Orgone and back again

“IT’S A BACK-BRAIN STIMULATOR! IT’S A CEREBRAL VIBRATOR! TURN YOUR EYEBALLS INTO CRATERS!”

Thus intones Dave Brock on “Orgone Accumulator,” an ass-kicking Rube Goldberg-device of a space rock staple, and to this day the final word on the science of orgone accumulation. But Brock just as well might have been describing his immortal Hawkwind, and its 30-plus-year legacy of melting brains.

My first exposure to the group came through the titanic double live album Space Ritual (United Artists, 1973), a sprawling collection of tracks that draws you into its gravitational pull through a convergence of the inexplicable and the strangely familiar–adventurous. Its sci-fi explosions underpinned by the rhythms of classic rock ‘n’ roll, the album negotiates the ungainly symphonic mass of sound into something resembling popular music — what I imagine the Voyager Golden Record version of “Johnny B. Goode” sounds like through vintage 1972 space helmet speakers.

The Hawkestra’s wall-of-sound aural assault-and-battery was crucial to the early evolution of rock’s more adventurous strain. Yet the group, like their own Silver Machine, has a way of flying sideways in time. If there is such a thing as a trajectory to heavy metal, then it’s almost certainly cyclical, with Brock’s cosmic rock cadre materializing in disparate spots along the circumference. Here in 2010 AD, Neurot Recordings, the consistently adventurous record label of Neurosis guitarist/vocalist Steve Von Till, is set to release Hawkwind Triad, a collaborative homage featuring 11 classic Hawkwind anthems as covered by U.S. Christmas, Minsk, and Von Till via his ongoing solo project Harvestman (including fellow Neurosis member Jason Roeder on drums this time around.) There’s a common musical current running through these three supremely cosmic bands, a signal that traces one of its numerous potential origin points to circa-1970s Ladbroke Grove, England.

 

II: COOL, PSYCHEDELIC, FUCKED-UP

“Cool, psychedelic, fucked-up heavy music,” is how Steve Von Till describes the bands on Hawkwind Triad.

“The obvious lineage of my journey to Hawkwind,” Von Till says over the phone from his post-Bay Area home in Cour d’Alene, Idaho, “was growing up and being totally into Motörhead.” This lineage is doubtlessly followed by many devout Hawkwind followers, who might first encounter the band as a footnote to the career of bassist/sometimes vocalist Lemmy Kilmister. (Back in high school, an offhand reference buried within the liner notes to Motörhead’s No Remorse compilation album is where Hawkwind first hovered into my line of vision.)

“Growing up, there weren’t a lot of fans in my circle, but we tended to find each other,” Van Till says. This dynamic unfolded once again as the mad-scientist guitarist found himself drawn to the nascent triad through the irresistible pull of a common love of one of rock’s freakiest acts. “Funnily enough,” Von Till says when asked how Hawkwind Triad came about, “U.S. Christmas and Minsk had contacted me and said they were thinking about doing this project, and asked if I would be willing to put it out on Neurot Recordings. Being thoroughly convinced that I was the bigger Hawkwind fan, I said, ‘Yeah, but on the condition that you let me record on it.'”

The result of this collaboration is the rare cover album with replay value past the initial novelty factor — those haunted by memories of the “ironic” punk cover album should have no cause for alarm, partly because the subject matter flat-out crushes, but also because of the inherent consonance between the three bands, as evidenced by the album-like flow between tracks (the structure doesn’t segregate bands — we seldom hear an act twice in a row). Before dispensing with the space-tropes, it needs to be said that all three groups share some kind of sonic kinship that reveals itself most starkly as they orbit around Hawkwind’s catalog.

 

III: IN WHICH HARVESTMAN TAKES US DOWN THROUGH THE NIGHT

How’s this for an overture: I saw Harvestman in San Jose back in March, wherein Von Till introduced his set by telling us that the stage/venue was now, effectively, his spaceship. Von Till’s bluesy croak serves him well in Neurosis, adding a human voice to the otherwise alienating canyons of dissonance and cool droney shit. While covering Hawkwind as Harvestman, it becomes perhaps the high point of his tracks. As in his other works, this is the sound of someone, ahem, lost in space — on “Down Through the Night,” Von Till’s voice clings to the crackly rhythm guitar like a life preserver, while cold, electric snatches of melody emerge around him before descending back into the fuzz. This may be the song Von Till was born to play — likewise, this is my favorite track on the album.

 

IV: IF MINSK WAS AROUND IN THE ’70S, WOULD IT USE A BUBBLE MACHINE?

Minsk makes everything scary. When the doomy Peorians opened for Wolves in the Throne Room last summer, with God as my witness, Slim’s started spinning during their set (full disclosure: beer on empty stomach, etc.) In interpreting Hawkwind, somewhat terrifying in its own right, the familiar rambling bass walks, cavernous guitar, and psychedelic poetry of the lyrics — interlaced with oscillating electronic beeps and warbles, flute attacks, sax honks, and ghostly keyboard lines — no longer coalesce into a groovy Milky Way of sound. Like a grotesque funhouse mirror, the band stretches the familiar Hawkwind vibe to cyclopean proportions, reminding us that there’s something implicitly terrifying about being that distanced from terra firma. “Assault and Battery/The Golden Void” at once sounds the most like a Minsk and a Hawkwind song: either beautiful or nightmarish, depending on your vantage point. “Down a corridor of flame,” indeed.

 

V: CHRISTMAS COMES TO THE HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN GRILL

U.S. Christmas covering Hawkwind feels almost inevitable. Of the three groups lending their respective voices to the space rock primogenitors, USX appears the most immediately indebted, bearing Hawkwind’s singular vision through the 21st century and nurturing essential mutations to the sound.

This is not a knock on the band’s originality. Rather, being situated amid such sonically rich territory seems to have motivated the band to stretch its psychedelic iteration to the weirdest frontiers possible. Eat the Low Dogs (Neurot Recordings, 2008) showcases a group of musicians operating through its own inscrutable logic. Rorschach riffs that could conceivably echo Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Black Sabbath, and/or Philip Glass abound throughout the record, underscored by Nate Hall’s raw vocals, which somehow reflect Hawkwindian drones and trills. On “Silent Tongue,” Hall repeats “50 bottles of gasoline” with a cumulative intensity until it comes to act, intentionally or not, as a mantra for regenerative musical destruction. U.S. Christmas’ sound is fixated on smashing its influences down to the atomic level and reconfiguring the orgones into constellations of its own singular design. Like their cohorts on Hawkwind Triad, the North Carolina quintet discerns the loopy, time-bending trajectory of its English forebears’ Silver Machine, and hops aboard.