. issue X : iii .
. artist : black tempest .
. album : sticks and bells and ancient spells .
. year : 2013 .
. label : tempest towers .
. grade : a .
Your resident kosmische alchemist Black Tempest has assembled his wires, plugs and oxygen tanks for another deep and diverse dive. Black Tempest’s Sticks and Bells and Ancient Spells continues our intrepid explorer’s experiments with worlds of sound that are acutely Tempest-ous, but also push his rubbery and shifting envelope into spaces where his light shines as bright as ever and is thoroughly welcome.
Out of the lab first is the title cut, a formidable showcase for Black Tempest’s wizardry that breaks the 20-minute mark but seems to effortlessly pass by in a much briefer duration. You can hear the usual suspects such as Schulze, Tangerine Dream, etc … mingling with folky and pastoral jig-like interludes, dark and very groovy keyboard emphases, plus some coasting though driven expanses shorn up by a larger than usual presence of guitar in places. These varying interludes wax and wane through the cut, swelling up into each other, and, as they seem to simultaneously dissipate, eliminating any sense of borders. Bits and pieces (sticks and bells?) reappear at points making the weave tight without placing a chokehold on the trip. Just past the 8-minute mark the more folky and proggy strand worms its way back to the surface feeling like it’s reemergence could only be right there. Following suit, the prevalence of guitar on the next sequence makes as much sense. So does a subtle, deep fuzzy rumbling at points that surely must be residual vapor trails from Black Tower’s outstanding collaboration with the formidable Dead Sea Apes, The Sun Behind The Sun. In lesser hands, the wealth of ingredients would be a dizzying kitchen-sink atrocity, but Black Tower has the innate gift of really seeing the bigger picture. A skill that is apparent on briefer cuts as well where he is pursuing a tangent that might be more stripped down or even straight-ahead. In many ways, Sticks and Bells and Ancient Spells is a definitive Black Tower track, and one that achieves that status by, well, not being one. … in the shifting physics of the Black Tower universe that makes perfect sense.
The name Mike Oldfield often is met with smirks and disdain, or tossed aside by those thinking that the few key licks from Tubular Bells that helped give an eternal sonic trademark to The Exorcist somehow defined Oldfield, or more so that album. Sticks and Bells and Ancient Spells isn’t Tubular Bells anymore than Oldfield is, but there’s a breadth of the title cut along with the instrumentation and styles that calls up that album in a ghostly fashion, if only in intent. Just as Oldfield generated far more than that one seminal album (Five Miles Out, anyone?), there are other sojourns to be had under Black Tower’s spell.
A peak into “The Crack Between The Worlds” opens a whole other vista. A briefer drifting gas giant rife with the seduction of space and vacuum, “The Crack Between The Worlds” is proof that Black Tower can conjure up just as rich and mysterious panoramas when the big picture might not seem that big. More than likely, size ratios have just been inverted. A fourth of the running time of the title cut, “Crack” covers an equal expanse; symmetry and paradox hand-in-hand. As deep as it is tall (one of the benefits of Black Tower’s multiple vantage points), “Pyramid” gives some ethereal vocals to the ancient spells while Black Tower works a jittery vibe that could be both the swarming worker bees building the monument or cosmic bodies jockeying and ricocheting for position in front of the sun for the cooling shade of an eclipse. Deeply cosmic and full of nervous latent force, “Pyramid” is the one here that borders on ritual. And it doesn’t … but we already covered that ….
“Morning Star” rises for the close, picking up some of the edginess of “Pyramid” in its repetitive oscillations, but replacing the voices of the ancients with more elongated gentler wisps underneath that do call to mind the briskness of a morning; a trippy morning that surely must peak with an eclipse at some point during the day. Of all the cuts, “Morning Star” plays as the most stripped down, the one seemingly using less, but with a sharp purpose. There’s a determined crystalline crispness here that becomes all the more clear towards the end with some lilting piano lines and an easy ride out.
Considering the sweep of the opener, it’s refreshing that there wasn’t surrender to the temptation of going out with a bigger bang. Black Tower says more about his confidence and craft by going the other, and infinitely more natural, way in taking us out. The resonance after you hit the bell is just as enticing as when the stick first makes contact. That not only feebly describes the close of Sticks and Bells and Ancient Spells, but in some ways gets to the core of it … one core … let’s try another ….
Sticks and Bells and Ancient Spells is out next month. If you appreciate eye candy, go for the physical: more delicious work from Pete Fowler adorns the package.
by Mr. Atavist