An introduction: Creating the sound of space…
The Russians might have launched the first satellite into space, and the Americans might have had the first moon landing — but the race for what space might sound like musically has been an ongoing group effort.
Englishman Gustav Holst helped to get the ball rolling in 1918 with his Planets suite — but it would be the science-fiction film epidemic of the 1950s that would truly give it some momentum: Bernard Herrmann using the Russian-invented ‘theremin’ with its ghostly whine for The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951, and the husband and wife team Louis and Bebe Barron’s tone-generated score for the legendary Forbidden Planet in 1960.
With the invention of the Moog synthesizer, it was the keyboard that would take the lead in scoring space, with the synthesizer’s ability to sustain endless notes, and not run out of breath, and use a complex system of filters that could make tiny, imperceptible changes to the pitch and velocity of a note, over time, creating drones, and unusual sounds, making it perfect for long voyages through outer space and visitations to other planets.
For many of us, we became used to these sounds through watching shows like Dr Who, and American-European co-productions like The Case of the Ancient Astronauts.
Part 1: A love affair from afar . . . Signals to a Habitable Zone
Now that’s a long spiel to get started on a review of new music, but the latest addition to this canon of astronomical audio excursions comes from the Brooklyn group Long Distance Poison who released their first 12” Signals to a Habitable Zone last year.
Creating their music with analogue synthesizers, they have purposely avoided using MIDI, the technology allowing synthesizers to talk to each other and get “in sync” – but a technology that can also detract from the spontaneity of electronic music by having everything too closely timed and controlled. Sacrificing this means that the three members of Long Distance Poison are relying more on their ear, and listening to each other for their live performances and recordings.
The album is divided into two tracks, ‘Signal I’ and ‘Signal II’ which have both been performed live around Brooklyn. LDP’s droning, epic music is very much in the mold of the German group Tangerine Dream, which is the first connection a listener might make in their mind, but their style and sound is also unique in that they are putting an American stamp on their music. It’s not often acknowledged, but so many of the early synthesizers came from the West Coast of America – the Moog, the Arp, the Prophet 5 – even though it has been European groups, particularly German, that their sound has come to be associated with.
Also American is their interpretation of space. Long Distance Poison’s version of solar winds and flares are not the same as those of Jean Michel-Jarre and Vangelis, but rooted more in the American science tradition of the local planetarium where teenagers would take their ‘dates’ to in American movies. The look and design of the record sleeve, too, is like a page torn from Scientific American magazine circa 1950s, and to hold one of their records in your hands is to feel again the awe and mystery that space and astronomy held for most of last century, a mystery that in many ways has been overshadowed by the development of the internet and personal devices.
Signals to a Habitable Zone suits a vinyl release much more than I would say the majority of vinyl releases do, and the long single track on each side allows you to close your eyes and lie back, letting your mind drift into delta wave territory, ending at the right moment, and maybe letting you choose to go to sleep, or wake up slowly – and then repeat the journey again the following night with Side B.
Part 2: Gliese Translations
Following this first release is a remix album, Gliese Translations, that came out a few months ago. It’s another 12” with three interpretations of Signals to a Habitable Zone.
The first is a remix of ‘Signal I’ by Drew McDowell, a New York based musician, originally from England, who had been a part of the group Coil and the industrial/electronic UK music scene of the 80s and 90s.
The second remix of ‘Signal II’ is by Steve Moore, who has been building quite a reputation for himself as a remixer and as one half of the duo Zombi. He has a natural predisposition for this type of music, and has been digitally updating the sound of Tangerine Dream with tracks like ‘Ancient Shorelines‘ and ‘Tyken’s Rift’. Moore has also released Long Distance Poison on his own label, VCO.
The third remix is by Shawn Parke, who has composed music for horror films, as well as remixing the likes of Calvin Johnson and Mirah. Parke has zeroed in on the horror elements of Signal I and II, combining them, and drawing out what horror composer Alan Howarth would call the “darker aspects” of subtractive synthesis (the filtering process that analogue synthesizers use).
Part 3: The term analogue doesn’t just apply to music.
Video, too, once used analogue processing to create its visual effects; and this is the final interesting element to Long Distance Poison’s work.
There is a fourth, non-musical member of the group, Matthew Caron, a filmmaker and video artist who is responsible for creating and projecting live visuals at their gigs, sometimes on rather interesting surface areas.
He has also used their music on a couple of his experimental films which are packaged with Gliese Translations as a DVD – The Three Voices of Tawûsê Melek and A Passage Above, which Caron made with Rebecca Gaffney.
The Three Voices of Tawûsê Melek is a deep brain stunner, with its slow build up of overlaid images, and screen jumping (the way televisions used to roll, when the horizontal hold wasn’t tuned in properly) with the central image of the film being a peacock — a perfect metaphor for the film, which, with its brilliant use of colour, is at times like stretching your jumper over your eyes while lying in the sun and seeing how the light refracts into separate colours through the fabric.
Long Distance Poison would be a great live act to catch, if you live in the US.
Besides their normal performances, they have also performed live rescorings of Santa Sangre and The Holy Mountain, both feature films by the mystical Brazilian director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who I think figures as a strong influence on their overall work.
You can find out info about upcoming gigs on the LDP website: www.longdistancepoison.org
In the meantime, both Signals to a Habitable Zone and Gliese Translations are available through the Fin Records website.