“Be ye doers of the word not hearers only.”
When the good ship Pepe Deluxé was launched in the mid-‘90s, it was largely the work of DJ Slow, JA-Jazz, and James Spectrum. As they came together during the peak of big beat and trip-hop, the trio used a lot of samples for their beat-driven compositions. Containing traces of the psychedelic funk, classic rock, ‘60s camp, and breakbeat style that became their calling card, their 1999 debut album, Super Sound, leaned towards club-oriented repetition, catchy enough to earn them widespread recognition in the U.S. after “Before You Leave” was chosen for a Levi’s Super Bowl ad.
Since the late ‘90s, a lot has changed. The big beat and trip-hop movements died off, while DJ Slow and JA-Jazz dropped out of the group, to be replaced by New York-based composer and Swedish ex-pat Paul Malmström, a long-time collaborator with the group. The aesthetic of the band has also become significantly refined, no longer using any samples whatsoever while also making all possible attempts to create the illusion that they still do. To achieve this, Malmström and Svengali sound scientist James Spectrum spent at least six years of painstaking research and development gathering all the arcane gear, legendary instrumentation, and the perfect cast of eccentric performers in order to create Queen of the Wave the right way. The lengths they went to for this album makes Béla Bartók climbing up a mountain with an Edison cylinder on his back to record Hungarian folk music look like a Sunday stroll.
This album of unparalleled ambition proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Spectrum is one of the most brilliant producers of all time, and that Malmström is no slouch in the tunesmith department. The processing, effects, and sounds they were able to capture for this, combined with the lyrical interpretation of Lumerian texts psychically channeled Philip K. Dick style in the late 1800s, along with Malmström’s knack for superbly catchy melodies and satisfying chord progressions, and onsite recordings in Boston, Virginia, Texas, New York, Brisbane, Prague, and across Finland…All of this results in one of the most complex and unique concept albums ever made.
Plus, Spectrum created dioramas and collage pieces for the intricately detailed liner notes, and assembled five multi-page album companions that detail every imaginable facet of the recording process. Along with several videos, this creates a modern gesamtkunstwerk, an all-embracing synthesis of sensations pooled into a single work of art, of which Wagner would be most proud. The attention to detail is beyond compare.
With the help of maker guru Joni Vesanen, this album captures the sounds of a Mellotron, waterphone, chromatic gusli, pneumatic percussion machine, Tesla Coil synthesizer, Model 80 wire recorder, a mechanical amplifier approved by the Postmaster General, a magnetic amplifier used to steer V-2 rockets in WWII, an electromagnetic differential microphone used by cosmonauts, an aether modulator based on the Thomas Edison inspired ghost box, an audio saturator influenced by radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi’s crystal radio receiver, microphone pre-amps used by producer legends Kearney Barton and Joe Meek, and the Czech Film Orchestra. All those and more were used alongside, and to manipulate, traditional instruments like the harp, harmonium, harpsichord, tuba, trumpet, flute, French horn, and clavinet, as well as over a dozen dynamic vocalists, three world-class drummers, a ton of vintage pedals and guitars, and every organ on the planet (Hammond, transistor, farfisa, all of them).
Pepe was forced to delay the album’s release by two years in order for the world’s largest instrument to be renovated, so that Malmström could play the first original composition written for it. This instrument is the Great Stalacpipe Organ: built across 3.5 acres of Virginia’s Luray Caverns by Pentagon physicist Leland W. Sprinkle in the early ‘50s. They went to all that trouble just to record what would amount to a two-minute interlude at the end of the opera’s second act, yet it makes all the difference. There is nothing ordinary or preset about any part of this album, a remarkable fact in this age of Pro Tools, Auto-Tune, and cracked software. Queen of the Wave contains 100% pan-o-ramic full spectrum sound captured in living stereo. It’s all very maker, steam punk, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, timeless but ever present.
Part I - “The days before the ocean won”
The story of the album was taken from A Dweller on Two Planets, a text written by Frederick S. Oliver who channeled a cosmic presence known as Phylos The Thibetan over three years ending in 1886, and its sequel An Earth Dwellers Return from 1940. The texts give a first-person account of life in Atlantis, later a lost continent, detailing their fantastic technological and spiritual existence. They discuss notions like the atomic telescope, television, wireless telephony, anti-gravity technology, and high-speed rail, many well before their realization, while tackling such topics as reincarnation, karma, astral projection, and personalized heavens.
The album itself is broken up into three sections, each with their own characteristics and plot point. In the first section, we are introduction to the hero Zailm as the 500,000 volt Tesla Coil synth opens a gateway to earth circa 10173 BC. Of note, this year matches up closely to the estimation of the final years of Atlantis by the sleeping prophet, Edgar Cayce, who some see as one of the founders of the New Age Movement.
Chris Cote, singer for Boston fops The Upper Crust, lends his Lee Hazelwood-like voice to the opening track as the similarly toned Aussie rocker Boi Crompton sings, “Let me sing a song for you / Let me spin a tale that’s true.” “Queenswave” has hints of Jethro Tull and King Crimson, with the odd timbre of wine glasses thrown in to complete the early ‘70s Playboy Mansion vibe. Importantly, it sets the tone for the album, starting in subtle ambiance, building up to a peak, then ebbing and flowing at a natural pace, each track spilling into the next. Though most of the songs have a chorus, they are never heard or approached in quite the same way.
In “A Night and a Day,” we meet sympathetic villain Mainin, whose name means “light”. A voyager of time and relative dimension, and master of the Black Arts, Mainin swears vengeance on humanity after his love was stoned to death following a bogus trial. This is a surf-rock breakbeat happening with big beat tendencies, graced by Beach Boys harmonies soar and a nasty garage bass warp. It was an obvious choice for the album’s second single.
Closing this pop friendly section, “Go Supersonic” is all party, as the hero Zailm commands an amphibious aircraft powered by night. Female vocals take the lead on this overly upbeat number. Moomins and Shrek voice actress Sara Welling and a half-dozen other sonorous women harmonize in a most whimsical and ethereal way most of the time, go punchy old school soul for the chorus, and lay down a Wagnerian bridge so imposing it would put the fear of God in fly.
Part II – “Welcome to the pyramid”
This section is the meat of the album, containing five tracks that are bookended by the Great Stalacpipe Organ. In between, “Contain Thyself” is a trip-hop sea chantey lyrically referencing the story of the Tree of Knowledge in the Kingdom of Eden, with Lucifer convincing woman then man to eat, which leads to the destruction of “paradise”. The killer drum break comes out of nowhere, bludgeoning the listener with awesome, before coasting through “the end of the world” and a trumpet solo so fabulous, Henry Mancini would goo himself. It wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the underrated Rome by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi.
“Hesperus Garden” is a cousin of “Go Supersonic” in its go-go dancing surf-rock soul tendencies, but it’s even more incessant and raunchy, complete with a crunchy Mini Moog synth-bass. “Grave Prophecy” features the finest flute work this side of “Queenswave”, but with a more ominous tone, as well as the most striking use of opera singer Johanna Försti, the deep vocals of Boi Crompton, and a fantastic time-shifting horror film conclusion. In these songs, a Venusian chief tests Zailm’s soul before he can unite with his love Anzimee, and he receives a warning that Atlantis will decline and eventually sink.
The jaunty, Hammond heavy, section-opening track, “Temple of Unfed Fire”, foreshadows the appearance of the Great Stalacpipe Organ by singing about stalagmites and stalactites, as well as in the lyric, “Hear the great organ”. The closing track, of course, is the famed “In the Cave” instrumental, recorded by Malmström on site in Virginia. Oddly enough, though the instrument used to perform it is supremely epic, the interlude’s melody is rather subdued and contemplative, with the accompanying water drops in the cave adding to the peaceful ambiance.
Part III – “The future will sparkle again”
On paper, Queen of the Wave concludes on a downer. Karma hunts down Zailm after succumbing to a passionate affair with a barbarian princess named Lolix, eventually claiming both of their lives as well as Mainin, and—as you might have guessed—Atlantis sinks. Yet there is hope in the magnanimous sound of the baroque pipe organ, recorded at the Kallio church, and the tale of Nepth building a great vessel to survive the descent of Atlantis, though he regretfully forgot the unicorns.
Opening the section with style, “My Flaming Thirst” is a Shirley Bassey should-be James Bond theme. Over a tasteful piano-driven breakbeat, the voice of metal singer and vintage fashionista Lumimarja Wilenius soars beyond the heavens. This meets up fluidly with “Iron Giant”, noted for the use of the pipe organ with all the stops pulled out. There are no plug-ins, no sample packs, nothing that can give you the sound of a massive organ like that as played in its natural, reverberant setting.
Mailing list single “The Storm” and the closing “Riders On The First Ark” also pair up thematically, as one survives a tempest in the former only to face the sinking of Atlantis in the latter. One may see the sinking as the end, but it is really a beginning. There is an obvious parallel to be drawn between that and “Contain Thyself”, where eating from the Tree of Knowledge essentially destroyed the Kingdom of Eden but also created a new world, leading to the birth of Atlantis and its fantastic technologies. Similarly, the sinking of Atlantis was not the end, but a “new born morning blue out of the blue”. Edgar Cayce believed the people and their technology lived on, fanning out across the globe, and attributes the existence of pyramids in Egypt and South America to the Lumerian diaspora.
Chris Cote ties the album in a neat little bow, as his distinct timbre present on the opening and closing tracks, starting the story and finishing it. Yet after the main section of “Riders On The First Ark” fades into white noise, filtered to sound like waves crashing on a beach, there is a little teaser, a brief melody with a subdued pipe organ drifting towards the sunset. Since this album came out in 2012, the year so many have picked for the apocalypse or some other drastic change in human consciousness, the story of this album should be seen as a beacon of hope. Lives will change, but life will always continue.
Of Cabbages and Kings by Chad & Jeremy, SF Sorrow by The Pretty Things, The Story of Simon Simopath by Nirvana, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by The Kinks, and I Hear a New World by Joe Meek: What do these albums have in common? They were all groundbreaking concept albums that never got the credit they deserved.
As thoroughly amazing as it is, there is a good chance Queen of the Wave will join them. The average person’s attention span today is a lot shorter than it was when all of those fabulous records came out, and like all great concept albums before it, this is not music for distracted listening. One should not skim Queen of the Wave on the bus, throw it on in the background while reading or surfing the web, or work out to it. It warrants the audience’s undivided attention, and it greatly rewards those who experience it intensely and repeatedly.
When James Spectrum pitched this album to Asthmatic Kitty, he told them that if anyone there could name a better album, he would buy everyone in their office two cans of Dr. Pepper. They could not, and despite being an independent label in a struggling industry with no disposable income, Asthmatic Kitty found room to sign them. Certainly, if Pepe’s 2007 breakthrough album, Spare Time Machine, was their summer of love, Queen of the Wave is their Woodstock. Should this album find its audience and the general populace, it would become a common occurrence to see people with headphones on freaking out in the park and other public places, having their moment with The Album (as it will soon be called). Sales of beanbag and eggshell chairs would also go through the roof.
When they recorded The Album, they reused the master tapes for their lauded Spare Time Machine. That may seem a little silly, but their purposeful intention was to imbed the spirit of the former album in their new recording, so that if one listened close enough, they might actually hear some of it. There are that many layers to Queen of the Wave. It makes all stereo speakers worship the space they are in, and the headphone listening experience is nothing short of transcendental.
What’s more, after all that work, they are giving all profits from the sales of The Album to the John Nurminen Foundation, aimed at protecting and achieving a visible improvement in the condition of the Baltic Sea, one of the most endangered and polluted seas in the world. Not only is this the most impressive album ever painstakingly assembled across space and time, it will make planet earth a better place for future generations. You can’t top that.