[12 May 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If there’s one word that describes the eighth and latest album from Juno Reactor, it is this: epic. Even the cover art portends something Biblical: a man in some kind of futuristic headgear and wearing traditional robes is carrying a baby wearing a gas mask and a lamb, as though these two carried items are headed towards an altar to some fire and brimstone God to be sacrificed. And the songs themselves on The Golden Sun of the Great East are lengthy in scope and ambition. In fact, the shortest piece on this nine song album clocks in at 4:59. The disc is a wedding between traditional Indian sounds and futuristic, militaristic throbs, creating something that feels retrofitted and cool. However, that’s probably par for the course for Juno Reactor, essentially the gig for Ben Watkins, since the band has done everything from sci-fi actioners (Watkins and company worked on various tie-ins for The Matrix trilogy) and anime (Brave Story). What Juno Reactor has to offer with The Golden Sun of the Great East is said to be something of a ‘90s throwback to the Goa trace sounds that they were on the leading edge of creating and popularizing, with a bit of an industrial edge to boot, which should please longtime fans of the group while causing a bit of consternation amongst those who expect Juno Reactor to keep pushing the envelope. Still, to someone who cut his teeth in his formative years on the hard-edged sounds of Ministry and Nine Inch Nails (i.e. me), The Golden Sun of the Great East offers a great deal of thrills and chills, and has track after track of pulsing and propulsive rhythms that gets one fist pumping in the air, and offering an expletive followed by “yes”. This is simply a great album wall to wall, one that updates a classic sound for those of us who were raised on “Head Like a Hole”.
While The Golden Sun of the Great East is especially well-done throughout, it does come quite frontloaded with hard-hitting material. It all starts with the sound of an approaching thunderstorm before leading way into the nearly nine-minute odyssey “Invisible”. With a jumpy sitar line, and thudding bongo-like beats, the song practically leaps out of your speakers, before delivering a punishing and crystalline keyboard wash. Meanwhile, the 10-minute “Final Frontier”, which follows “Invisible”, is a marriage of Vangelis-esque keyboards from the Blade Runner soundtrack with seemingly Middle Eastern-style female vocals that scat over the track. “Guillotine”, which follows, is similarly futuristic, with an Army Corps kind of feel to it – the sort of thing that would make great closing credits to a G.I. Joe movie – before it turns downright operatic with soaring voices that come into the mix. The programmed drums staccato like automated machine gun fire, and the whole thing pulses with dark energy, followed by a section where heavy metal guitars shred the piece to mere ribbons. But just before you think things couldn’t get any better, they do. “Trans Siberian” is lean and mean, sounding a lot like the death disco of ‘80s Wax Trax! outfits, with divinely operatic female vocals and responsive deep male baritones chanting in some foreign language to give the whole piece a classical vibe.
“Shine” is a lively song that recalls “Invisible”, a loop back to the beginning of the album, with its psychedelic sitar sounds and world-music chanting. “Shine” is a crushing slow jam that simmers and brings down the temperature just a bit – not that it isn’t good, it just slows the manic energy of the disc somewhat. And it’s probably a necessary respite, as those first four songs are just so punishing and impactful, the listener pretty much needs to catch his or her breath here. “Tempest” follows that tradition, in just slowing down the general vibe of the album, with a bleak keyboard run backed up by a music-box melody in its mid-section. And if those two songs were Juno Reactor simmering, “To Byculia” is the band broiling with a creeping rhythm with its druggy sitar and female chanting that wafts through the mix. Things move into horrific territory with “Zombie”, which samples dialogue from a horror film, and offers up the only English vocals to be heard on the record: “I need you / I love you so much.” It’s an uncanny juxtaposition. And then the album ends on what is arguably the most ballad-like thing to be found on the album, if not in the entire Juno Reactor discography: “Playing With Fire”. Featuring ghost-like keyboard, and low, steady pulse, the songs has an unshakeable feeling of deep, unsettling evil.
All in all, The Golden Sun of the Great East is a trip into both the future and the past, and it’s one that criss-crosses between different genres: Goa trance, industrial, metal, classical and world music, among others. That this all seamlessly stitches together is a resounding achievement, and there’s nary a moment on this record where things delve into the unlistenable. The album does have the very odd hiccup in that there’s, very occasionally, a minor glitch in the rhythms and things might not have been edited properly on the source DAT – which happens to happen most oddly enough on the more Goa-inspired pieces of “Invisible” and “Shine”. Still, that’s just carping when there really is little reason to. The Golden Sun of the Great East is one of the great electronica releases of the year, in all likelihood, and is suited for those who like a little backwards-looking sonics in their keyboard drenched material. This is a disc for the rave set, with slightly more chillout pieces as the album progresses, and, overall, this is a high-energy album that is nearly unrelenting in its stark, cold visions of a punishing and brutal future. The more the album is put on repeat, the more you realize just how much of a start-to-finish concept piece this record really is. If judgement day passes, and the Judeo-Christian God comes back to offer His opinion of the living and the dead, I can be sure, without a doubt, that The Golden Sun of the Great East will be the soundtrack playing gloriously in the background. Amen to that.