HERMETIC SCIENCE: THE OFFICIAL BIOGRAPHY
Hermetic Science, formed in late 1995, is the vision of Ed Macan--scholar, music educator, mallet percussionist, keyboardist, and author of Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture—one of the major works of popular music scholarship of the 1990s, and a touchstone of the nineties progressive music revival—and Endless Enigma: A Musical Biography of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Macan had three goals in founding Hermetic Science. 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. 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 involving a denser, more contrapuntal approach than that used by any previous popular music vibist or marimbist. Due to his unique approach, 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. Although in subsequent Hermetic Science albums Macan's keyboard skills would be highlighted more prominently, with vibes and marimba increasingly sharing the limelight with piano, Hammond organ, and various analog and digital keyboards, the band continued to serve as a showcase for extraordinarily innovative and virtuosic mallet percussion work throughout its existence.
Finally, Macan 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 multi-keyboard trios like ELP, U.K., Refugee, 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, Middle Eastern and North Indian music, essences of Renaissance liturgical music. 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 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, subtle ensemble interplay, and crystalline production. This album 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.
After playing a number of live shows in northern California between April 1996 and May 1998, Hermetic Science suspended live performance in order to record their second album. Working with engineer Tim Gray at Big Bang Studios near Loleta, California, the band recorded much of the album in 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 Macan live at the Shannon Center for the Performing Arts, Whittier, California, on April 1, 1992. While Macan's mallet percussion pyrotechnics are still prominent, his keyboard work receives much 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.
Critical reception of Prophesies by the worldwide progressive music community was, if anything, even more favorable than the debut album, and between autumn 1999 and spring 2000 the band supported its release with several more live shows, after which they withdrew from live performance. In June and July 2000, the fifth Hermetic Science lineup (Macan, McClimon, and Jason Hoopes on bass guitar and piano) recorded the first half of their third album, again at Big Bang Studios, now with Mark Mayo engineering. The highlight of these sessions was the four-movement, 21-minute suite Against the Grain, co-written by Macan and Hoopes. The band also re-recorded Gustav Holst's “Mars,” creating an aggressive, ominous cover that is very different from their version on their debut CD. During the latter half of 2000 and early 2001, Macan composed three new tracks to compliment the music the band had already recorded: “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 the tracks were loosely inspired by the late nineteenth century novelist J. K. Huysmans—and the album'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 prelude to the rest of the album. 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, released in November 2001 (again under the auspices of the Magnetic Oblivion label), 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. But it broke new ground, 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, Macan turned in a bravura multi-instrumental performances, augmenting his mallet percussion and acoustic piano work with 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 final three tracks of the album, in particular, hold their own against the very best progressive of the 1996-2001 period.
Although the general critical assessment of En Route was that it represented the band's most accessible album and its finest achievement yet, the timing of its release was not fortuitous. The progressive revival of the 1990s was losing steam, and the recent atrocities of 09-11-01 had diverted the attention of many. Furthermore, Macan almost immediately regretted the album's first five tracks (from the June 2000 sessions) had not been remixed 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, sales of En Route, which should have been the band's most 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 continuously active for nearly six years. In early 2002 Macan made the decision to put the band on hold.
The subsequent years were not, however, 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 improved; 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 present 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 Macan's new Hermeticum Records label. Macan long had argued that the band's output is among the most important progressive music circa 1996-2001; Crash Course presented the evidence for this argument in a single unified presentation.
In early 2006, Macan made the surprising announcement that he was reactivating 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 first new 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,” recorded in January 2007, turned out to be the band's most epic track ever at just under 16 minutes. Exploring a different direction than the keyboard prog of “De Profundis” and “Voyages,” it is a kind of rock-and-roll concerto featuring Macan's virtuosic marimba work backed by lush, quasi-symphonic keyboards, alternately virtuosic and atmospheric bass parts, and intricate drumming, “Triptych” successfully fuses the intricate 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 Macan believes may represent Hermetic Science's finest moment, and the chilling keyboard prog finale, “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, resulting in the finest production values of any Hermetic Science album, and in late 2007 he 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 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.
While the album received some positive critical attention, Macan, who remains convinced it represents the band’s finest achievement, was disappointed it did not generate more interest. Indeed, it seemed to him the audience that had sustained the nineties prog revival had largely dissolved, a process amplified by the collapse of CD sales, first due to downloads in the early 2000s, then, increasingly after 2011-12, to streaming. Macan tried to organize a small-scale tour of northern California in 2007-08, hoping both to kindle interest in the new music, and to rekindle interest in the band as a live act, but one of the members declined to participate, and the These Fragments lineup broke up. There was talk of recruiting a replacement, but nothing became of it, and the band ultimately dissolved.
For years, Macan worked on other projects, and gave little thought to Hermetic Science. However, in the mid-2010s his thoughts returned to the band, which he continued to believe had created a significant and unique recorded legacy. A fan contacted him and suggested he create a site for Hermetic Science on numberonemusic.com; he did so, and came to the realization that the listeners who were now discovering the band’s music for the first time—many of them young enough to be children of the band’s nineties audiences—were more willing to accept the music on its own terms, and were not put off by the band’s refusal to slavishly duplicate the most obvious gestures of seventies prog. During 2017 he began to comb through his extensive library of bootleg Hermetic Science recordings, and in 2018 he began editing and mastering a representative cross-section of these performances into a two-CD set. The resulting album, Out There: Hermetic Science Live 1996-2006, was released July 1, 2019 on the Hermeticum Records label. Macan believes the album reveals an entirely new facet of the band, demonstrating the degree to which its repertoire only fully came alive onstage. He is also cautiously hopeful it may open up the possibility for new music in the future.