1. September Song (9.27)
2. Antarctica (9.05)
3. The Byways (4.17)
4. Orange Ice (10.20)
5. Concrete, Glass, Steel (4.37)
6. Four Faradays in a Cage (16.25)
John MacNeill – keyboards
Mike Marando – bass guitar
John Orsi – drumset, percussion
Don Sullivan – guitar, guitar-to-MIDI
Based in Providence, Rhode Island (USA), instrumental quartet Incandescent Sky are part of the roster of fine musicians signed to the label It’s Twilight Time – founded in 1994 by musicians/composers John Orsi and Michael Watson, and home to a number of highly interesting acts. I first came across the label in the late spring of 2009, when I was sent Knitting By Twilight’s album An Evening Out of Town to review – by a fortunate coincidence, that album was to be the very first review I wrote for the site I collaborated with until recently. Because of the almost complete lack of exposure that It’s Twilight Time’s output has received so far – even in terms of specialized press and websites – very few people have had the opportunity to know the beautiful music produced by Orsi and his cohorts, as well as the stunning artwork accompanying each of their releases. As the caption on the label’s website recites, its acts provide ‘works of whimsy, wonder and wistful thinking’ – which is as apt a description as they come.
Four Faradays in a Cage (a pun referring to an electrical device called Faraday cage) is the third CD release by Incandescent Sky, following Glorious Stereo (2003) and Paths and Angles (2005). Originally recorded in September 2007 during a live improvisation session, the album was only committed to CD in 2010. It is therefore alike in conception to a number of other albums I have recently reviewed, seemingly going against the grain of the modern tendency to spend ages in the studio in order to get things ‘right’. These ‘live in the studio’ efforts, while sounding anything but shoddy or haphazard, inject a welcome sense of freshness and spontaneity into today’s often contrived approach to music-making.
Tagged on their own website as ‘an inventive improvisational instrumental ensemble’ (yes, Orsi does like his alliterations!), Incandescent Sky prove true to their definition, as it immediately becomes obvious when listening to Four Faradays in a Cage. In spite of the improvisational nature of the six compositions presented on the album, there is nothing sloppy about them. While there are some similarities in pattern, each track has got its own individuality, which prevents the album as a whole from sounding repetitive. The end result is a disc chock full of music that is in turn hypnotic, invigorating and deeply atmospheric, mainly based on a traditional rock instrumentation though making judicious use of cutting-edge technology. Running at about 53 minutes, it never overstays its welcome, with the two shorter tracks nicely balancing the longer offerings. In spite of the obvious talent and experience of the musicians involved, Four Faradays in a Cage always steers clear of spotlighting any of the band members’ individual chops at the expense of the bigger picture – a fine example of how talent can be effectively put to the service of the music, and not the other way around.
All of the six compositions possess a rich texture, to which all the instruments contribute in a distinctive yet somewhat understated fashion. The music feels spacious, beautifully flowing, yet at times almost seething with intensity. Most importantly, though some occasional references to external sources can be picked out, it sounds original in a way that has become increasingly rare in these days of unashamedly derivative productions. It might be said that describing the individual numbers is simple and at the same time rather demanding. Unlike so many ‘mainstream’ prog recordings, where the complexity is shoved right in the listener’s face – often with the unwelcome result of obliterating any sense of genuine emotion – Four Faradays in a Cage comes across as an extremely emotional album. However, there is also a sense of energy emanating from the music, which is not at odds with the delicate, melancholy nature of some of its parts.
“September Song” sums up the album’s main features, as well as rendering its title quite perfectly in musical terms. Opening with sparse, spacey keyboards and guitar, it develops into an airy, slow-paced composition, with Don Sullivan’s clear, relaxed guitar occasionally bringing to mind Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, or Pat Metheny when it adopts a lower register in the second half of the track. Propelled by Orsi’s impeccably creative percussion work, the tempo increases, slightly at first, then steadily, until the piece reaches a climax – a pattern that can be noticed in most of the tracks, although with variations. The following number, “Anctartica”, manages to conjure views of the icy, windswept wastes of the titular continent through the ebb and flow of the keyboards and the slow-burning interplay of drums and guitar which, especially towards the end, creates a mesmerizing ambient mood.
While “The Byways”, the shortest track on the album, acts as a laid-back, hypnotic interlude where the guitar seems to follow the pattern laid out by the drums, further enhanced by electronic effects, the intriguingly-titled “Orange Ice” brings the listener into Vangelis territory, with its steadily surging waves of electronic keyboards, and the guitar sounding almost suspended in time and space – though the second half sees the drums and bass take the lead, setting an almost military pace spiked by slashes of electronics. Not surprisingly, seen its title, “Concrete, Glass, Steel” brims with energy reminiscent of the third incarnation of King Crimson (albeit mellowed out by melodic keyboard work), and introduces the tour de force that is the 16-minute title-track – a stunning workout of really epic proportions where all the instruments strive together in order to create a densely textured, somewhat cinematic soundscape that at times feels like King Crimson on steroids. Synthetizers are pushed to the forefront, with keyboardist John MacNeill delivering passages that might comfortably sit in Keith Emerson’s oeuvre. As usual, Orsi’s outstanding drumming, bolstered by Mike Marando’s ever-reliable bass, is the driving force behind the composition, punctuating wild keyboard flights and unleashed guitar exertions, then slowing things down until all the instruments gradually subside.
The above description should make it clear that Four Faradays in a Cage is much more likely to appeal to lovers of instrumental music that combines technical skill with hefty doses of ambiance and emotion, rather than to worshippers of anything fast and flashy. It is, indeed, an album to be savoured slowly and carefully, in order to appreciate its moments of sheer beauty, as well as its moody intensity and the subtle yet flawless interaction between the instruments. Highly recommended to all fans of genuinely progressive music (as well as drum enthusiasts, who should check out John Orsi’s magnificent performance), it will hopefully encourage my readers to get acquainted with the remarkable talents gathered under the It’s Twilight Time banner.