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4 April, 2004

Review: Spirals In Hyperspace (Ozric Tentacles, 2004)

This is probably going to be a common comment in reviews of 'Spirals In Hyperspace': if you're already an Ozric Tentacles fan, you'll probably like the new album.  The obvious subtext is that this is 'more of the same', and adds little to the band's existing catalogue.  It's one of their best, but mightn't draw in many new fans.

In theory, this should be radically different to all foregoing releases, as it's an Ed Wynne solo album in all but name.  Of the current nominal lineup of the band, Zia and Seaweed only appear on one track, John only on that same track and one other, and Schoo only on those two plus a third.  In terms of writing, three tracks are credited to the band, one to Ed and Merv, and the remaining five to Ed alone.  As always, Ed was also the recording engineer and producer, working from his own studio (I think) in Somerset.  The artwork isn't explicitly credited, but includes five Erpman doodles by... guess who.  Breaking from this trend, Ed doesn't play glide bass on 'Chewier', nor 'spikes' (techno sounds) on 'Plasmoid'.  No, they're provided by a totally different person, Brandi Wynne... er, Ed's wife.

Yet the practical impact is less than expected, and this sounds like the Ozrics, merely with shifted emphases. With a couple of exceptions such as 'Zoemetra', the overtly 'Eastern' influences of foregoing albums seem to have been reduced, taking lesser roles in the soundscape. There's also a slightly more 'electronic' feel than before; live bass only appears on two of the nine tracks; live drums are on three. This isn't necessarily a problem, as I like electronic and sampled music too, but the more synthetic approach is worth mentioning. I'll be interested to hear some of these tracks performed live.

'Chewier' is a pretty good entry to the album, and typical of 'up-tempo' Ozrics - keyboard-led, accompanied by fast paced (electronic and 'real') percussion and the usual electronic 'squelches', occasionally joined by Ed's guitar.

The title track and the following two really are an Ed Wynne solo effort, as he played (and programmed) all instruments. This only serves to emphasise Ed's dominance of the Ozrics sound, as one wouldn't know they are other than normal full-band efforts, if not for the the sleeve notes.

'Spirals...' begins as typical of the Ozrics' more relaxed, spacey side. The underlying tempo is fast again, but the (electronic) instrumentation is gentler than on 'Chewier'. However, this is a journey of almost ten minutes, and the route meanders into rockier sections after the midpoint and again at the end.

'Slinky' is still more relaxed, a rich soundscape of ambient tones and wandering stereo effects gradually building until the lead guitar arrives after six minutes, sustaining momentum rather than let the track (or maybe the listener) merely drift off, a real risk considering the trip lasts 8:39 mins.

'Toka Tola' is classic Ozrics material - should be great live. The superficially familiar style is both an advantage and a disadvantage - this could have appeared on any of their albums. It has the ambient keyboard tones, intricate guitar solos, dubby bass, electronic flourishes, and sense that one is travelling through a three dimensional soundscape; in short, excellent music. It's certainly as good as anything they've ever done before - it's just that it, or music so similar as to be almost indistinguishable, has been done before. Does that matter? Nope.
Not that it's particularly relevant, this was the working title of the album.

'Plasmoid' could almost be considered a techno 'song', as an odd electronic noise slightly reminiscent of a dolphin's voice overlays the somewhat funky first minute or so; two minutes in and the clicking becomes more distorted then vanishes in a quiet moment of what could be whalesong. The synths and percussion return, followed by a strong bass beat which gradually accelerates to finish with a return of the 'voice', now sounding as if it might be a heavily distorted human voice.

'Oakum' is already familiar to fans, having been played live since 2001, being released as a fans-only single and appearing on the 'Live At The Pongmasters Ball' DVD and CDs; its inclusion on the album finally provides a studio version to the general public. I don't know whether this is the original 2001 recording.
This is the only track on the album which features the entire band. Knowing that, one can detect a different usage of keyboard 'textures' and a less mechanical feel to the bass - or that might be imaginary. The drumming certainly feels 'real', whilst the introduction of John's flute suddenly highlights its absence for the first two-thirds of the album.

'Akasha' includes guest appearences from space rock pioneers Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudi of Gong, though I only know that from the sleeve notes and I don't hear anything remarkably distinct from the usual Ozrics sound; I think I noticed a couple of near-direct quotes from earlier albums. It's certainly an enjoyable track, guitars and keyboards wandering in and around a consistent synth base, taking six minutes to build from a laid-back beginning to a climax then dropping back to blend into the ambient start of the next track.

On 'Psychic Chasm', samples and drum programming were provided by Merv Pepler, currently of Eat Static; I'm unsure whether this qualifies as a guest appearence, as Merv hasn't played on an Ozrics album since 'Arborescence', a decade ago!
Following the aforementioned ambient start, the introduction of percussion is particularly enjoyable: an 'ethnic' drum sound fades in, initially muffled but developing a clearer tone as it becomes louder; this evokes a sense of flying above then breaking through a sound-damping layer of cloud, or approaching the drummer down a narrow corridor. After exploring this soundscape for a couple of minutes, a quieter interlude breaks through into a dance environment. The frenetic percussion is very much in a drum'n'bass style, which doesn't entirely match the slower pace of Ed's guitar 'solo', though the result is surprisingly successful. Definitely one for headphones listening: a high-energy, 3D audio trip.

'Zoemetra' takes the Ozrics (well, three of them) back to their signature Eastern style, the acoustic guitar setting the rhythm and feel, carried by a bass line which is very difficult to predict, moment to moment. Ethnic woodwind and interweaving keyboards reinforce the atmosphere. The music itself ends abruptly, the final notes echoing to fadeout, but the final sounds on the album are sampled birdsong - an excellent close.

When I started this review, after I'd heard the album twice but before fully focusing on the individual tracks, I wrote:
I'm happy to acknowledge that connoisseurs of the space rock genre might gain more from this than a casual fan like myself, but whilst it's pretty good background music for other activities, I wouldn't choose to sit and focus my full attention on an Ozrics album for the whole 70 minutes, and this is no exception.
However, that's almost entirely incorrect: having listened to it intently, both with and without headphones, there's drastically more to it than I'd realised, and this is far from just the enjoyable aural wallpaper I nearly dismissed it as.

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