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Astral Social Club - Astral Social Club

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Artist: Astral Social Club

Album: Astral Social Club

Label: VHF

Review date: Mar. 2, 2007

When Teo Macero cobbled together open-ended jams into the fusion fever montages of In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, On the Corner and the like, he opened up an entirely new audio space, one that thrived on the tension between the live experience and the recorded one. The same space was simultaneously being explored by dub scientists like Tubby and Lee Perry, and later by disco DJs and, in its ultimate expression, by hip hop’s pioneers. The results were diverse, but the approach and intent were of one mind: Arrange large blocks of sound into a flowing mass, and generate a wholly new, ecstatic experience for the listener. For Neil Campbell, the ascent to ecstasy has been at the center of his work with the Vibracathedral Orchestra; Astral Social Club is his solo vehicle, and it stands as perhaps the purest expression of his art of the ecstatic on record. This self-titled collection might share an approach with its forebearers, but it sounds nothing like them.

Up to now, Astral Social Club’s music has only been available in limited run CD-R pressings. This record is a self-styled “mega-mix” of Astral Social Club highlights culled from those releases, chosen by VHF and then re-mixed by Campbell and Tirath Singh Nirmala. Campbell likens it to a DJ set, but it’s not a seamless club set. Imagine instead Kool Herc with a raft of electronics, percussion, some guitars and a laptop. It’s chaos and atoms smashing, more about the jarring mood change and full-body immersion than stitched together beats.

Drone and density are Campbell’s default modes of construction on these 11 untitled tracks, and he states he doesn’t play any one instrument, just uses anything that generates sound. This combination of technique makes the music here inscrutable and irreducible. There’s no theme to tie one end of a piece to another, no rhythmic grid to rest on, no climax because it is all climax; only an enormous, shimmering expanse of pitches, textures and pulses stretches out before you. The fifth track regresses rock to a primal state of a clutch of throbbing bass tones, a searing slow-build drone of bowed strings melts into a flickering, synthesized riff on the 11th piece, broken breakbeats and electronic glitches pitched near ear-bleed snowball into near frenzy. But these are just details. Every track is deliriously single-minded but splendidly complex and layered.

This music is too diffuse for the dancefloor and too restless for the living room. The eighth track teases house in its swinging tuned percussion, a deranged strobe rhythm drives the ninth, and the 10th track flirts with ambient bliss. But Campbell isn’t hybridizing genres - he’s thinking without genres. Astral Social Club does what all good music should do: It plucks from where you are and propels you into a new, better place.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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