The Kingston-centered experimental group Ultraam has been playing out for a while now, bringing their colorful, abrasive and often-quite-groovy squall to environmental music situations and warehouse drone marathons as well as to club settings, where they tend to be paired with kindred-but-somewhat-more-formal bands on the dark end of the psych spectrum, such as New Paltz’s It’s Not Night: It’s Space.
But then I blinked, and Ultraam morphed from a curious four-piece noise accident into the current seven-piece, pharmaceutical-grade space-rock juggernaut. This is an ensemble peopled disproportionately with producer/engineer types, and thus one that sports an expansive sound palette and seven sets of ears that are attuned to the whole organic machine, not just their individual parts in it. Experimental bands like this often get their pass based on the logic that “Every scene needs one,” just for philosophical grounding and out of respect to John Cage; but Ultraam is becoming something really special, something deep and musically purposeful, right under our noses – at least for those who have a nose that way.
But a nose which way? The words “free,” “experimental,” “improvisational” and “noise” keep close company. They draw a broad spot on a map and highlight a kind of secret, magical tradition of 20/21st-century music that loosely parallels laboratory and field developments in the realm of psychoactive agents; but they leave a lot of questions unanswered too.
First is the defining issue of sound sources. Is the soundset that of the tuned-in, space-bound rock band at the turn of the ‘70s (Floyd in the Coliseum); or is it the traditional voices of the jazz band turning in violence on the traditional structures of jazz; or could it be the oscillator banks of the Columbia University physicists and white-coats of the 1950s who had no idea what they were getting the culture into? Or laptops? Culture-collage tape-splicers? Styluses hand-raked across vinyl, heaven forbid (once of that was enough for me)? Ultraam’s soundset is a patchwork of the above, but with a decided emphasis on the early-‘70s space rock kit: guitars, bass(es) and drums augmented with analog synths, manual studio manipulatives and stomboxes like cockroaches in a Lower East Side tenement, pre-‘90s.
Second is the issue of dialect, for “free” has several, as contradictory as that sounds. There are in fact a number of conventionalized ways of playing free, and many of them come from jazz, which has produced more than its fair share of the most culturally active and disruptive noise jams. Jazz, even at its arrhythmic freest, never completely forsakes the dominance of phrase, of line. Thus we associate free jazz with such terms as squawk and skronk. “Free” in jazz tends to describe dialogues of liberated, animalistic voices in interactive and empathic colloquy.
“Free” in rock has a very different set of associations that have to do the democratic leveling of the field, the removal of hierarchy and privileged voices, smashing all bars to entry and letting non-players play in that distinctly Enoesque way that non-players tend to play. Line, phrase and indeed individual identity can all but disappear, subordinated to the textures of naïve ensemble moments and grooves. Ultraam – well these guys are players, not naïfs, make no mistake about that; but the aesthetic of this band is conspicuously jazz-free and cleansed of recognizable expressive gesture. In fact, one of the jarring things about Ultraam’s basic sound is that it is improvisational and it has horns, but it is pointedly, hermetically not jazz.
Ultraam believes in rhythm, supple, unconventional grooves that run from the sedate and glacial (“A Better Way to Build Cattle”) to the borderline-funky (“Aztec Death March”). Groove is an ensemble thing here: layered constructions with lots of organic counterpoint and elliptical shift and flux. Ultraam can be placid and ambient, but the euphony never goes unneedled by dissonance for long. On the other hand, the cacophony, when it strikes, never wants for color, space and rich sonority.
Imagine Soft Machine without the inane blues organ solos – or the songs per se. Imagine the elegant pattern study of post-rock pioneers Tortoise undercut with the primitive, provocative sneer of Throbbing Gristle. Imagine Pink Floyd fully sheared of its pop coat. Imagine Can and the Krautrock template, but not quite.
Finally, Ultraam does believe in form-over-formlessness. They achieve it in two independent ways. One is the organic way: improvising until form occurs and is recognized, and playing so very often and with such commitment to these peculiar ensemble values that they get better and better at dialing-in structure and arc spontaneously. The other approach to form is via editing: the razor blade and all its digital metaphors. Ultraam, as we mentioned before, is a band of producers – Matthew Cullen, D. James Goodwin, Eli Walker – as well as some storied veterans of space-rock studionanigans in Mercury Rev’s Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak and Jeff Mercel, along with founding members drummer Chris Turco and multi-instrumentalist Mark Ferraro. Their work is only half-done when the tape stops rolling.
They have evolved into expert, empathic ensemble improvisors. The magic of editing, of after-the-fact composition, just puts this stuff over the top. If ever I were to recommend an experimental, improvisational free noise band to people who run screaming at the idea of it, Ultraam might be the one. This is serious-but-accessible-and-enjoyable music that has arrived at this elegant point because they stuck to their guns and believed in their process.
Ultraam performs as part BSP’s Free Thursday series on Thursday, August 20 at 8:30 p.m. Also on the bill is Br’er. Ultraam has three records in the can, and is currently considering different ways of letting them out of the can. You can sample the wares at https://ultraam.bandcamp.com; but this is just the tip of a very strange iceberg.
Ultraam/Br’er, Thursday, August 20, 8:30 p.m., free, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; www.bspkingston.com.