The music of jazz composer George Russell was once described as being simultaneously familiar and unsettlingly alien, and that same analogy could also apply to Via Satellite, the San Diego three-piece who will soon release their third full-length album entitled Cities Are Temples. While ostensibly falling somewhere between Aloha and The Album Leaf stylistically (not to mention the lazy Radiohead comparisons that are sure to come), Cities Are Temples has enough daring moments both musically and emotionally to firmly establish it as the first truly great album of 2005.
I don’t make that last statement flippantly. Cities Are Temples takes the best parts of indie-rock, electronica and progressive/post-rock and wraps them around some of the most originally elegant melodies that I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with. The songs all share a somewhat apocalyptic lyrical imagery (“The world will cave in, and cities of stone shatter on the floor, angels from below poison everything” Seven Winged Lions) amid stories of spiritual crises, yet the underlying theme here is simply one of love. A complex love, as love is want to be (“Stay right here, til the stars burn down and fall, as close as I can get to you” As Close As I Can). By fusing a romantic, personal love with a larger, more spiritual one, Cities Are Temples reminds us of just how amazingly beautiful life can be even under the worst of circumstances. It may sound corny, but there is a healing quality to these songs that I can’t rightfully ignore.
That being said, don’t be fooled into thinking that Cities Are Temples is some mellow, New Age album. It’s not. There are many quietly gorgeous moments here, but Cities Are Temples can be heavy-hitting when it has to be, and Via Satellite pull no punches. This band ROCKS. There are so many unexpected musical twists and turns on Cities Are Temples that I’m still being surprised by it even after so many repeated listens. This, my friends, is the mark of an innovative and great album by a legitimately talented band.
The members of Via Satellite, Drew Andrews (vocals, guitar, laptop, keyboards), Scott Mercado (vocals, guitar, sampler, keyboards), and Tim Reece (drums, samples), share the songwriting credits equally, with Andrews and Mercado penning the lyrics to the songs that each of them respectively sings. Each singer alternates on Cities Are Temples, with Andrews taking the odd- numbered tracks and Mercado the even-numbered ones. It’s quite remarkable that three musicians of this caliber can work together so democratically in this self-indulgent period of music that we find ourselves in. The band has found a comfort zone functioning as a collective whole which allows it to reach this artistically rewarding point in its career.
I haven’t heard a band work as cohesively as Via Satellite in a long, long time; this is all the more astonishing given the fact that Andrews and Rice have spent the better part of last year touring as part of Jimmy Lavalle’s The Album Leaf, and Mercado has just released his debut full-length album as Manuok. Somehow they managed to record Cities Are Temples in a span of just two weeks with producer Sven-Erik Seaholm. That they came out of it with a near-masterpiece gives you an idea of the dedication and belief that the band has in what it’s doing. Clearly the members of Via Satellite have used what they’ve learned from their side-projects to make the group as progressively exciting as it is.
Reece is possibly the best in-the-pocket drummer out there, and his tasteful drumming is integral here. Mercado and Andrews are both dynamic singers, yet there’s no extended emotive warbling on display, with each boasting an almost crooning quality to their deliveries. The instrumentation on Cities Are Temples is nothing short of spectacular. There is such a wide array of instruments being played (alongside samples and found sounds) that one gets the feeling there isn’t anything the band couldn’t pull off. These are consummate musicians who are still open to seemingly “non-musical” influences and the endless possibilities of electronics. This is where Jimmy Lavalle’s biggest influence on the members of Via Satellite is most apparent.
I won’t even get into individual track commentaries here, because there just isn’t enough space. Suffice to say, you won’t find any filler on Cities Are Temples, as there isn’t a clunker to be found here. If I had to mention a few songs for higher praise, I’d single out the middle of the album, where tracks 5, 6, and 7 (“As Close As I Can”, “Revival”and “Cotton”) are so perfectly strung together in such a seamless and timeless fashion that it’s like they came from another planet. These songs are simply stunning.
Cities Are Temples is a breath of fresh air, offering not only fantastic songs that stick in your brain for days on end, but also an intelligent and emotionally satisfying experience that will surely have a lot of people tuning in to Via Satellite in the coming year. Moody, melodic, and powerful. It’s all there, floating all around you. Are you listening?