Loren Connors can do more with his guitar than most, albeit always in his own minimalist, some might say primitive, way that might seem completely foreign to listeners trained to associate guitar mastery with showmanship and pyrotechnics, and with his own freewheeling but careful improvisational approach to composition. Still, even given its personal, idiosyncratic scope, his sprawling discography contains multitudes of moods and ideas, not to mention stories, people, historic facts and myths; from ghosts to martyrs to folk heroes. This time, as the title makes clear, he’s taking us to outer space – more specifically, to Red Mars.
Mars is a planet with its own mythology, from the Roman god of war who it’s named after to the hope/fear that there’s life beyond earth, embodied by the persistent figure of the Martian. There’s also a special mystique to Mars, with its reddish hue and sense of expectation, caused by it seeming like the planet we’re most likely to explore next. Red Mars embodies that idea of exploration, starting as it does with “On Our Way”, a piece filled with the air of possibility and also that strange feeling that something is going to happen — sounding like you’ve got a knot in your stomach and hope in your lungs. (It’s also the one song on Red Mars where a second musician is playing on the track, bassist Margarida Garcia.)
Connors achieves this effect as much through space and silence as through the great strange sounds he coaxes from his guitar, including touches that resemble blast-off of a spaceship, floating and the unknown. Of course the unknown – that drives all five pieces that make up Red Mars, totaling 35 minutes. It’s five pieces but really one work, progressing as you might imagine; getting thick with sound and mood in the middle (“Red Mars II”), then building with anxious energy (“Showers of Meteors“) before slowing back down for the closer “Little Earth”.
When I say “thick with sound and mood”, however, I don’t mean fuller in sound, or more cluttered. In fact, “Red Mars II” is perhaps the quietest, sparest piece here. When we get to what feels like its most pivotal statement, it’s built from silence, gentle fuzz and little notes of inquiry, with heavy sounds echoing in the distance. It’s a remarkable moment and a quite stirring piece of music, the one most visually evocative of the images we’ve seen of the red planet, of its surface. It also most brings out how exhilarating and terrifying we imagine it would be to actually be on the planet’s surface. The majesty of the planet in the sky has evaporated some, but not the mystery. Or we’re inside the majesty and this is what it sounds like: hollow but full, empty but busy with feeling, quiet but speaking quite loudly. Almost violently so, but beautifully so, too.