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Sagan - Unseen Forces

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Artist: Sagan

Album: Unseen Forces

Label: Vague Terrain

Review date: Oct. 4, 2004

Occam’s Razor is a theoretical dictum which states that if there are two hypotheses that explain data equally well, one should choose the simplest. Unseen Forces, the new album from Sagan, breaks this rule with maniacal glee. Consisting of electronic folk-heroes Blevin Blectum, J. Lesser and Jon Leidecker as well as video artist Ryan Junell, the group’s music explores the cosmos with playful curiosity and fuck-all bravado. Their namesake, Carl Sagan, was both a disciplined scientific mind and a charismatic maverick; a man who transcended cold data through his infectious sense of discovery. Sagan the group do much the same, letting the painstaking process of electronic composition become an opportunity to discover new perspectives in sound.

Stodgy, emotionally distant mechanics have no place here - this crew recasts the intelligence behind the cosmos as a 6-year-old child with a fistful of chocolate. Tracks like “Eyes Fixed in Wonderment Upon the End of the Cosmic Calendar,” throb and pulse with blasts of static and acoustic piano interlaced with gabbered-out drum hits and squeaky, treated voices. Occasionally the compositions veer into analog territory, with fat Vangelis-esque synth pads pulled through a cosmic wormhole. Time is elastic in Sagan’s universe; there’s no beat mapping here. Tone and rhythm take the shape of random quantum variants: The music isn't so much composed as stumbled across.

Unseen Forces maps out some strange vectors; the closest we come to a typical electronic beat is on the track “Closest Living Relations.” The cut sounds like late-'70s Talking Heads refashioned as characters in a Douglas Adams novel. At one point the song veers into faux-metal territory, and Sagan’s cover is blown. This slight misdirection reduces their heady explorations to sideshow contrivance, but it’s thankfully brief.

The accompanying DVD is pretty fun: The chapter menu is designed as an old View-Master slide, and the opening sequence features a Carl Sagan look-alike marveling at the beautiful complexity of dandelion spores. The group’s humor becomes evident in a short scene that takes place outside a club; a twentysomething hipster is explaining to a bored girl that the band inside isn’t “classic rock.” Either way, she appears unimpressed. The music in each vignette is still quite compelling, but a dance routine consisting of people in a dark room scuttling about with flashlights gets old pretty fast. The sample of Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” deserves kudos, though.

It was probably a good idea to include the DVD; it’ll help those with a lower threshold for spazzed-out electronica to find footing through farce. J. Lesser and Blevin Blectum have always demonstrated a mischievous humor in their recorded work, and Ryan Junell’s visual element reinforces their slanted view. Call me old-fashioned - I still prefer closing my eyes and slipping on the headphones - but the film has a campy charm. Who can resist famed astronomers throwing down over hot new theorems in cheesy subtitled re-enactments?

Sagan have crafted a satisfying multimedia experience, but if there’s a grand unifying theory to the work, it’s that science is fun-damental.

By Casey Rae-Hunter

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