One (of the many) challenging thing(s) about instrumental rock: no lead vocal track to privilege and pamper at the expense of the all the other sounds in the mix, thus no real industry-default rubric and pecking order with which to coordinate and hierarchize parts within limited bandwidth. Above all things, commercial mix engineers become adept at creating clearance for lead vocals: a wide and plush berth, a diva lane for the money sound. They use EQ, the stereo field and the many forms of volume control to marginalize, suppress, tame and subordinate the human voice’s instrumental competition, as God surely intended in the Garden. Yes, there’s early REM if you’d like to know what the alternative Eden of a leveled playing field really sounds like in a pop song, but then there’s “Everybody Hurts.” And we do: We hurt.
If, as my recording engineer and theorist brother Dave continually asserts, the most important aspect of a mix is a clear and single point of focus at all times, the gilded voice tends to win that pageant just by showing up, especially when it arrives speaking of love and loss.
On Our Birth Is but a Sleep and Forgetting (2016, Small Stone Records), the veteran instrumental New Paltz dark psych/rock trio It’s Not Night; It’s Space does in fact come speaking of love, though a different kind of love from Sade’s or Cole Porter’s. This is not voiceless or wordless music per se. Our Birth Is but a Sleep and a Forgetting begins with an ideological red herring, the three-and-a-half minutes (a blink of an eye in INNIS time) of “Nada Brahma,” in which a mostly acoustic raga supplies a bed for a found-media spoken-word collage.
It’s a morphing, culturally active waft of juxtaposed voices in the tradition of Negativland and other aficionados of the overnight short-wave radio, old television outtake and tape-splice aesthetic. These voices speak of the things that have always concerned INNIS: altered states, the ancient and future arts of consciousness, neuro-shamanism, magick with a k and the realer realities outside the frame of the ego. It’s Crowley and McKenna stuff, or (as it will always be known to me) Phil Farber stuff. The track supplies philosophical pretext and rationale for the exquisite instrumental rock that follows, but not much of a teaser of the sound, really.
Only when “Nada Brahma” slides without pause or hitch into the pummeling, arabesque, deeply grooving heavy drone rock of “The Beard of Macroprosopus” do you know where you are. The rate of change in the stoner rock genre (if the band Sleep is to be taken as its apotheosis) tends to make Philip Glass sound like Carl Stalling or György Ligeti, but here’s where INNIS distinguishes itself with a muted and borderline-proggy formal ambition. There are certain kinds of psychic transport only attainable by lingering on a drone or a single pattern long after the modern mind has expressed its desire to move along, and that place is where INNIS lives; but this band has become nothing short of masterful at the art of the narrative arc as well. And that’s important for an instrumental band. Jams that transfix live can just bore in the studio if a band is not taking its storytelling responsibility seriously.
In fact, there are moments on the gorgeous, euphonious epic “Across the Luster of the Desert into the Polychrome Hills” where I swear to Goddamn that this is pop music. While most of INNIS’s lovely and simple melodicism derives from the East (and also from Cobain), “Starry Wisdom” nods to the bluesier and cockier rock with which INNIS often finds itself paired at the national psych/rock festivals at which its profile is rising (including the one that its members curate right here in the mid-Hudson Valley). Recorded and co-produced by New Paltz’s man of infinite hats Rick Birmingham, Our Birth Is but a Sleep and Forgetting manages to find space and separation aplenty amidst its relentless grind, thud and drone.
Kevin Halcott’s rainbow of blooming, saturated, reverberated, filtered and E-bowed guitar sounds, arrayed in Spartan-but-artful counterpoint, is the first sound among equals in the democratic INNIS mix. Bassist Tommy Guerrero’s riff commitment is spiritual and simply unshakable. But in my opinion this band’s secret weapon (and I was there at their first performances at Adam Roufberg’s open mic at Oasis in New Paltz at the turn of the decade) has always been the off-genre, curiously distinctive drumming of Michael Lutomski. It is by virtue of his deep and laggy Nick Mason pocket, his flitty, retro psychedelic moves and the pure tonefulness and the variety of glancing sounds in his playing that – no matter how sludgy it gets (plenty) – INNIS never, ever strikes me as a metal band.
Good deal. There’s one thing Zeppelin and Sabbath understood that metal forgot as it moved into the psychosocial dystopian critique that it can’t seem to grow beyond: Satan was sexy, serpentine and fond of fiddles and dancing, not some piston-heavy, faceless and iron-assed machine of war. INNIS plays with a lithe organic grace, a sure sign of the years that they have put in and the continual purification of their egoless ensemble concept. But what is most striking on Our Birth Is but a Sleep and Forgetting is how much they have grown as composers, without ever violating their fundamentally meditative vocation.
It is just beautiful stuff. I don’t know how else to say it.
INNIS celebrates the impending (June 24) release of Our Birth Is but a Sleep and Forgetting with their frequent billmates, Kingston’s improvisational psych collective Ultraam, River Cult and Seven Swords on Friday, June 24 at Snug Harbor in New Paltz, beginning at 10 p.m. Snug Harbor is located at 38 Main Street in New Paltz. For more on It’s Not Night; It’s Space (and to sample or preorder the record), visit https://smallstone.bandcamp.com.
It’s Not Night; It’s Space/Ultraam/River Cult/Seven Swords, Friday, June 24, 10 p.m., Snug Harbor, 38 Main Street, New Paltz.