Friday, March 15, 2013

Fables of the Reconstruction: Herbcraft & MV+EE

Herbcraft has come a long way in the two years since their first album, Herbcraft Discovers the Bitter Water of Agartha. That one was a gem of the DIY psychedelic scene, a terrific concept – a portrait of an imaginary long-lost concept album from 1973. Matt LaJoie, the man behind Herbcraft, recorded it in his bedroom in Portland, Maine, over the course of a snowy weekend. It was one of those great ideas that catches your attention and is executed well enough to hold it through both sides. It’s a little thin and wobbly, sure, but that’s part of its charm. But now, with Herbcraft’s third LP release, The Astral Body Electric, LaJoie is playing with a full band, and the sound is nicely muscled and steady. It’s a major advance down the path to psychedelic godliness. The most dramatic improvement comes with the addition of drums, which were the most conspicuous missing element from the first two records. There’s also some flute and organ mixed in to give it a 60s-Renaissance-Star Trek sort of feel here and there, and LaJoie’s voice is fuller, more confident. Together these new dimensions make this album feel less like a third album and more like a stunning debut. But it’s still Herbcraft. If you liked space-jet-around-the-roomiverse guitar sound of Ashram to the Stars you should be happy here because this record’s full of weird noises. And if you like the plodding-spiritual-pilgrim plot of Agartha, you’ll be happy, too. The Astral Body Electric has that same Third-World-in-outer-space sound. It pulses with a vaguely Middle-Eastern rhythm that would’ve worked well as the soundtrack for just about any scene in The Last Temptation of Christ, and these beats pull the record together like a loop of thread. The structure’s not constricting - quite the opposite - it allows Herbcraft to roam further than they ever have.
            The other thing about The Astral Body Electric is that it was mastered by Matt Valentine of MV+EE, and this factors hugely into its quantum-leap-ness. Valentine uses a technique called Spectrasound. It makes the music sound like it’s coming from all corners of the room. For instance, if you’ve listened to MV+EE’s 2012 release Space Homestead on a good system, you probably noticed that there’s this part where it sounds like someone’s knocking on the walls, outside, across from where your speakers are. That’s Spectrasound. It finds spaces beyond the reaches of the balance knob and fills them with sound. At one point while listening to the new Herbcraft album I got up to see if the washing machine was going berserk way off in the laundry room, but it was just something I was hearing in the music and the Spectrasound. I have no idea how Spectrasound works. I’ve emailed Valentine and asked him. I told him about the wall knocking. All he said was, “it's in the walls alright, heh heh...crackin' me up.” And on the internet the only explanation I could find was this: “MV’s production technique places tones dancing all around the stereo sound field.” Whatever it is, it’s psych-O-delic. Especially on MV+EE’s newest, Fuzzweed. It’s like being in the wormhole Jodi Foster went through at the end of Contact, except it’s low-gravity and slower than the speed of light, and it’ll only get you as far as the sofa and the fridge and back, 40 minutes, round-trip. It’s all good, but side two is the masterpiece: a 20-minute three-parter that starts off as a ghostly folk tune and then just goes off, everywhere, into spiral galaxies ruled by Iron Man and inner spaces made of slide-guitar plumes, and so on, and so forth. I’ve tried to describe it at another site and failed. The best I can do here is to say that if you’ve listened to the last track on Space Homestead, “Porchlight>Leaves,” and dug it, you’ll dig this. That track, the trippiest highlight of that record, is but a road report from the journey to this freaktastic Spectrasymphony.

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