"Dedicated to all people who feel obliged to space," reads the note on the original sleeve of Tangerine Dream's Alpha Centauri, made in 1971. A quarter of a century later, four young metroplex musicians have taken this statement to heart, creating an album steeped in the spirit of German cosmic rock. Yet Fort Worth band Ohm's O2 sounds as now as one of those slick Intel commercials. Not surprisingly, so does Alpha Centauri.
Play Alpha Centauri and O2 back to back, and the sonic similarities are hard to miss: the sweeping synths, the primal drumming, the flutes. What is really important, however, is the fact that both bands search for inspiration at higher planes, approaching music as a means of transcending the ordinary, dipping into sound and decoding its primal origins, eventually creating that magic intangible that is cosmic music.
By design or even by accident, bands like Amon Duul I&II, Ash Ra Tempel, Cosmic Jokers, Popol Vuh, and Faust (among others) took rock and lifted it to new levels of wigged-out, transcendental brain bliss until they evoked--and even reached--the sacred. Ohm operates within the same parameters and communicates similar feelings.
If today's rock music has reached a nadir of crass commercialism and downright banality, the existence of bands like Ohm is an absolute necessity. Unlike most of their contemporaries--staring into the gutter for inspiration--Ohm looks to the stars. Like the army of Krautrockers that influenced their inception, Ohm escapes the narrow confines of rock 'n' roll and explodes into a space without chronological or topological references.
Sitting in producer Matt Castille's living room, the members of Ohm smile at the inevitable and dreaded mention of "space rock." The truth is that keyboardist Doug Ferguson and percussionist Sam Forest Ward got together two and a half years ago, long before the catch phrase started rolling around tongues like exotic candy. What they wanted to achieve then and do now--with the addition of Nathan Brown (bass, drums) and Chris Forrest (bass clarinet)--is experimental music that crosses genres and time frames and challenges audiences. What Ward calls "folk modern industrial" is still too narrow a definition for Ohm: It's not folk because most folks don't get it, and it's not industrial since it doesn't sound mechanical or repetitious; all bandmembers agree that cosmic rock or space rock is more encompassing.
At a recent show at the Argo in Denton, the musicians set up in the four corners of the room and started playing. The crowd--surrounded by music--didn't know from where the music was coming; with the traditional stage setup and standard acoustics eliminated, so too was the separation between audience and performer. The music was all improvised, keeping true to the band's idea of 'no two shows should be alike.' "We just decided to get into what John Cage called 'chance operations.' You can never have the same group of people doing the same thing twice," Ward says. "Quite a few people laid down in the center of the floor and closed their eyes, experiencing what is called quad-fi. Others moved around, getting closer to whatever player they chose, experiencing sound from different angles."
Other members of the audience were just confused. Ohm's music mystified or estranged those who had no previous experience with experimental groups. "A guy came to me after the show and said 'The last time I saw a bass clarinet was in high school.' For a rock band to use bass clarinet and do it on a mature level is rather unusual," Forrest says. Ward interjects: "We're also one of the few bands in the metroplex that don't have a guitar player in our lineup."
"Someone came up to me and said he didn't know if we're good or bad, but he liked the show," Brown says with amusement.
"Someone shouted 'Get off the drugs!'" Forrest adds. "The truth is, we don't do drugs. We're drug-free." Psychedelic music and cosmic rock were indeed partially aided by experimentation with LSD. In fact, the late acid guru Timothy Leary recorded an album with Ash Ra Tempel (Seven Up), and his name has popped up on many record sleeves. Yet the roots of cosmic rock run much deeper, having more to do with the search for meaning or knowledge: of our origins, our final destination, our purpose; what Julian Cope in his book Krautrocksampler calls the "Explore-the-god-in-you-by-working-the-animal-in-you Gnostic Odyssey."
For Ferguson the music is a form of psychic healing. According to Castille, Ferguson experienced serious psychological distress--so severe that at one point, he decided to scrap the whole project and disband Ohm--during the album's final mix. At the same time, Brown moved to Eugene, Oregon. Miraculously, the finished album was so astonishing that it gave the band the kiss of life. Ferguson reconsidered, and Brown came back to Texas, both determined to make the project work.
"Music is a spiritual thing to me," Ferguson says. "It helps keep my sanity. I play music to heal. It is music to escape and think things through. Someone gave a definition of psychedelic music, and I wholeheartedly agree with it. He said that psychedelic music takes the negative aspects of life and transcends them."
"I don't like psychedelic music," Brown--who lists Branford Marsalis and King Crimson as favorites--allows. "But playing with these guys brings it out in me. It is definitely mood music."
Forrest, classically trained, fits perfectly with Ferguson and Ward, even though his main influences are Dimitri Shostakovich and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The band definitely improvises. "Sometimes Doug will throw a (keyboard) loop and we'll work around it. You don't always have to have melodies or guidelines," Forrest says. "You throw away the guidelines. It's like the difference between Michelangelo who thought 'this is what a picture should look like' and Picasso who thought 'this is what I think a picture could look like.'"
Ferguson--who owns an analog keyboard collection that Castille says "dwarfs Rick Wakeman's"--also has a wide variety of musical influences, ranging from Patti Smith to Mythos, which surface when recording or playing in front of an audience. "It's not like we're doing total chaos. Even when we do improv, there is some order there," he says.
For Ward, improvising is the epitome of what he likes to do. A passionate lover of ethnic music, he also listens to "a lot" of Helden and Laurie Anderson. An inventive fellow who builds his own percussion instruments and "sound sculptures," he demonstrates his "axle zircon," an invention of his that employs the body and pedal of a sewing machine that spins a tom drum with strings attached to its perimeter that Ward then plays with his fingers. Totally unique, it sounds something like a cross between a zither and a Japanese koto drum. "Stepping to my instrument, my approach is to refine the music I'm listening to," Ward says. "If Doug plays something on the keyboard, I refine it instead of rehashing. Even though we come from different backgrounds, all our listenings come out when we improvise," Brown adds.
"When Doug and I started, it was Tangerine Dream and early Krautrock that influenced us the most," Ward says. "It was the sound, the approach." All of a sudden he bursts out: "The roots of culture is what I consider we do. The crown of creation, so to speak. We used to build pyramids to honor some king. People need a reason to get together, a creative process," he concludes, beaming.
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Indeed, O2 is music to watch cave paintings by: an imposing album that sounds like the creaking movements of lost civilizations, buried under the earth's crust, or the sound of a slow, quiet meltdown caused by a ruthless sun. There is a primordial mystique about it, as in the best cosmic rock: Music that makes you feel something or somebody is underneath the ground you're sitting on, yet as natural and warm as electrons flowing, intact no matter how harsh or abstract it may get.
It opens quietly as "1" --the six tracks have numbers instead of names--plods along in a vaguely Middle-Eastern way until it travels a series of progressive climaxes. The second track is chaotic, a piece that will give your speakers a run for their money. Ward describes it as "completely melted; the disturbed brainbomb in the album." Things return to normal with the alluring udu drums of "3," a track where indigenous meets industrial--"ethnic Throbbing Gristle," in Ferguson's words. "4" finds wildly imaginative bass clarinet--and effects--atop Ferguson's synthesizer riffs, creating the soundtrack for a fabulous horror movie. The 13-minute long "5" moves with the locomotive force of Tangerine Dream's middle period, an express time machine that moves through the centuries as if they were minutes. A truly exhilarating piece--perhaps the best of all--"5" moves at frantic speed and sucks you in until everything explodes and the listener is left breathless. "6" brings you back to the ground with the soothing sound of flutes and rolling water. Recorded in the sewage tunnels beneath First and Fifth streets in Austin, it is the earthiest track on the album and totally unproduced, a fittingly organic finale to 51 minutes of journeys inner and outer, from genesis to revelation and all mind-boggling points in between.
Ward believes that the impact of the album and the band's live performances are the result of their collective "primal nuances" and the telepathic communication between the four musicians. O2 is a work of such tremendous scale and portent you would think the band must have tapped into some source of cosmic energy, but Ferguson is unreasonably modest about it:
"I don't think we sound radical. What we do has been done before.