HIGHLANDS MAGAZINE (France) no. 40 (April 2009), 7-8
CRASH COURSE: A HERMETIC SCIENCE PRIMER
(Hermeticum Records, 2 CDs: 65:32, 69:43, U.S.A., 2006)
It is a complete retrospective of the musical language of the first three albums of Hermetic Science to which we are invited with this double album, and what at once strikes one is the quality of sound for an independent production, the high relief of the separate parts, the clarity of timbres of the first title, “Esau’s Burden.” It is a matter of the vibraphone, the featured instrument when one hears the piece in order on the first CD, and the utilization of this instrument in a lead role is not without risks. It is a matter, however, of a total success, so well does Ed Macan acquit himself of his task with tact, nuance and a musical creativity in all instances. The sitar that one can hear in the background of “Fire Over Thule” and the pertinent conclusive utilization of gong, reinforces the mystical aspect of the work. “The Sungazer” reveals itself even yet more audacious in terms of timbres, as well as themes and harmonies. The rhythm assumes a fully progressive context and passes through several variations, until disappearing for a solo vibraphone performance by Macan, all in half-tint. The concluding section, after this interlude in a more melancholy tenor, reveals itself in a sprightlier vein, with the return of the [opening] rhythm. The vibraphone is always in the leading role, the marimbas, which lend a lightly exotic cast, equally. “Fanfare for the House of Panorama” is a title that reaches yet another level, it seems to me, in its dissonance and still more adventurous approach to the music. Perhaps one can speak equally of musical impressionism here. We recall that Edward Macan possesses an immense musical culture, notably concerning classical music of the twentieth century, and that he has not avoided the influence of Debussy, Mahler, Honegger, Shostakovich, and other notables. The music of Hermetic Science tends towards the universal in its ambition and its aspiration, but naturally, it is equally hermetic in the sense of addressing a fringe of initiates. It is time that the music of Hermetic Science is recognized for its artistic value, with recognition at the very least for its specialized media. “Trisagion” sets out in a vein at once jazz and contemporary, but one knows not speak of fusion here, for the musical purpose appears more ambitious. For this final title extracted from the first album, Hermetic Science, Ed Macan gives us pleasure with an overdubbed sitar, and this supplementary instrument confers a still more fascinating approach to the music.
“Barbarians at the Gate,” extracted from the band’s second album Prophesies, follows, in exactly the same manner, with the clear sonority of marimba appearing in the foreground, while Andy Durham on bass and Matt McClimon on drums accompany effectively, in nuance and delicacy, even if their essential role is to enhance the signal instrument of Edward Macan, the marimba. The title possesses a well-marked jazz tonality, an experimental jazz beyond the frontiers. “Hope Against Hope” introduces for the first time a recorder (with a flute-like sonority) and an ARP string ensemble which reconciles a little more the music of Hermetic Science with vintage progressive of the seventies in a vaguely Canterbury-like vein, although well beyond equally . . . what mystery is revealed by this marvelous music misty with the perfume of intemporality! “Last Stand” renews with the vibraphone and the inspiration of the preceding titles, with its fretless bass and its abundant percussion. “Lament” follows, still extracted from Prophesies, introducing for the first time the maestro of classical piano and situating itself between Rachmaninov, Bartók, and Keith Emerson. It is more intimate in its inspiration for the first three and a half minutes, being interpreted on piano only, before a more solar conclusion with the entrance of the rhythm section which allows for an expansion in amplitude . . . “Leviathan and Behemoth,” which opens the second CD, proposes a flashing overture on an Emersonian Hammond which evolves soon towards a progressive nuance and airy grace in an ensemble of subtle percussion and a zest of vaporous string ensemble. The consecutive intervention of piano confirms the mastery of Ed upon this instrument as well as a purely celestial inspiration inherited from Emerson, Lake and Palmer: one thinks in particular of “Trilogy” or “The Endless Enigma.” And for the fans of ELP who read this review? In this case, know that this musical treasure is for you. Not only is Edward Macan have an encyclopedic grasp of the music of the celebrated English trio, but he is in a position to equal them upon the plane of musical writing. Help! This superb piece offers equally Bartókian accents and Prokofian tints which only increases the attractive power that this piece exercises upon the auditor. At this stage of the album, it is neither more nor less than a matter of the most ambitious and the most complete track, equally at the level of instrumentation. In all ways, one can only laud the musical intelligence of Macan, which never wishes to enclose itself in a pre-determined instrumental schema, preferring to vary the instrumental combinations to the demands of his inspiration, for the great pleasure of the auditor. “State of Grace” follows, offering a more playful and at the same time lighter aspect, with the return of vibraphone, this time accompanied by piano and Hammond organ, with jazzier harmonies, a lighter rhythm, and at the same time an Emersonian progressive touch (conferred by the Hammond organ) and classical (imparted by the piano). I cannot refrain from hearing sometimes Brian Auger’s organ sound (a compliment). This string ensemble decidedly possesses a power of redoubtable fascination, allied with a discreet abundance of jubilatory percussion . . .
“Mars, the Bringer of War,” an arrangement of Gustav Holst’s celebrated composition, is the following piece . . . the interpretation is very faithful to the original, the arrangement differing naturally with its use of Emersonian Micromoog and string ensemble. The sonority of the Moog is, however, strange, constricted, restrained, lacking amplitude, and is not allowed to entirely dominate the ensemble. However, the arrangement is still very dense, but with the effect of surprise . . . This title inaugurates the series of pieces extracted from En Route. Next comes “Against the Grain,” the major composition of Hermetic Science at over 20 minutes in four movements. The combination of different keyboards confers at once richness and diversity of instrumentation: piano, Moog, vibraphone, marimbas, whereas its length permits this composition space for development, in an epic style such as one fondly remembers from the seventies. Less purely innovative than the titles of the first album (and upon this point, I agree with Macan), this piece certainly will find favor with the fans of vintage sounds and of multiple thematic and instrumental variations. To be sure, the vibraphone confers a subtle touch, rare and precious, to the music’s development. The fine and elegant drumming of Matt McClimon is emphasized, while the light and melodic bass of Jason Hoopes is a key element of the instrumentation.
With “La-Bas,” introduced by a majestic church organ, one can believe oneself returning to the epoch of “The Three Fates” from ELP’s debut album, so much are the atmospheres of the two pieces similar, but very quickly Ed Macan varies the instrumentation, the piano taking quickly the relay, while the electric guitar of Hoopes lends a supplementary power. The rhythmic attack is wholly jubilatory, while the use of gong adds to the diversity of timbres and introduces a notion of implacability. Ultimately the church organ presents a motif of sadness and infinite longing, while the ARP string ensemble adds a mysterious touch, so the music seems as if suspended in the ether . . . “Raga Hermeticum” is a new experiment in the music of Macan, based, as its name suggests, upon the sitar of Jason Hoopes. The groovy bass, the recorder, the 10-string lyre add further to the exoticism. It is a matter here of a totally different musical exploration of the universe of Hermetic Science, but no less passionate for all that. “En Route” is both the concluding track of the third album and of this compilation. Majestically introduced by piano, this composition initially evokes Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, but very soon all changes. The rocking rhythm establishes itself, the keyboards, the organ, and the marimba intermingle until attaining a very dynamic level; the ensemble is propelled throughout by a light and supple rhythm, accompanied by pulsating piano chords (like that of Beethoven in certain sonatas, I think for instance of the “Waldstein”). The almost abrupt conclusion leaves us flabbergasted, incredulous: the feast is finished. This double album represents the inestimable testimony of the music of a genius of our times: know to seize it. Artistically, it will indubitably mark its epoch.
Didier Gonzalez (*****)