“Solar Crosses Stolen From Cemetery” – The Van Allen Belt
Why does this song attract me so? There seems a magnetic pull here. And there was me just a few weeks ago talking about how no one knows what to do with rock’n’roll instrumentals. This one is an entirely different animal than the Dirty Three song, arriving all cheery and off-kilter, semi-angelic and extraterrestrial (or at least Star Trekky), churning through the ether with its chimey, upturning melody. And yes, it’s not strictly speaking an instrumental in that there are vocals here, but they are wordless and choir-like. And so, to me, an instrumental. (Typically, the band does employ vocals with lyrics, via singer/multi-instrumentalist Tamar Kamin.)
The time signature—the ear-grabbing yet awkward 5/4—is central to its appeal. When the rare someone comes along who can harness 5/4’s freakishness into a flowing piece of music, we pay attention. And “Solar Crosses” does it without relying on any kind of swing or in-between beats that 5/4 and 7/4 songs often employ to sound agreeable. What we get instead is a straightforward five count and an open-ended chord progression that gives the melody an Escher-like sense of climbing ever upward. There is no time to catch one’s breath, the music just keeps piling on itself, with bonus flourishes and fluctuations along the way. I like the four-second, two-chord guitar burst at 1:37 and the factory-like drumbeat that takes over at 1:50, to name two.
The Van Allen Belt is a four-person experimental ensemble from Pittsburgh featuring music written and produced by Benjamin K. Ferris. Ferris began writing avant-garde material in the late ’90s and the band coalesced through the ’00s into its current lineup. Everything about the outfit’s background and music is too complicated to sum up succinctly; even their discography (two full-lengths and one EP to date) is muddled by the fact that the EP and their most recent album were released on the same day in January 2010. Their titles are generally too long to mention. “Solar Crosses” has a similarly involved back story, being a song featured on one of four seasonal compilations released in 2008 on the Vancouver label Peppermill Records. Bands participating had seven days to record a song, the title of which had to be taken from a headline in the news that week. (There’s more to it than that but I’m running out of space.) How it came to my attention here in 2012 is yet more complication, plus a dollop of serendipity. Let’s just be happy it did. Thanks to the band for the MP3.