HERMETIC SCIENCE: THE OFFICIAL BIOGRAPHY
Hermetic Science, formed in late 1995, is the vision of Edward Macan—scholar, music educator, mallet percussionist, keyboardist, and author of Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture, a major work of 1990s popular music scholarship 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 at that time quite rare in academic music circles (but has become more common in recent years): he 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. The band has often been staffed by current or former music students from both College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California, where Macan taught from 1994 to 2024, and Humboldt State University (now Cal Poly Humboldt), in nearby Arcata; many of the band's musicians received academic credit for their work with the trio. A number of Hermetic Science musicians have gone on to musical distinction in their own right.
Second, he 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 more contrapuntal approach to playing these instruments than was used by previous popular music vibists or marimbists; 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 subsequent Hermetic Science albums increasingly highlighted Macan's keyboard work, with vibes and marimba coming to play a textural role, the band has continued to serve as a showcase for innovative 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, explores new stylistic avenues, and speaks to the historical moment—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 foundational importance of seventies prog (especially multi-keyboard trios like ELP, U.K., Refugee, and Egg) to the Hermetic Science sound. However, from the beginning, Hermetic Science has drawn both on elements from outside rock music—ECM-tinged spatial jazz, early modernism, minimalism, Middle Eastern and North Indian music, essences of Renaissance liturgical music—and post-70s popular music influences. The result of this eclecticism is a sound at once distinctive, fresh, and immediately recognizable.
Hermetic Science's debut album was recorded in March and May 1996 and March 1997 in Xeff Scolari's Ozone Studios, Eureka, California. Released by 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. 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 (including long time concert favorites “Esau's Burden,” “Fire Over Thule,” and “Trisagion”), 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 its release, the band performed regularly in northern California between April 1996 and May 1998 before pausing to record their second album. Working with engineer Tim Gray at Big Bang Studios near Loleta, California, they recorded much of the album in September and October 1998, the remainder in May 1999. Prophesies was released in September 1999, again through 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. Acoustic piano, Hammond organ, and ARP string ensemble play an important role in the band's newly-expanded instrumental palette, as does recorder, which contributes another neglected instrumental sonority to the band's sound.
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The resulting 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. The music was harder-rocking, more richly orchestrated, and more electronic than before, with a breathtaking range of dynamics. 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 rock 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 atrocities of 09-11-01 had diverted the attention of many. Furthermore, Macan almost immediately regretted the 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: Ed Macan's Hermetic Science was remixed and remastered in 2002, En Route during 2003, and Prophesies (which, in Macan's view, benefitted the most) 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. Macan initially considered re-releasing each album separately, but finally decided to present the results of the 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.
In early 2006, Macan announced the reformation of 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 convened at Big Bang Studios with long-time engineer Mark Mayo to record 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 new ground, with arrangements that suggest post-rock influences; Macan's digital keyboard orchestrations (he abandoned analog synths after 2001) and Hoopes' e-bowed 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, became the band's most epic track at just under 16 minutes, fusing the non-Western influences and intricate mallet percussion that define early Hermetic Science with the lush keyboard arrangements of the band's later albums. After the “Triptych” sessions the band immediately began rehearsing the material that would constitute the final third of the album: 18 minutes of music built around the vibes-dominated epic “Aion,” a tightly-structured track Macan believes may represent the band's finest moment, and the chilling keyboard prog finale, “The Second Coming.” This material was recorded in June 2007.
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 up to that time, and in late 2007 reached agreement with Musea Records' Bernard Gueffier for the album's release under the title These Fragments I Have Shored Against My Ruins. Surrealist artist Paul Whitehead, former Charisma Records house 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 tendency towards fragmentation. Musea released the album June 9, 2008.
While the album received some positive critical attention, Macan, who believed it represented the band's finest achievement so far, 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 to rekindle interest in the band as a live act, but one of the members declined to participate, the These Fragments lineup subsequently dissolved, and Macan turned to other projects.
In the mid-2010s Macan's thoughts returned to the band, which he continued to believe had created a significant and unique output. 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 no longer 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 a new facet of the band, demonstrating the degree to which its repertoire only fully came alive onstage.
It was also during 2019 that Macan began composing again after a 12-year sabbatical, an effort that took on a new urgency during 2020 as he watched the events unfolding around him with horror and wonder. By early 2022 he had completed the nine-part suite Deliria: a Chronicle of 2020, and recruited a brash young lineup that marked a generational shift from the band's previous lineups, with Jeff Ruiz on bass and Travis Strong on drums. The band rehearsed through late 2022 and early 2023, finally convening at Big Bang Studios with engineer Jason Goldstein to record the entire suite on June 5-6, 2023. After just under four months of post-production work, the resulting album was released on the Hermeticum Records label in early October 2023.
The album cover is graced by Paul Whitehead's apocalyptic Armageddon Warm: originally intended for the band Armageddon's debut album of 1975, it was rejected by that band's record company for being “too dark.” As Macan commented after contracting with Whitehead's management, Cypher Arts, “the times have caught up with Paul's vision, and Hermetic Science are proud to be able to feature this prophetic image some 48 years later as the cover art of Deliria: a Chronicle of 2020.” Deliria eschews the extensive overdubs of Hermetic Science's two previous studio albums, returning the band to a live performance ideal, and is their darkest and heaviest ever; in its efforts to unflinchingly convey the madness, horror, and mayhem of 2020, it draws elements as disparate as sixties post-bop, eighties and nineties metal, horror movie soundtrack motifs, and nineties trance into the classic Hermetic Science sound. Essentially a single composition broken into nine tracks, with themes carried over and developed from track to track, it is the band's most cohesive album.