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Artist: Vibracathedral Orchestra

Album: Vibracathedral Orchestra

Label: VHF

Review date: Aug. 14, 2012

When bands follow a fallow release period with a deluxe treatment of a deep catalog item, you have to wonder if the end has already come. It’s two years since the last new Vibracathedral Orchestra records, and the vinyl triumvirate of Joka Baya, The Secret Base and Smoke Song already signaled significant shrinkage in the Orchestra’s ranks. Only Mick Flower and Adam Davenport remained of the five-piece that had made so many records and levitated so many dingy rooms and festival stages in the EEC from the late 1990s through the mid-aughts. Neil Campbell, Bridget Hayden and Julian Bradley were all gone, replaced by a couple part-time guests John Godbert (Total) and John Moloney (Sunburned Hand Of The Man), but even though they sounded quite like the VCO of yore, the working methods can’t have been the same. The Orchestra’s MO was to play together frequently and record everything they did; there’s no way to sustain that when your drummer is a part-timer who lives on the other side of the ocean. And if they’ve played a gig since those LPs came out, I haven’t found any evidence of it.

But if the reissue of Vibracathedral Orchestra signals the band’s demise, it not only shows what a shame it is that they’re gone; it sheds significant light on how they operated. The original album was self-released in a cheaply mastered and pressed edition of 250. Recorded in 2004, it captured the Orchestra at a peak, after they’d figured out just what they wanted to do and had spent plenty of time getting good at it. Note the emphasis on process. The VCO had a particular sound zone, and a particular way of working; everyone in the band was a multi-instrumentalist, which yielded an impressive variety to their sound even when they seemed to be doing the same basic thing again and again. Their music came out of a variety of improvisation that emphasizes continuity over surprise. Improvised music with a capital I often privileges rhythmic fracture; steeped in rock, VCO hurtled ever forward. The musicians might or might not interact, but they always headed toward the same horizon and rarely subverted the music’s essential momentum. If Angus MacLise had booted Lou Reed out of The Velvet Underground instead of the other way around, stolen Can’s ethnographic forgery playbook, and then kept the band together for 10 years, they might have sounded like this. There’s a MacLise-like rhythmic abandon, a simultaneous savagery and serenity in the string drones, and a languidness in the guitar figures that bob and spiral in the maelstroms of percussive chaos. There’s also a distinct editing style — chop here to begin, chop here to end — that is startling and blunt, but never ill timed. Each track feels like part of a much longer jam, one that might evolve over days or weeks with occasional intermissions for non-band life.

This reissue enjoys improved, frequency-rich, non-crackly sound courtesy of a nice RTI pressing (no CDs, no downloads), which enhances each track’s hypnotic presence. It also comes with a half-hour long DVD culled from three concert appearances that took place between 2005 and 2007. While its three tracks are not of exactly the same vintage as the original album, one suspects that their music went down pretty much the same way. The VCO spread out on stage much like they might have in a rehearsal space, with each player looking quite focused on what he or she was doing but only rarely looking at each other, let along the audience. They appear to be in communion, but it’s not a ceremonial one; rather they all know what they want to do and trust each other enough for it all to fall together just right. One of the DVD’s tracks has self-deprecating commentary by Campbell and Flowers that is by turns explanatory and hilarious. Given the paucity of Vibracathedral Orchestra interviews over the years, the DVD’s combination of show and tell is the only way I know to understand what they did and how they did it.

By Bill Meyer

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