Hermetic Science biography


Hermetic Science, formed in late 1995, is the vision of Ed Macan--scholar, music educator, mallet percussionist and keyboardist extraordinaire, and author of Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture (one of the major works of popular music scholarsip of the 1990s, and a touchstone of the nineties progressive music revival) and Endless Enigma: A Musical Biography of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

In founding Hermetic Science, Macan had several goals.   First, as a music educator, he wanted to create a type of apprenticeship opportunity that was (and still is) rare in academic music circles.   Macan envisioned Hermetic Science in terms of a medieval guild, a forum for young musicians to serve in an apprentice role under a master craftsman, preparing them for journeyman status.   During the periods when Hermetic Science has been active, the band has been staffed by a number of the finest drummers and bass guitarists from both College of the Redwoods in Eureka , California , where Macan is Professor of Music, and Humboldt State University , in nearby Arcata.   Many, if not most of Hermetic Science's musicians have received academic credit for their work with the trio.

Second, Macan desired to use Hermetic Science as a forum for exploring the possibilities of mallet percussion instruments such as the vibraphone and marimba in a progressive music format.   Between the early 1980s and early 1990s, Macan developed a distinctive approach to playing these instruments in which the right hand and left hand parts were treated with complete independence—the two right hand mallets were used to play lead lines against the background chords and moving bass lines played by the left hand mallets.   Having perfected a denser, more contrapuntal approach than any previous popular music vibist or marimbist , Macan felt the presence of a second lead instrument was unnecessary, and the debut Hermetic Science album became the first vibes-bass-drums (occasionally marimba-bass-drums) power trio in popular music history.   In subsequent Hermetic Science albums, Macan's formidable keyboard work became increasingly prominent, with vibes and marimba increasingly sharing the lead role with piano, Hammond organ, and analog synthesizers.   Nonetheless, even with the greater presence of keyboard instruments in lead roles, the music of Hermetic Science has continued to showcase some extraordinarily innovative and virtuosic mallet percussion work.

Finally, Macan has endeavored to create a forum for truly progressive music—in the sense of music that stretches out, takes chances, and explores new stylistic avenues—rather than music that is “progressive” merely in the sense of copying the sound of one of the classic progressive bands of the 1970s.   To be sure, a long-time prog fan will recognize the influence of seventies prog (especially multikeyboard trios like ELP , U.K. , and Egg), and important parallels with the “chamber rock” style of bands such as Univers Zero.   However, in Hermetic Science these influences are combined with elements drawn from outside rock music—ECM-tinged spatial jazz, early modernism, minimalism, Arabic and North Indian music, essences of the Renaissance church music tradition.   The result is a sound that is distinctive, fresh, and immediately recognizable—the Hermetic Science sound.

Hermetic Science's eponymous 53 minute debut album was recorded during several sessions in March and May 1996 and March 1997 in Xeff Scolari's Ozone Studios, Eureka , California .   Released under the auspices of the Magnetic Oblivion label in November 1997, Ed Macan's Hermetic Science won widespread critical praise for its startlingly original music, alternately shadowy and luminous, subtle ensemble interplay, and crystalline production.   This CD features both the original Hermetic Science lineup (Macan on vibes, marimba, occasional piano, and assorted tuned percussion, Donald Sweeney on bass guitar, Michael Morris on drums and percussion) and the second lineup (Macan, Andy Durham on bass guitar, Joe Nagy on drums and percussion).   It includes five original tracks by Macan, covers of classic prog instrumentals by Curved Air (“Cheetah”) and ELP (“Infinite Space”), and a “gamelan” arrangement of Gustav Holst's orchestral masterpiece “Mars, the Bringer of War” from his Planets suite.

Hermetic Science played a number of live shows in northern California between April 1996 and May 1998, after which they suspended live performance in order to devote themselves single-mindedly to recording their next album.   Working with engineer Tim Gray at Big Bang Studios near Loleta , California , the band recorded much of the album in late September and October 1998, the remainder in May 1999.   Their 71 minute second album, Prophesies , was released in September 1999, again under the auspices of the Magnetic Oblivion label.   Featuring both the band's third lineup (Macan on mallets and keyboards, Andy Durham on bass guitar, Matt McClimon on drums and percussion) and its fourth (Macan, McClimon , and Nate Perry on bass guitar), the centerpiece of the album is the six-movement, 41 minute Prophesies suite, loosely based around the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah.   The album also includes an original track that represents the band's unique take on sixties spy movie music, a cover of Rush's “Jacob's Ladder,” and a very special bonus track:   a 19-minute version of ELP's complete Tarkus suite arranged for solo piano, performed by Ed Macan live at the Shannon Center for the Performing Arts, Whittier, California, on April 1, 1992.   While Macan's mallet percussion pyrotechnics on Prophesies are, if anything, even more astounding than before, his formidable keyboard work receives far more emphasis here than on the debut album, with acoustic piano, Hammond organ, and ARP string ensemble all playing an important role in Hermetic Science's newly-expanded instrumental palette, as does Macan's deft recorder playing, which contributes another neglected instrumental sonority to the band's sound.   With the release of Prophesies , Hermetic Science definitively emerged as one of the most original and accomplished progressive bands of the second half of the 1990s.

Critical reception of Prophesies by the worldwide progressive music community was, if anything, even more favorable than the debut album.   However, the band did not rest on its laurels.   They played several more live shows in 1999 and 2000, at which time they withdrew from live performance.   In June 2000, the fifth Hermetic Science lineup (Macan, McClimon , and Jason Hoopes on bass guitar and piano) recorded 28 minutes of music, about half of an album, again at Big Bang Studios, with Mark Mayo engineering.   In July 2000 the five new tracks were mastered after a few additional parts were recorded.   The highlight of these recording sessions was the four-movement, 21-minute suite Against the Grain , co-written by Macan and Hoopes, a promising young prog composer.   The band also re-recorded Gustav Holst's “Mars,” creating an aggressive, ominous cover that is very different from their version on the debut Hermetic Science CD.   During the latter half of 2000 and early 2001, Macan worked on writing new music that would compliment the tracks the band had already recorded:   the result was three new tracks averaging eight minutes in length, “La-Bas” [“Down There”], “Raga Hermeticum ,” and “En Route.”   By the end of the writing process, it was clear to Macan that the three new tracks were logical continuations of the four-movement Against the Grain suite recorded in summer 2000—all of the tracks were loosely inspired by the three great late nineteenth century novels of J. K. Huysmans —and the CD's seven original tracks were organized into a seven-movement, 45 minute mega-suite titled En Route (after its concluding track), with the new cover of “Mars” serving as a kind of “prelude” to the rest of the CD.   In July 2001, the sixth Hermetic Science lineup—Macan, Hoopes (who now played electric guitar and sitar in addition to bass), and Joe Nagy, who returned after a four year absence to add his formidable drumming skills to the project—convened at Big Bang to record the new material, with Mark Mayo again engineering.

The third Hermetic Science album, En Route , was released in November 2001, again under the auspices of the Magnetic Oblivion label.   En Route opened a new chapter in the band's development.   To be sure, it featured everything the first two Hermetic Science albums were admired for—expertly structured, richly-detailed compositions, intricately interlocking textures, biting harmonies and curious polyrhythms , a skillful use of dynamics.   Bu t n ew ground was broken, too.   The music became heavier, absolutely massive at times; darker, harder-rocking, more richly orchestrated, and more electronic, with a breathtaking range of dynamics.   On En Route, Ed Macan turned in one of the great multi-instrumental performances in prog history.   Fans were already familiar with his amazing mallet percussion and acoustic piano work, and of course there was plenty of that here.   But En Route was also one of the great keyboard albums of recent memory, with Macan turning in stunning multi-layered performances on Hammond organ, ARP string ensemble, Micromoog , Fender Rhodes electric piano, digital pipe organ, and electronic harpsichord—not to mention the “oddball” instruments (recorders, 10-string lyre) that are a mandatory part of any Hermetic Science album.   The title track, En Route , represents the band's greatest achievement, even surpassing the monumental Prophesies suite, ranking as a classic of its era.   Indeed, it is eminently arguable that the three Hermetic Science albums released between 1997 and 2001 represent the most substantial, innovative, and important contribution to the genre during that four-year span.

Although the general critical assessment of En Route was that it represented the band's greatest achievement, the timing of its release was not fortuitous.   The progressive revival of the 1990s seemed to be losing steam, and with the recent occurrence of the atrocities of 09-11-01 , the attention of most people was elsewhere.   Furthermore, Macan almost immediately regretted that the album's first five tracks (from the June 2000 sessions) had not been remixed and remastered to bring them up to the sonic standards of the July 2001 tracks, which represented a quantum improvement in production values.   Compared to Hermetic Science and Prophesies , the sales of En Route , which should have been the band's most accessible and commercially viable album, were disappointing.   In the four years between November 1997 and November 2001, Hermetic Science had released three albums, containing two and a half hours of music.   Indeed, by November 2001, as an ongoing project, Hermetic Science had been active for nearly six years continuously.   Without making a formal announcement, in early 2002 Macan made the decision to put the band on hold indefinitely.

The subsequent years were not, however, entirely without activity.   In spring 2002, Macan began an ambitious project of remixing and remastering the entire Hermetic Science back catalog from the original tapes for eventual re-release:   Hermetic Science was remixed and remastered in 2002, En Route during 2003, and Prophesies in 2004.   The balance between bass and drums and between rhythm section and lead instruments was rendered more satisfactory than before; lead parts were made more or less vivid, as necessary; and a discrete selection of newly-recorded parts were added to surprise and delight.   The changes are especially apparent on the last three tracks of the Prophesies suite and the first five tracks of En Route , but sonic improvement is notable throughout.   Macan initially considered re-releasing each album separately, but finally decided to release the results of his four year remix/ remaster project as a single two CD set.   Crash Course:   A Hermetic Science Primer , containing 135 minutes of music, including all nineteen original tracks from the band's three albums and the ferocious cover of “Mars” from En Route , was released in May 2006 on Ed Macan's new Hermeticum Records label.   Macan had argued all along that the band's output is among the most important progressive music circa 1995-2000; the evidence has finally been submitted in a single unified presentation, and audiences can now decide for themselves.

In early 2006, Macan made the surprising announcement that he was reconvening Hermetic Science, with En Route alumnus Jason Hoopes returning as bassist-guitarist, and newcomer Angelique Curry joining the band as drummer-percussionist. During early 2006 the trio commenced rehearsals, and in June 2006 they convened at Big Bang Studios with long-time engineer Mark Mayo to record the firs t n ew Hermetic Science music in five years: the ten minute-plus keyboard epic “De Profundis” and the more lyrical and atmospheric “Voyages.” The new music showed a logical continuity with En Route (especially its final three tracks), yet broke genuinely new ground as well, with arrangements that suggest post-rock influences: both Macan's digital keyboard parts (he abandoned analog synths after 2001) and Jason Hoopes' e-bowed bass and guitar parts lend the music an atmospheric sweep. In fall of 2006 the band commenced rehearsals on a long composition that would constitute the second third of the album. “Triptych,” the resulting track, was recorded in January 2007; the band's most epic track ever (at just under 16 minutes), it explores a different direction than the keyboard prog of “De Profundis” and “Voyages.” A kind of rock-and-roll concerto featuring Macan's virtuosic marimba work backed by lush, quasi-symphonic keyboards and intricate drumming, “Triptych” successfully fuses the intricate (and prominent) mallet percussion parts that define early Hermetic Science with the lush, more fully elaborated keyboard arrangements of the band's later albums. After the “Triptych” sessions the band immediately set to work rehearsing the material that would constitute the final third of the album: 18 minutes of music built around the vibes-dominated epic “Aion,” a brilliantly-structured track which Macan feels may represent Hermetic Science's finest moment, and the chilling closing keyboard prog extravaganza, “The Second Coming.” This material was recorded in June 2007, completing the album. During the next six months Macan painstakingly worked through the material in its production and post-production stages; the result is far and away the finest production values of any Hermetic Science album. In December 2007 Macan reached agreement with Musea Records' Bernard Gueffier for the album's release under the title These Fragments I Have Shored Against My Ruins , the (almost) closing line of T. S. Eliot's epic poem The Waste Land . Paul Whitehead, the surrealist artist best known for his covers for early Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator, contributed a magnificent album cover that Macan feels beautifully captures the album's solar/lunar dichotomy and its main psychological theme, the struggle for wholeness against the constant tendency towards fragmentation. Musea released the album on June 9, 2008.

Click here to read Hermetic Science's entry in the Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock (GEPR)