New Zealand’s Orchestra of Spheres doesn’t seem much interested in traditional songwriting. Nonagonic Now, the group’s debut album, is packed with tracks based around rhythm-centric ideas, from driving basslines to afrobeat-style percussion. Sometimes there are lyrics, and sometimes they’re in English, although those lyrics are more likely to be employed in the form of a chant than a melodic hook or a narrative. Adding to the eccentricity, the band mostly plays on homemade instruments, which gives everything the players do a sound that’s just slightly “off”-sounding.
“Hybercube” kicks things off with a driving syncopated beat played in unison by what sounds like snare drum, metal poles, and buzzing fiberglass tubes. Then some non-English group call-and-response chanting enters, joined by a distorted bass or guitar-type sound. All along, the percussion clicks along, sliding back and forth between several different beats. It’s definitely a weird track that quickly establishes that Orchestra of Spheres isn’t going to play music the easy way. Still, the rhythmic force of the percussion holds the song together through all the weirdness and makes for a sort of fascinating listen. The next song, “There is No No”, has something resembling a melody—consisting of the title stretched out vocally and sung several times in a row—floating over another tricky rhythmic pattern, and even a vaguely catchy riff played on a guitar-like instrument. Still, the beats are the focus of the track much more than the melody, firmly establishing where the band’s priorities lie.
If there’s one thing Orchestra of Spheres cannot be accused of on Nonagonic Now, it’s repeating itself. Each track has its own idea, and some definitely work better than others. On the positive side there is a song like the bluegrass-flavored instrumental “Spontaneous Symmetry”, which sounds like a distorted banjo jam created by people who only sort of know what a banjo is supposed sound like. Or “Hypersphere”, which has a genuinely danceable groove amongst sitar-like sounds and spacey synth weirdness. “Isness” might be the most traditional-sounding song on the album, with a call-and-response vocal duet over a very catchy beat and an actual guitar-style solo. Then there’s “Boltzmann Brain”, with its annoyingly insidious earworm “Brain injury / Brain disease / Brain poisoning” that has the listener singing along instantly. The song also boasts a Gamelan-like percussion interlude which is odd but somehow fits perfectly.
On the other hand, there’s almost as much material here that falls completely flat. “Eternal C of Darkness” is full of laser-beam and theremin-style synth noises and it sounds like something out of a ‘50s sci-fi B-movie, but there’s nothing interesting actually going on during the track. Not coincidentally, it’s the only song on the album that has no percussion at all. Even worse is “Toadstone”, which is five minutes-plus of what sounds like completely random noise. It seems highly likely that the players recorded themselves just screwing around on their instruments for five minutes and liked it and decided to put in on the album. There’s no structure or rhythmic ideas or musical theme, it’s literally just noise. The album closer “Ulululul” sounds like what happens when the band lets one of its complicated beats just play out for a long jam. At almost nine minutes long, this is the groove that never ends. A steady drum beat goes on and on while guitars and other instruments improvise on top. The music never goes anywhere, and no real melodic ideas ever show up during the course of the song. It’s tracks like this that make people decide they hate jam bands.
Nonagonic Now is a unique listening experience, and Orchestra of Spheres should be recognized for its willingness to take chances and experiment with instrument-construction and sound in general. This rhythm-based approach to songwriting is very different from hip-hop and electronic music, the two currently oversaturated sources of rhythm-based popular music. When you experiment as much as Orchestra of Spheres, though, there are bound to be some misses. Unfortunately, the band’s ratio of hits to misses on this album is right about 50/50.