Fifty years after their recording, we can finally hear some of Sun Ra's strangest and most complex compositions.
“In some far off place, many light years in space, we’ll wait for you,” June Tyson speaks around the halfway point of the 24-minute epic “Calling Planet Earth - We’ll Wait For You". Her last phrase is shouted back to her chaotically by the other members of the famed, avant-garde Arkestra. She speaks like someone leaning over the stern of a boat shouting at the people left standing on the dock, as though the whole band has weighed anchor and set a course. It is they who are exploring new lands, forging the way through to greater possibilities and we are the ones who need to do the catching up. This is not music for the faint of heart or the impatient of ear, this is bold and strange and difficult, but like secondhand reports of undiscovered countries, it is impossible to comprehend what is being communicated without following to see and experience this strangeness for yourself.
Thunder of the Gods is a set of previously unreleased recordings from the tapes of Universe in Blue and the Strange Strings sessions and like many of Sun Ra’s dense compositions, they seem to describe a world and a plane of existence drastically removed from our own, but somehow moreso here than anywhere else. "Moonshots Across the Sky” and “Thunder of the Gods", the Strange Strings pieces, are often grating. The members of the band switching from their comfortable brass and woodwind instruments to unfamiliar stringed instruments clinging to an understanding and trust in how music works and the freeform guidance of Sun Ra himself. It leads to the instruments being used in unpredictable ways, scratching strings to create percussive raking sounds, strumming chords on the ‘wrong’ part of guitar and violin necks resulting in tight, sharp pinging. The pieces are built on acknowledging and embracing ignorance in the face of new experiences and ideas. The band is willing to experiment and to travel beyond what they know.
The opening track, “Calling Planet Earth - We’ll Wait For You", is a chaotic free-jazz opus with rapid call-and-response and polyphony that breaks open into a long, meandering solo section that builds to the halfway point, Tyson’s poem, and another explosion of sound. The solos are wild and erratic and refuse to land on a single tonal center but nevertheless following some kind of known pattern. A sequence deeply ingrained in the player that acts a kind of internal star map to at least get them from here to there. The halfway point signals Sun Ra’s Intergalactic Space Organ, a robotic, heavily filtered instrument. Sun Ra sweeps through huge ranges of notes in an instant and the machine compensates by sliding wildly from tone to tone. The horns follow his computer calculation-esque ascending and descending scales for a moment but soon recede leaving the listener and the organ alone. He builds and builds and finally lands on a pitchless white noise that thrums and pulsates. Beeps and sirens swirl around the hiss, swelling and eventually finding a point of semi-stillness. We have landed and there is suddenly the semblance of what we on earth can understand as structure. Chords in sequence played by the band in cooperation. They grow dramatically and melt once again into the hiss.
Thunder of the Gods is an exercise in ignorance, in trust, and in patience. It is different from everything else in the Sun Ra discography in its willingness to fully accept and embrace the unknown. In their unfamiliarity with stringed instruments, the band finds a freedom even greater than the freedom normally inherent in free-jazz. That freedom depends on their trust in their fearless leader and in their own ability and knowledge. They know where they are going and they trust that they can arrive there. This is the story of “Calling Planet Earth” as Sun Ra ventures beyond the known and into the strange. But it isn’t simply that they venture there themselves, alone. They will wait for the rest of us, and each member says so as a group and also as individuals. Waiting is the real trick of Thunder of the Gods. Listening to this music is often challenging, often exhausting, often requires great patience, but when it finally opens itself up, the listener can take that journey to another realm alongside the Arkestra and see the new lands and the shore on which the band has been waiting for 50 years. It takes time and effort, but that’s ok. We’ll wait.