If doom metal is too slow for headbanging, the music of Upsilon Acrux, which uses notable doomy powerchords on occasion, is just too unpredictable. Within ten seconds of Radian Futura beginning, listeners are thrown into the maelstrom of changes that is the band’s calling card. Upsilon’s sixth album is another serious assault on the senses, with a paradoxical mix of intricacy and immediacy that alternately encourages scratching and nodding of the head in place of outright banging. This is heavy, intense and often beautiful instrumental music. Leader-guitarist Paul Lai has put together a five-piece band for this project, comprising two guitars, keyboards, drums and bass. Although recorded in live takes, the album has been subject to subsequent mixing and overdubbing, meaning that already complex pieces are given extra layers of detail to dazzle and confuse. The result is high-speed palimpsest rock delivered by serious devotees of free jazz, wild prog, hardcore and post-rock.
Opening track “In-a-Gadda-Devito” dispenses with a handful of musical ideas within the first half minute, leaving us to join the pieces or at least hope that the band will do so for us. Change, as ever, is the keynote on this rollercoaster ride. No developing riff is left to solidify into something like a landmark, no becalmed moment allowed to linger. It is left up to listeners whether they attempt to follow the band through the intricate labyrinth of their changes or just let themselves be swept along by the tireless inventiveness and sheer power of the music being produced. We have to trust that, wherever the band takes us, we will stay on the rails, complete the circuit. And, of course, this is a recording. We can return to it, become familiar with its twists and turns, and eventually learn to map its twisted terrain.
Where to begin this process of familiarization? The short tracks provide the most convenient coordinates. “Landscape With Gun and Chandelier” kicks off its three and a half minutes by striking an elegiac note. In true Upsilon style, the gear swiftly changes to a driving rhythm, itself soon sped up, before the track runs aground and seems to breathe its last. A brief snippet of guitar noodling ushers in a steady rock beat and what might be, for another band, a great intro to a song. The tune develops into a piece of process music driven by Chris Mezler’s drums before the ghost of Ornette Coleman arrives to send the whole group into a beautifully coordinated jazz conclusion. A similar sketch could be drawn of “Keepin Rice Evil” (2:38) with its shreds of electric guitar beauty or the blissfully gentle album closer “The Infinitesimal Fractions of Ping & Pong” (1:17).
The centerpiece of the album, however, exists at the other end of the time scale. At over 28 minutes, the amusingly titled “Transparent Seas (Radio Edit)” is by far the longest piece the band has released. Although it starts off at the usual manic pace, the track soon develops into a series of discretely connected movements, some performed as conversations between individual instruments, others as propulsive collective attacks. Guitarist Paul Lai claims it is the best thing the band has recorded, revealing that the piece took him six months to write. The driving theme is dialogue and the broken nature of the sentences we use when speaking. If speech never tends toward perfect resolution, why should music?
“If our other songs are short stories”, Lai has said of “Transparent Seas”, “this was like writing A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu“. And while it may have taken Proust considerably longer than six months to write his masterpiece, the comment shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, for two reasons. Firstly, it highlights the fact that Upsilon Acrux’s music is composed and not improvised, meaning that each track is the size and shape it is due to a preconceived set of ideas. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it equates the band’s music with the two types of memory crucial to Proust’s work: the involuntary memory brought about by the most random of circumstances and the work of memory involved in the construction of a piece of art.
If, as Paul Ricoeur suggested, musicians are the true athletes of memory, then a band like Upsilon Acrux are true heptathletes. They keep their listeners fit too. Radian Futura is a fine workout for the ears and brain. Headbanging is not recommended, however.