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The Heliocentrics & Melvin Van Peebles
The Last Transmission Richard Rees Jones , October 9th, 2014 13:32

A visionary science fiction drama set to music, The Last Transmission is the product of two singular talents. The Heliocentrics are a London psych-funk collective, whose last album 13 Degrees Of Reality was one of the Quietus' best of 2013. For the follow-up they've joined forces with veteran American film-maker and musician, Melvin Van Peebles, to create a work of startling imaginative power. An outlandish SF odyssey that has a gripping narrative and is all in all a highly enjoyable musical experience.

82-year-old Van Peebles has a long history of idiosyncratic, auteurish personal projects. Prominent among these are Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, his 1971 low-budget independent film featuring black militancy, unsimulated sex and a soundtrack by Earth, Wind & Fire, and his 1969 début album Brer Soul, in which he delivers vivid stream-of-consciousness portraits of street life in a half-sung, half-spoken voice to a vibrant soul-jazz accompaniment. Although Van Peebles has refined and developed this approach over subsequent albums, nothing he's done before could have prepared one for the stellar originality of The Last Transmission.

Over the course of twelve tracks, or chapters, Van Peebles narrates the strange story of an interplanetary space traveller who experiences a remarkable metamorphosis. Having laconically pointed out in the Prologue that "under the circumstances, ESP is the best you're gonna get out of me", Van Peebles' narrator goes on to outline the circumstances leading up to his transformation from the physical to the ethereal. If this summary, and the title of the album with it, together suggest some kind of apocalyptic drift into oblivion, it's an impression that is swiftly dispelled not only by Van Peebles' quizzical, slyly humorous delivery but also by the slinky onward drift of Heliocentrics' music. Tracing the story's narrative arc with nimble percussive beats and smooth bass lines, Heliocentrics provide the perfect questing soundtrack to Van Peebles' celestial journey.

Led by drummer Malcolm Catto and bassist Jake Ferguson, Heliocentrics navigate their way through the twists and turns of the story with smart, restrained use of conventional instruments (guitar, flute, clarinet) and all manner of spacey electronic effects. At times recalling the velvety downtempo grooves of Kruder & Dorfmeister, at others the dizzying vortices of Can, this music swirls with energy and incident.

As the album unfolds, Van Peebles' narrative becomes increasingly surreal and also turns, somewhat improbably, into a love story. On 'The Cavern', Shabaka Hutchings' bass clarinet burbles jauntily away as Van Peebles makes the calamitous discovery of a large rip in his spacesuit. Soon after finding that his spaceship has dissolved into "blueish methane mist", our hero finds that he himself has also evaporated into a cloud-based life form. Far from marking the end of his adventure, however, this transformation actually ushers him into a new phase of being, one where (on 'Telepathic Routine') he finds himself in a tavern, socialising with other "misty, methane-based folks". One such, "the finest lady/cloud I'd ever seen", speaks to him through his mind and leads him onto the dancefloor.

Read on the printed page, The Last Transmission might appear slight to the point of trivial. Recited by Van Peebles in his distinctive weathered tones, however, the story takes on a picaresque quality that is only enhanced by Heliocentrics' springy, exuberant funk. With its immaculate surfaces variegated by constantly shifting eruptions of sonic detritus (even more so on a bonus disc containing instrumental versions of all twelve tracks, some of which are extended from their vocal versions), the album exudes a winning charm that might just make you want to embark on a quest for interstellar romance yourself. After all, as Van Peebles concludes with evident satisfaction, "suffice it to say, there ain't no way I'm changing back."