Few acts in the jam rock scene have delivered albums that have come to be considered classic works, for it’s ever so difficult to create the magic of improvisational music in the studio setting. STS9 (aka Sound Tribe Sector 9) however have long been a unique musical entity unto themselves, having pioneered the livetronica genre that’s spawned countless imitators. Now celebrating their 20th year as a band, the quintet announced earlier this year that their annual run at Colorado’s legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre would feature a complete performance of their masterpiece album Artifact.
The album was relatively well-received by the group’s growing fan base upon its release in early 2005, though it was not necessarily hailed as a masterwork at the time. Much of the album has an ambient vibe, and a number of the tracks are shorter mood cuts that didn’t become staples of the live repertoire. But as the years went by and STS9’s reputation as trailblazing musical wizards for the 21st century continued to grow, so did esteem for the multi-dimensional sonic landscapes they conjured throughout the brilliantly sequenced album.
“Doing a track-by-track review of this album would be completely pointless. Even picking out a few ‘recommended tracks’ would be irrelevant. Artifact is an album to be listened to in its entirety. The songs flow effortlessly into each other, each one containing the trademark STS9 sound, yet each one unique in its own way,” wrote critic Sean Matthew for SputnikMusic.com in 2007.
Artifact is indeed a work of art that exhibits a bigger picture when listened to in its entirety, as the exquisite sonic layering of each track builds a deeper and deeper mood as the album progresses. These qualities led Pitch Weekly to proclaim in 2005, “Don’t wait until the end of the year for critics to tell you that STS9’s latest album, Artifact, ranks up there with feed-your-head-classics from Floyd and Radiohead.” Such lofty but well-deserved praise foreshadowed how the album’s reputation has indeed grown in esteemed fashion. In an era where the concept of a complete album that flows from start to finish with no filler seems to be on its way to becoming an anachronism, Artifact stands out like a lost treasure.
There is indeed a “Musical Story, Yes” contained within, as well as a handful of classic jams that have become fan favorites in the live show. “Making music in the state of a Tell-a-Vision nation, this album is an ode to change and preservation,” wrote the band in the original liner notes. Growing demand amongst the fanbase led to a vinyl release last year and then a more recent re-release just weeks before the Red Rocks show, with both batches selling out rapidly.
Anticipation runs high, and there’s a sense of history in the air as fans fill the famed mountain amphitheatre on this balmy Colorado night that kicks off the band’s three-night 20th anniversary run. This will be a show the likes of which has not been seen before, and while fans know the setlist ahead of time, there’s sure to be surprises in store since the album as recorded can’t fill two sets. The opening few tracks conjure a sublime and sacred vibe, particularly considering the location here at Red Rocks is a true Earth power spot. It almost feels like being at church, the “Electric Sky Church” that Jimi Hendrix once spoke of in an attempt to describe the feeling he sought to convey with his music.
The set ignites for liftoff during the sequence of “ReEmergence>Peoples>Glogli” with the first song getting the dance party going as drummer Zach Velmer and percussionist Jeffree Lerner step up the tempo on their shamanic beats, followed by keyboardist David Phipps and guitarist Hunter Brown working their psychedelic melodic magic over what becomes a rocking groove from bassist Alana Rocklin.
The jam dissolves to big cheers, but there are only a few moments of silence before “Peoples” launches the audience back into another deep groove. The band is totally dialed in now, a synchronic groove machine going simultaneously back in time and forward into the future to create a momentous present when they evolve the song into a drum ‘n’ bass style jam that launches the song into a new orbit. This leads into perennial crowd-pleaser “Glogli”, which causes Red Rocks to surge with an energy signature that might come up on the interdimensional radar if any otherworldly visitors are in the vicinity. One of their most dazzling compositions, the track epitomizes the formula of STS9’s unique sonic alchemy in how it blends ambient psychedelia with driving polyrhythmic beats and a pulsing groove to generate ecstatic musical unity. One sound tribe under a collective groove, getting down just for the spacey funk of it.
The set closes with the rarely played ambient gem “Tonight the Ocean Swallowed the Moon”, with Rocklin on standup bass and the evening’s bright moon being projected on the rocks behind the band as they deliver the deep melodic track that’s ripe for further inclusion in the repertoire. “That was pretty special right?” Velmer asks the audience rhetorically, receiving a wave of cheers before announcing the set break.
The second set is pure musical magic as STS9 takes the audience on a true sonic journey through the album’s second half. The unusual melodic syncopation of “Trinocular” is a highlight, with the band crafting a blissful sonic course that feels like a path to the state of Nirvana. Things get real on the ultra rare “Possibilities”, with the band taking the sublimely bluesy minor key progression for a well-deserved ride. A vocal sample from longtime band collaborator Audio Angel expresses a soul-searching sentiment — “I wonder why they never try to tell me, I wonder why they never try to show me, I’ve been struggling” — that lends the feeling of a mystical vision quest. The band adds on a drum n bass jam to keep the vibes flowing for further exploration, with Velmer at his dynamic best while Lerner adds downright mystical xylophone tones as Brown and Phipps craft melodic lines to generate a vortex of sound that transports the audience to a higher plane.
It’s one of those special moments where the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, with STS9’s tone science alchemy coalescing for sonic gold. The band rides the momentum into a “Peoples Part 2” jam that goes well beyond the studio track to keep the improvisational surprises coming. “”Music, Us” concludes the performance featuring another Audio Angel vocal sample where she brings the journey full circle as she sings “”Remedy your melody, sharing space with harmony, Rhythm and eternity, love is all we’ll ever need.” This idealistic sentiment has been STS9’s unofficial credo for over a decade, aligning the band with the utopian dreams of the 1960s New Left counterculture for which they are now among the 21st century’s leading torch carriers.
Velmer thanks the adoring audience profusely before suggesting the encore will feature a pair of tracks from the Artifact sessions that didn’t make the cut. “Real & Imagined” is the bonus track that was offered digitally with purchase of the album on vinyl and it does indeed fit right into the album’s vibe, a mid-tempo number led by Phipps’ melodic piano work over bubbling synths. But then the band throws a well-timed curveball with the beloved “Breathe In”, a transcendent fan favorite ever since its 2002 debut that features the music playing the band once again on one of their greatest jam vehicles. It’s the kind of uplifting song that feels like it could truly conjure global peace and harmony if only everyone on Earth could tune in at the same time. The show is instantly hailed as one of the band’s best of recent years, revealing a band that’s showing no sign of slowing down as they chart their course to continue raising planetary vibrations decade after decade…