Unseen Forces

Vague Terrain

single message from space will show that it is possible to live through technological adolescence”, Carl Sagan, “The Quest for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, 1978, Smithsonian Magazine

The first non-Matmos release on Vague Terrain, Unseen Forces, is a CD/DVD by the San Francisco quartet Sagan, a group comprised of Tigerbeat6 denizen Wobbly, Blevin Blectum (Blectum from Blechdom), Bjork/Matmos-collaborator/glitchhound, Lesser, and video artist Ryan Junell (Spoon, The Soft Pink Truth). This self-described “playful homage” to Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos Series” comes from a group of artists who might be accused of having built their reputations on making “technological adolescence” a fashionable virtue.

However, a passing familiarity with the often piss-taking anti-stoic sonic agendum of Sagan’s faculty will not acquaint you with more than the surface marks of Unseen Forces. I have always been interested in music that cross/self-references, winks and nudges, giving it the kind of complexity of purpose, tone and self-awareness that good novels have. But I’m frequently annoyed by the sort of flat irony that seems to be the cardinal substance of some San Francisco electronica, relegating it to something that seems merely (yawn) transgressive, caustic, dismissive—music with an entirely extra-musical deconstructive agenda. That Sagan retains the theatricality, humor, and self-awareness intrinsic to its scene and has produced something with equal amounts charm, caprice, structural depth and unstudied beauty is why it succeeds on its own terms, without merely reacting to music outside of its own cosmology.

A quasi-comic agenda is established in the opening nods to Hawkwind and Vangelis that foreground menacing Mego-esque, low-bit scribbles of sound. But what begins as a conceptual nod to sci-fi documentary soundtracks soon gives way to something more frantic and perplexing. With the self-consciously cheesy synths introduced in “Theme From” counterweighing the sonic underside, Track 2 introduces signature Lesser cuts and clicks but unexpectedly renders them something altogether more narrative and ‘conversational’ than destructive. The result is that your ear is effectively reoriented to read the low-resolution samples and rough-cut edits (the syntactic foundations of Sagan’s music) in a musical way, rather than conceptually.

The transition into “Fugüestate…” ministers the first of many disjunctively beautiful moments on Unseen Forces. Like the flapping end of a tape reel, the introductory drones are slapped into flickering silence and lawn sprinkler rhythms that teleport us into an audio-aviary that, from here out, serves as a recurring theme. Many tracks can be likened more to photomontage then the tired interruptive gestures of glitchcore or gabber; but the best are modular, where every cell is given enough time and breadth of palette to achieve a perceptible color, a specific and definable ‘place’—by the time pan flutes, alarm clocks, and electric guitars are being cycled into view like so many lemons in a slot machine (Track 3), the resulting moment is as visceral and lovely as anything in the collective output of Sagan’s members.

With “Eyes Fixed in Wonderment on the End of the Cosmic Calendar” Sagan arrive at something wholly evolved and, well, mature(!). From underneath the electro-morass emerge nostalgic, warm, muted piano reveries that could easily have come from as earnest a recording as David Grubbs’ “Banana Cabbage…” The piano calmly ponders the theoretical end of the universe beneath scurries of digital drum dust and pitch-shifted crabapple-munching, and provides the kind of sincerely moving expressions that elevate Sagan above their peers. On “Fixed Eyes (Slight Return)” we’re ‘returned’ to territory equal parts Vincent Price, Kool Keith and bird hospital field recordings. Yes, be it known that on tracks like “Closest Living Relations” Sagan also trade in their share of terrestrial sweatyassgrabbing booty moments (and not just the ‘haha-we’re-laughing-at-booty-moments’ booty moments either).

Nearing the end of a record best listened to in a single sweep, pastoral tokens that strike you as tongue-in-cheek during the overture have transmuted into something persuasively (though not routinely) wistful. “It’s Like We’re Deluded By Nature” is a diverse mélange of distressed bird cries, homo sapien bird imitations, metal riffs, human conversation, (and a bird imitating a cat?) that comes off almost convincingly as an audio-treatise on animal language. While it is difficult to suss out the metaphorical line of reasoning that maps birdsong to the secrets of the cosmos, I suspect such interpretation misses the point entirely. In contrast to the Black Hole that counts among Sagan’s thematic fetishes, these tracks present us with a musical thesis drawn very much in Cartesian space (i.e. topological, real, your grandma’s backyard); there is distance, depth, and presence as we are shuttled back and forth from room tone to soundtrack to dancehall, ear-whispers, ocean-side contemplation. Tracks like ‘Fugüestate…” are nothing if not a reverent pop hymn to a geographic as well as musical place because, at the end of the lunar day, Unseen Forces is more naturalistic than cosmic, more an earnest collection of playfully flatulent, dreamy bar-songs about longing for the stars than any kind of serious meditation on the stars themselves.

Reviewed by: William S. Fields

Reviewed on: 2004-12-14

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