Various Artists: Fluorescent Tunnelvision

Various Artists
Fluorescent Tunnelvision

It’s 2001 and what better time for the kind of space (rock) oddities collected on Fluorescent Tunnelvision?

This new Mother West/Submergence compilation charts the outer limits of a sonic realm where Hawkwind meet Krautrock and where analog and digital electronics, psychedelic ambiences, and trance inducing rhythms converge.

When approaching Fluorescent Tunnelvision for the first time, it’s worth bearing in mind that tired old adage about not judging a book by its cover, although here of course that means band names and song titles.

If we’re completely honest, it has to be said that monikers like the Dr. Who-esque SubArachnoid Space (apparently, it’s a part of the brain), the dangerously Rush-sounding 2012, and the simply inexplicable Pseudo Buddha and Volcano the Bear aren’t exactly going to have the punters lining up.

And then there are the titles. Zelany Rashoho go for the obscure. They don’t bother with actual words, or even letters per se, but symbols this keyboard doesn’t seem to have. (Yes, the band is Russian but these aren’t Cyrillic characters.) At the other end of the spectrum, SubArachnoid Space appear to attempt humour with “So Near and Yeti So Far”. This is the kind of title that might well have been hilarious last night when you were in your cups — or perhaps under the influence of something stronger — but that in the cold light of day is geekily embarrassing.

But one listen to this monster double-CD set — the follow-up to Mother West’s 1999 compilation Turn Century Turn: Space Rock and Psychedelia from Around the Globe — and you begin to realize that the bands were probably too concerned with making some truly mind-bending, astounding sounds to worry about trivial matters like names and titles.

Compiled by Hadley Kahn, drummer for one of the featured groups, Escapade, Fluorescent Tunnelvision is a united nations of sound, the music as diverse as the national origins of the artists themselves. Hailing from Finland, Britain, Germany, the United States and, as mentioned, Russia, the bands contribute largely instrumental tracks that range from the abstract and the minimal to full-on walls of noise, making use of everything from sawblades to synths, from gourds to guitars. This certainly isn’t your father’s space rock and, what’s more, it should be emphasized that the proceedings never once lapse into silliness or cliché.

While Zelany Rashoho (they of the unspeakable song title) and Oránj Climax (with their retro sci-fi noises) perhaps tend toward the overly bitty and dull end of the abstract scale, other contributors do experimentation and fragmentation infinitely better.

Take Krautrock legends Faust, for starters. Their contribution, “From the Upper Underworld (Little Ravvivando)”, juxtaposes hypnotically rhythmic passages with sections of sonic interference — for instance, distorted voices and a moment of what appears to be amplified snoring — and is never anything less than compelling for its near nine-minute duration.

With drones, violin, stirring brass, and some kind of ethnic string instrumentation (or approximation thereof), Volcano the Bear’s “Strausshand” eschews traditional song structure but never commits the mortal sin of noodliness. Equally striking is 2012’s “Look”. Recorded live in St. Petersburg as a component in a multimedia installation (the album cover image itself derives from that same event), this track immerses the listener in a looping electronic ambience that suggests a dark version of Steve Hillage’s Rainbow Dome Musick.

The more conventional arrangements here are also noteworthy for the bands’ ability to invoke your father’s space rock without being look-back bores about it. Tombstone Valentine’s “Fleeing from the Perfect Master” and the organ-infused, shimmering groove of F/i’s “Quantum Foam” might have a Saucerful of Secrets-era Floyd feel about them, but both tracks are far from derivative.

While trippy sounds prevail on much of Fluorescent Tunnelvision, several of its stronger tracks are more earthbound in their orientation. On “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”, Mushroom take a very funky acid rock approach and deserve a special commendation for being one of the only bands around that can feature the very un-rock instrument, the tuba, in a way that’s entirely devoid of comedy. Jon Birdsong (who also played on Beck’s Midnight Vultures) uses his horn to enhance the throbbing and pulsing flatulence of the track. “Tubby the Tuba” this isn’t. (Also, all pothead pixies, floating anarchists, and lovers of Camembert électrique out there will be especially interested in Mushroom, whose core members have been collaborating with magick brother Daevid Allen on his University of Errors project.)

The more terrestrial dimension of some of the material on Fluorescent Tunnelvision manifests itself particularly on those tracks that are built around hard-driving, earthy rhythms. Circle, for instance, prove that some Finns are more prone to displays of affect and excitement than, say, Mika Hakkinen or Pan Sonic, as they whip the listener into a trance with the percussive juggernaut “Veitsi”.

Nevertheless, the album’s crowning moments come at the end of each disc. Ektroverde — a collective featuring Jussi Lehtisalo of Circle — serve up some more Finnish sonic mayhem, really kicking out the jams on “Suru”. Comprising nine minutes of propulsive rhythms and squalls of feedback and distortion, this track suggests a reconstruction of the late-’60s sound of Hendrix and the Who smashing up their equipment. To cap it off, SubArachnoid Space take listeners on an epic trip, slowly building atmospheric textures with percussion and echoing guitars before finally soaring away.

So take your protein pills, put your helmet on, and enjoy the space oddity that is Fluorescent Tunnelvision.