Photo: Courtesy of Waveshaper Media

Intersystems Unleash Their Fourth Album a Mere 53 Years After Their Third

Toronto experimental multimedia collective Intersystems return with a new album that’s just as adventurous and unsettling as the music they made decades ago.

Waveshaper Media
30 April 2021

You know an artist comes with many backstories when their press kit includes a short video documentary. There’s a lot to unpack here, mainly because what Intersystems accomplished with their three initial albums and dazzling multimedia performances is rather stunning and begs to be discovered (or rediscovered, as the case may be). But what’s even more interesting about the band’s story is that they’ve picked up exactly where they left off in 1968, with a new album that fits in beautifully with the rest of their discography.

Comprised of musician John Mills-Cocknell, poet Blake Parker, light sculptor Michael Hayden, and architect Dik Zander, this quartet of forward-thinking artists created pan-sensory shows that mixed psychedelic visuals, unique stage structures, apocalyptic beat poetry, and a hauntingly abrasive experimental musical pastiche. The latter was produced with the aid of a custom modular Moog synthesizer, the first of its kind in Canada. The four artists also churned out three astounding and unique albums during their initial run: Number One Intersystems (1967), Peachy (1968), and Free Psychedelic Poster Inside (1968). The band members soon went their separate ways, with Mills-Cocknell enjoying success with the psych-prog bands Syrinx and Kensington Market.

After that hard-to-find trio of initial Intersystems albums was compiled in a new boxed set in 2015 (in addition to a Syrinx compilation the following year), interest in the band was revived, with Mills-Cocknell and Hayden primed to create a follow-up. Zander chose not to participate in the project, and Parker passed away in 2007, so this defiant, dissonant quartet became a duo.

This new album, #4, was actually made with posthumous participation from Parker, as his words were rendered electronically for this new material. It’s as unsettling as it sounds: his haunting poetry ekes out like a cybernetic William S. Burroughs, and Mills-Cocknell’s music – all interstellar roars and robotic bleating – doesn’t necessarily make it go down easier. The opening track, “Ghost”, is like being hurled into outer space during a particularly vivid nightmare.

Over a backdrop of percussive blips, the computerized voice sounds particularly disembodied on “Revelation of the Birds”, as it incorporates a shaky Southern drawl. “I”m glad to hear the birds talking up in the trees / They’re talking about the relative / They’re talking about the parties they’ve been to / Talking about the saints they knew all through history.” I would be stunned if Pere Ubu, Captain Beefheart, and possibly Was (Not Was) – at their weirdest – didn’t have those early Intersystems on heavy rotation and the 21st-century incarnation of this strange band fits in seamlessly with that initial trio of releases.

On the epic, two-part “Sonny Abilene” (13 minutes split across two sides of the vinyl format), the music begins to adopt a low-key pulse that almost gives it a muted, techno feel, thanks to the presence of sharp synth patches and the insistent pulse of electronic percussion. Parker’s words are chilling and haunting, painting a picture of bleak sci-fi dystopia. “He was searching through the bones of wasted televisions and old telephones / The wires were ripped out from the sky / So they dangled down and almost touched the trees / Everything was different shades of grey.”

“The End of the World” puts a cap on the main album with 14 minutes of low-end synth grumbling and high-pitched dive-bombing. Parker’s computerized recitations (“Beyond the city through fields of flowers / Butterflies, beasts, birds / Singing and talking / It is the end of the world”) evoke an apocalypse kissed by the beauty of nature. Adding to the album proper is a three-song EP, Unfinished World, available in CD and digital formats. This trio of songs is a fitting encore for those who can’t get enough of Intersystems’ dark, twisted world – although the EP’s title track begins with an almost hopeful, ethereal tinge.

Like previous Intersystems albums, #4 can be a challenging listen. Still, anyone who enjoys daring, boundary-pushing soundscapes with a healthy helping of overpowering dread will find this enormously rewarding. Additionally, it seems inevitable that anyone intrigued and fascinated by the album will seek out those early albums, which are all – thankfully – easy to find nowadays. It’s been a while since Intersystems graced us with their presence. It’s great to have them back.

RATING 7 / 10