further. But by using it as a beat, the ear quickly adjusts and accepts the sound. As a matter of personal taste, I probably listen to more feral, vicious noise than this more accommodating style. However, I often find it useful when I wake up to put on Compactor, have a cup of coffee, and acclimate myself to the cacophony of another day in the city.
I'm dying to hear if you found anything to enjoy in Compactor. Does anything I said ring true for your own experience?
HAYES: Somewhat. I’m a big fan of noise in general, so that counts in Compactor’s favor straight away. Overall, I enjoyed Desensitization Processing, but I’m more inclined to listen to noise that annihilates the incessant murmur of my own internal monologue. I really need harsh frequencies and obliterating sonics; something that batters, something you need to burrow into to find that cathartic nucleus.
I didn’t find Desensitization Processing to be challenging in that regard. That might be a case of me being desensitised after years of listening to more grating noise, but I was more attracted to the album’s deconstructive elements (the background caustic noise) than I was to the reconstructive beats and blips—those “rhythmic bursts of noise.”
What I enjoy most about the noise genre is that it often turns the machinery of industrialisation upon the creator. In that sense, it’s revolutionary music; handing the tools of subversion directly to the proletariat (if I can sneak a very simplified Marxist analogy). I didn’t find Compactor to have the sense of rebelliousness I seek in noise, although, to give Desensitization Processing its fair due, there is nothing lacklustre about the album at all; it simply failed to stoke the fires of insurrection for me. I can fully understand why you’d enjoy it over a morning coffee, especially surrounded by the sounds of the city. However, I wake up every day to the sounds of the ocean. I want noise that reminds me that a great tidal surge can wash away the filth of modernity in a heartbeat.
You know, if we sit these two albums alongside each other, we have one reaching for the stars and the other scraping it out amongst that human industry you mention. Two albums with vastly different points of interest, but both, I think, are releases that are searching for meaning in a very noisy and distracting world.