The Belgian collective Neptunian Maximalism is not, apparently, interested in half-measures. Éons, their full-length debut, spools its more than two hours’ worth of music across three conceptually separate discs which span genres and blend improvised instrumentation with hypnotic, repetitive, and counter-intuitive minimalism. The end result is a powerfully immersive album of trance-inducing psychedelia that nevertheless remains grounded in recognizable forms and an earth-bound weight. Although the sheer scope of the album may seem daunting, the music itself is inviting, with its experimentation restrained enough to avoid impenetrability.
There’s an unfortunate tendency when writing about experimental or otherwise “difficult” music to simply describe the sound as opposed to actually analyzing it. (The same is equally – or even more – true about jazz writing; how often have you seen a “review” of a jazz album dedicated almost entirely to enumerating the personnel and instrumentation?) Nevertheless, music as seemingly unclassifiable as this often defies easy analysis, and in that way, Neptunian Maximalism walks in the admirable company of other explorers such as Aluk Todolo, Chaos Echoes, or even the Australian group Kurushimi. Where those artists seem to come from a place more firmly grounded in metal and push outward, however, Neptunian Maximalism’s formative ethos seems to have little to do with metal, and is more like a pulsating magnetic core that pulls other stylistic elements into its primordial ritual. There’s more than a bit of the punishing, atavistic stomp of Swans, but the album seems just as well-suited to someone who spent a particularly lysergic time in the 70s following the Mahavishnu Orchestra as someone who has been locked into an absolute trance listening to Neurosis.
The pacing and structure of the album is smart and clearly defined, with the first disc establishing and exploring huge grooves, the second disc ratcheting up the intensity (particularly starting with the second track), and the third disc opening up into highly textured modal drone. Vocals, which appear either sparsely or subtly, are focused either on primal, rhythmic chanting in step with the instrumentation, or on low, droning growls and roars, which fits thematically with the band’s lyrics, which are composed in a speculative proto-language drawn from the work of a speech and machine learning researcher named Pierre Lanchantin, and in particular from his collaboration with the artist Marguerite Humeau on her 2016 art installation, FOXP2. (This fascinating installation seems like a tangent, but the following information from the artist – cited here – casts Neptunian Maximalism’s music in an even richer light: “Marguerite Humeau has been speculating with linguists around the world to reenact the tilting point when a single chance mutation in a gene called FOXP2 generated a drastic change in larynx structure – allowing our ancestors to produce the first forms of an articulated language.”)
This hardly comes as a surprise, given that the core of the band features two drummers, but Éons is a potently percussive album. The drumming from Sebastien Schmit and Pierre Arese is used to give the backbone to powerfully lurching sections and play against the woodwinds, but it’s also used very effectively in quieter, more mysterious sections to shade the atmosphere. This latter technique is on full display in the 12-minute second disc closer “Oi Sonuf Vaoresaji!,” which flirts with Bohren & der Club of Gore type ambience. The heavy droning influence of Sunn O))) is biggest on the first track of the third disc, while track three on that disc pulls in more prominent sitar and Attila Csihar-like vocalizations and other ululating singing to encourage a mystical trance. After a fair amount of exploration, around the 11:30 mark the full band falls back into lockstep for a thoroughly satisfying riff of desert spiritualism that calls to mind the band Hashshashin.
In sum, Éons is a remarkable project, a thoroughly engrossing listen, and a surefire recommendation for anyone interested in bold, outre sounds. The only complaints, really, are more like stylistic choices that I wish would have been explored a bit further – I wish the seasick two-step on “Iadanamada” had been given a little more swing, and I wish a few of the crescendos throughout the album would have been pushed to more cataclysmic heights. Ultimately, though, the incredible painting by Kaneko Tomiyuki (which gives the second disc’s “Vajrabhairava” trilogy its name) encapsulates the album perfectly: a colorful, far-reaching explosion of tone and mood which makes an immediate sensory impression, but which also rewards close examination with its finely honed details and engaging backstory. If you take the time to follow these brush strokes, these sound arcs, it’s hard not to be moved. Whether a painting of a god which destroys death or an alternate evolutionary history told in sound, the inescapable and irrepressible balm of this work is that art tells the stories and lives the dreams that the world has failed.