Combat Astronomy

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

Lunik (Adnoiseam, 2001), 6/10
Solar Radiation (2002), 6/10
The Dematerialized Passenger (2005), 7/10
Dreams No Longer Hesitate (Zond, 2008), 5.5/10
Earth Divided By Zero (2010), 6.5/10
Flak Planet (2011), 6/10

The loop, beat and noise experiment Combat Astronomy debuted in 2000 on the split album Sleeping With The Earth/ Combat Astronomy.

After the tentative Lunik (Adnoiseam, 2001), a soup of loops, beats and noise, and Solar Radiation (2002), that was shelved and released only years later as a digital download, Combat Astronomy became a transatlantic collaboration between Oregon-based bassist James Huggett (also programming the drum-machine) and three veterans of British free-jazz (saxophonist Martin Archer, basson player Mike Beck and flutist Charlie Collins). The all-instrumental The Dematerialized Passenger (Discus, 2005) straddled the border between industrial, heavy-metal and jazz music. Most of the songs exhibit a leading bass line, odd time signatures (by programmed drums) and dissonant sax counterpoint. Huggett's thundering bass couples with fractured organ riffs in Greedy Angels, with the minimalist repetition broken by Archer's sax squeals. Menacing bass noise and celestial flute coexist for a while in Orion, but in the terrifying coda the tsunami of noise created by the bass collides instead with a strident keyboard drone. The bass lays down a booming background for other sounds to perfect the gloomy anemic Collapsing Runways, one of the least articulate pieces and therefore one of the most cryptic. The imposing and truculent bass-based building begins to crack in Serpents, that begins like heavy funk-punk jamming but ends as an electronic serenade. Sophisticated electronic sounds begin the ten-minute Bad Phaser (pure aural delight) although the drum programming here is too rigid. Distorted hard-bop piano leads the dance of Time Stamp, the rare moment of relax. The piece in which all elements come together at their best is probably the eight-minute The Dematerialised Passenger: free-form sax noise that inhabits a disturbing electronic tapestry, a dancing rhythm that tries to impose order, and then an hermetic finale of bombings and bell tolling.
The music is infinitely less fluid than the Canterbury prog-rock of Soft Machine and Henry Cow, but not too alien to Robert Wyatt's brainy project Matching Mole. Clearly, however, they belong to a generation that has survived the industrial-gothic nihilism of the Swans and the monster self-flagellations of Meshuggah.

Caveman Shoestore's vocalist Elaine DiFalco fronted Combat Astronomy's album Dreams No Longer Hesitate (Zond, 2008), complementing the horn section of sax, clarinet, flute and bassoon, and lending the proceedings the feeling of an expressionistic version of trip-hop. The vocals bring novelties such as a regular song Lightning in Her Eyes and the brief hallucination of Ordinary Miracles. In general, they simplify the old instrumental chaos (especially in Touch the Moon but perhaps too much in I Can't Breathe and in the 14-minute Fragmented Degrees. The vocals are buried in the industrial clangor of Sentinel (16:49) and disappear during the jamming of the second half, but the relative order (compared to the previous album) remains in place. The band regains its angular impetus in the lengthy instrumental Alive Inside Eternity (12:36): however, even here the sax is less abrasive. On the positive side, the dialogue between the horns and with the piano is more fluent than before.

Combat Astronomy's Earth Divided By Zero (Zond, 2010) was played by the trio of Archer, DeFalco and Huggett. The album is another shellshock of jazz-metal-industrial music a` la The Dematerialized Passenger, therefore bypassing the normalizing experiment of the previous album. The 15-minute The Atrocity Commission is one hell of a frenzied attack (if a bit repetitive) minus a brief piano-led pause. In fact, starting with the tribal and psychedelic overture of Astralized, the music relies on (finally) some creative (Gong-like wordless and dilated) use of the vocals. Thus the instruments can focus on penning the surreal Parallax Of One Arc Second with its fanfare-like surge and the even more surreal Eating Backwards with its disorienting dissonance. The three-movement 18-minute Earth Divided By Zero begins by accelerating to almost black-metal speed and unleashing wild organ and sax performances. After the brief subdued droning second movement, the third movement cannot regain the momentum and limps towards a section of dense sax drones that morphs smoothly into vocal drones. Then the drumming stops, then the vocals die out, an organ briefly intones a deranged motif, and finally the music dies and cosmic emptiness rules. Several moments of brilliance but not completely successful.

Abandoned the experiment with the vocals, Combat Astronomy was a quintet on Flak Planet (2011): Archer on saxes, clarinets, electronics and zither, Beck on tenor sax and bassoon, Mike Ward on tenor sax and flutes, Derek Saw on trombone and trumpet, and Huggett as usual on bass and drum programming. Opener The Stone Tape stands a proud declaration of belligerence, almost a free-jazz version of Meshuggah; but, perhaps because the sax is not as noisy as usual, the music is more fluid and way more emotional than usual in Flak Planet, that, despite the frenzied ending, relies more on sustained tones than on jarring discordance. Zona (one of their most accomplished exercises) retains the aggressive posture but this time via physical staccato piano patterns that are met by eloquent sax melodies. The album also includes their boldest composition yet in the realm of droning minimalism, Infinity Decay. The four-movement Inverted Universe has very little development. It mostly relies on martial suspense (first movement), geometric jamming (second movement) and repetition (fourth movement). There is a lot less imagination at work, and a lot more discipline. For better and for worse.

Combat Astronomy's Kundalini Apocalypse featured Elaine Di Falco (voice), James Huggett (bass and guitar) and the choir Juxtavoices.

Combat Astronomy's double-disc Time Distort Nine (Discus, 2014) documents the trio of leader Martin Archer (organ, electric piano, software grand piano, mellotron, laptop, software trumpet, baritone, alto and sopranino saxes, clarinets, glockenspiel), Peter Fairclough (drums and percussion) and James Huggett (five string fretless and fretted basses, guitar, programmed drums); and it includes the 17-minute Tenser Quadrant and the 21-minute Unity Weapon.

Symmetry Through Collapse (ZOND, 2016) featured Archer on sax, clarinet, organ and electronics, accompanied by James Huggett (bass, elctronics), Pater Fairclough (drums) and the Italian vocalist Dalila Kayros.

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(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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