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Comet III - Astral Voyager

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Artist: Comet III

Album: Astral Voyager

Label: Fire Museum

Review date: Jan. 23, 2008

In the mid 1970s, punk slew the great bloated beast of instrumental excess. Fusion, space-rock and progressive rock were all shoved aside by angry kids with only tentative grasps on fundamentals such as chords, melody and structure. Or so the story goes. Prog and its ilk survived, of course, and prog, especially its Italian and German manifestations, lived on in cult-like infamy to become underground inspiration for a whole new generation.

The wheel seems to have finished a cycle now, as the long-form wanderings and humid analogue atmosphere of the early ’70s has resurfaced. Exhibit A is this debut from the Italian duo Comet III, which is part tribute (the album title references a Tangerine Dream piece of the same name) and part innovation.

The duo’s specific launching point appears to be pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd and the early, open-ended experiments of Tangerine Dream. There are moments when Astral Voyager’s debt feels specific enough that it plays like Comet III have taken the first 10 minutes of the Floyd’s “Echoes” as their compositional model. On the opening of “C1,” keyboardist Carlo Matanza pulls off a vintage performance, his Moog, Wurlitzer and organ work weaving a dense network of thick, bold tones. The space sounds (whooshes, alien radio signals and the like) are also on full display, but Matanza embroiders those, too, into the fabric of each piece.

For a debut, Matanza and guitarist Delfo Catania show a surfeit of confidence. They let ideas unfold over time and hurry nothing. Layers accrue slowly, meaning each one receives due recognition. A two-note guitar figure rings for much of “C1,” and at times its sway is the rhythmic center of the piece, amid a spiral of organ washes, keyboard stabs, stout bass notes and other assorted effects. At the piece’s climax, the air is heavy with activity, but there’s a clarity that lets every layer stand out.

They also have no problem with concision, as “Part 2” and “Part 3” hover around the five-minute mark. The core of “Part 2” is a sax and acoustic guitar dialogue with its DNA in the blues, mutated and obscured just enough that it dissipates into a fever dream. The idea of “Part 3” is similar, but the textures differ. Organ and sequencer parts pulse vibrantly, and the end effect is more collage than performance.

What turns Astral Voyager from a pitch-perfect ’70s tribute to an engrossing, forward-looking journey is the way Matanza and Catania avoid building anything too complex or too extreme. They’ve internalized the restraint and control of prog and then grafted it with the energy and discovery of improvisation. “Part 1” is a prime example. Textured percussion, piano clusters and the wordless vocals of guest Shirin Demma careen around space and collide into each other without ever losing focus. On the 15-minute title track, Matanza brushes against the edge of a drone, but steps back and lets Catania enter at around at the halfway mark. From there, a dialogue, slow and meandering, builds.

Not once do the duo use the instrumental excess of this era – cathartic noise, ecstatic improv or ad-hoc ritual percussion – for cheap effect. In fact, there’s very little percussion here at all. It’s scope, tone and meditative pace that Comet III excels at. When they combine these with their sense for dynamics and narrative, Astral Voyager is transcendent.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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