People Go into the Stratosphere

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The Martin Archer all-you-can-eat buffet is open for business…better bring a big plate and an extra fork…we received the self-titled double CD set by Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere (DISCUS40CD) on 19 November 2012, and it’s a real grand bouffe 1. This is another grand scaled project organised by Martin Archer in Sheffield and released on his own Discus label. Archer, highly conversant with saxophone and electronics, has been a past master of small and intimate group situations involving those instruments, but increasingly these days he is thinking big; there’s a large number of gifted people involved in this ambitious project, and while the core Orchestra itself – mostly keyboards, electronics, synths and percussion – comprises just five players, there are also performances from La Garotte String Quartet, The Divine Winds (a saxophone and woodwind group), and Juxtavoices, the unique singing choir whose work is also represented on this label on the record Juxtanother Antichoir From Sheffield released this year. With this small army of musicians, this lengthy album presents a cosmic sprawl of massed organ drones and electronic doodlings, enhanced with jazzy brass blasts and free-style vocal episodes from the choir. Think of Tangerine Dream to the power of ten, joined by an early incarnation of the Mike Westbrook Band and the Scratch Orchestra – an early 1970s music fan’s dream come true!

On ‘Seen From Above Parts 1 and 2’, the Orchestra create a truly enormous and cavernous sound, occupied by detailed passages of free playing; it’s a remarkably sustained effort to keep the space as nebulous as possible, without allowing the work to collapse into a sludgy mess. Philip Glass saxophone arpeggios leak into this open-ended gaseous billow of Gong-esque organ and synth drone. ‘The Opposition Effect’ should appeal to anyone who enjoys the work of the John Aldiss choir on side one of Atom Heart Mother (and I know not many Pink Floyd fans do), with Juxtavoices chanting their clipped syllables in a strident manner to the backing of a lumbering rock beat, solid organ chords and flipped-out sax squawkings. “It’s a 25-voice choir that works on the premise that any 25 note chord is probably going to be OK,” is how Archer described the choir to me in 2011, reflecting on the mixed abilities of the singers in the group. “It’s more about text and performance and maybe experimental poetry.” That side of the choir is also to the fore on ‘An Open Vista Is Revealed’, an excellent short piece on the second CD, with the voices whistling and whispering in mysterious manner against a very restrained and open-ended instrumental backdrop. There’s more of their free-form poetry chants on ‘Star Procession’, which when combined with the dissonant string sections and electronic drones produces a heavy-duty dose of out-there weirdness.

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Archer has stressed that he isn’t out to experiment with variety just for the sake of novelty; rather he regards his multiple approaches as different ways of solving the same problem. This double CD set abounds with experiment and innovation, exploring ways to make these group combinations work. On ‘Almost Unrecognisable But For Its Surface Markings’, the string quartet wander an alien landscape in amazement, while percussion clatters around them in tiny explosions. In that case, the keynote is uncertainty and doubt, but not so on ‘Duty Music’, a big-band escapade with the strings and brass creating a very forthright and upbeat mood. ‘The Umbral Length of Shadows’ is an extremely bold attempt to use most if not all of the musicians in one collective blast; a somewhat lumbering beast results, which misfires in places and gives us almost too much to listen to as it tramps along its path propelled by a faux-funky beat; but you’ve rarely heard such remarkable combinations of unusual sounds, timbres and pitches. And at 20 minutes, ‘Nimbus’ is another major showcase for noodling keyboards, heavy drone and errant string solos creating unearthly effects, only slightly let down by the rhythm section providing an unimaginative drum and bass beat which somehow falls short of the best moments of Can. That said, Can never used strings and brass to such powerful effect on their records.

With titles such as ‘Anti-Crepuscular Rays’, ‘Rainforest Tension’, and other titles quoted above you’ll have noticed the meteorological and sky-gazing themes of this release 2. It’s a promise that is borne out by the very airy and open sound the Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere are capable of generating with their competing frequencies and strange juxtapositions, at their best achieving the ethereality of the air itself. As to the music, which incidentally has taken three years to complete, the press notes make explicit aspirations in the direction of Terry Riley, Stockhausen, Alice Coltrane and Krautrock – which should give you sufficient orientation. I think this is an exceptional work, which testifies to Archer’s very sociable and outgoing approach to making music; he simply likes people and likes to gather them around him so he can perform music with them, and I would estimate that a significant percentage of this album is performed live or in real time. Certainly the electronic effects are kept to a minimum, with only a few audible foot-pedals to tweak the organ drone, and acoustic instruments abound, holding their own against the amplified section of the Orchestra. And the sheer length is mightily impressive. In duration alone this would have occupied a four-LP box set in the old days, a generosity that pays off even when the music does sag in places (‘Coherent Backscattering’, a rather formless and laboured piece, is one notable failure) and the work overall might have benefited from a little editing or a more selective production strategy. The major disappoint to me is the utterly unprepossessing cover art, a grainy image of hideous browns and blacks which eventually resolves itself into a murky treated photograph of the band playing a concert in a venue. The cosmic Theta on the back cover is a good notion 3, but this powerful sign has had its energy somehow sapped by digital imaging, and it floats vaguely against a bitty background of artefacts when instead it should pulsate with all the mystical power of the black monolith object on Presence 4. The cloud photos printed on the discs are slightly better and fit the concept of the record. But overall I believe the strength of the music is seriously under-communicated by these poor visuals. This plaint aside, Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere makes good its printed claim to “propose an alternative reality”, and is warmly recommended.

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  1. I refer to the film of this title directed by Marco Ferreri and released in 1973.
  2. For perfect conceptual unity, the record really ought to have been pressed at Nimbus, who manufactured most of the releases for Recommended Records.
  3. Theta is used in meteorology to represent potential temperature.
  4. i.e. the Led Zeppelin LP. The puzzling cover art is one of Hipgnosis’s best, in my view. Storm Thorgerson appeared on a recent TV documentary about the making of Wish You Were Here, and neatly summed up Hipgnosis’s cultural achievement; he was simply fed up of rock album covers that were no more than photographs of old geezers.

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