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Guardian Alien
Spiritual Emergency Tristan Bath , January 30th, 2014 08:47

The language of drums is one that's all too often been utilised for mere fireworks, relegated and ignored as a more communicative tool, and little more than mere metronomes. Explorations into communicative percussion have tended to meander down the realm of monotony (Rhys Chatham's Two Gongs) or ethnic cliche (the Rhythm Devils' Apocalypse Now Sessions), with perhaps Han Bennink's madman clatter and the late Rashied Ali's panrhythmic onslaught springing to mind as two of the finest examples of percussion telling more than simply the time. Away from the world of jazz, black metal has perhaps facilitated the most testing and revolutionary approach to the instrument, asking guitarists to pick and drummers beat at a pace essentially outside of the spectrum of human possibility, leading to an imprecise flurry of angered, hummingbird's wings facsimiles of rhythm. Before everyone realised frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix was too much of a self-righteous bellend to allow his music to be listened to, Greg Fox's drumming with Liturgy took herculean black metal skins work to new unfathomable heights. Since then Fox’s latest flagship project - inverted improvisational rock band Guardian Alien - has put percussion front and centre, leaving guitars and vocals sidelined and percussion the focal point.

The group's first proper full length on Thrill Jockey, See The World Given To A One Love Entity, was a single 40 minute track; a freeform psychedelic blowout in the Pharoah Sanders tradition, peaking and troughing but ultimately careening its way out spaceward into the imagined joyous titular singularity. It's the sort of epic rock freeform that's barely been in short supply in recent years thanks to the likes of Acid Mothers Temple and the Flowers-Corsano Duo (Guardian Alien's even featured the shahi baaja, or 'Japan banjo' as Michael Flower insistently calls it). Spiritual Emergency however, is a far more calculated and unfamiliar beast, perhaps venturing as the title suggests not so much outward than in.

Opening gambit, 'Tranquilizer', sees Guardian Alien immediately breaking See The World's bombastic character with toned down, effervescent noodling centred around Fox improvising on a tabla sacrilegiously using sticks. The unfamiliar sound of sticks on tabla is instantly jarring, with Fox avoiding rhythm with every blow, encouraging his fellow Aliens to follow suite. Guitar notes are sprinkled sparsely from the left, while the bass wanders off, soloing to the right. Vocalist Alex Drewchin feeds stream of consciousness slogans into proceedings, cutting them up and glitching them via live knob twiddling. Her words - "Where is the garden? / Leave the tranquiliser!" - and their subsequent effects pedal metamorphosis hint at Spiritual Emergency's two key themes: psychotherapy and (perhaps more inadvertently) non-verbal communication.

Between the 10 minute 'Tranquilizer' and climactic 20 minute title track sit three odd interludes, two of which last less than 100 seconds. 'Mirror' is a collage marrying sampled pyscho-philosophy with jam snippets, while 'Vapour' cuts the aforementioned vocal sample into stuttering non-verbal rhythm, over which melodic percussion traces non-sequential melodies. The six minutes of 'Mirage' pauses for an uncharacteristic respite, with Fox sitting out while the guitar, baajam, bass and Drewchin's synth and wordless vocal interjections drone fuzzily together amorphously.

The eponymous grand finale to Spiritual Emergency is a powerhouse performance from the group. Less wildly untamed than See The World, it nonetheless contains Fox's most mind-blowing drum work. There's a prologue of sorts as a sampled passage reading by Stanislav Grof discussing his work on the 'spiritual emergency' as a concept plays out over bubbling mad scientist electronics. In essence, Grof's thinking concludes that the delusions people experience via religion (and indeed hallucinogenic drugs) aren't delusions or pathological, that they're in fact a powerful window into the subconscious and some sort of 'truth'. It's therefore encouraged to engage with these episodes as fully as possible ("Where’s the garden?") and eschew all attempts to quell them ("Leave the tranquiliser!"). The 'spiritual emergency' phenomenon seems to bittersweetly reflect the current state of the world, and ultimately sees Guardian Alien reaching for less chaotic means. See The World Given To A One Love Entity - as the title suggested - had its head in the clouds, shooting for escape velocity, while Spiritual Emergency seeks in some sense to put this world to rights. After Grof's done reading, Fox's drumming kicks off, and the first half of the track can be seen almost as a pure drum solo. The patterns traced by Fox hint at rhythm, yet never slot into a time signature for more than a couple of bars, and gradually he works his way from perceptible tribalesque pounding into the realms of a almost too-fast-to-see, yet controlled onslaught which arguably outdoes even his own superhuman blast beats with Liturgy.

Wordless vocals and the interplay of shahi baaja and guitar play a larger role later in the piece, as drum-lead crescendos peak and diminish opening the floor momentarily. Chants populate the piece's central section, and the ultimate climax sees the group hit warp speed with a final noisy freak-out. It's perhaps unfortunate that Guardian Alien fall into the cliché of extended, trippy freak-out at the last moment, as Spiritual Emergency toys with as of yet unheard musical syntax, touching upon some peculiar motifs and hinting at perhaps full future maturity and subsequent greatness.