Instead of writing two separate reviews littered with cross references to each other, I chose to approach COMBAT ASTRONOMY’s two latest albums in one go, presenting one report of their sound and style, and the characteristics separating them. The albums in question are 2010’s “Earth Divided By Zero” (henceforth E/0) and this year’s “Flak Planet” (henceforth FP), both released on their own label Zond.
A disparate beast they are, COMBAT ASTRONOMY, fusing the jazz/avantgarde rock music of 1970’s and 1980’s with a sharp and angular take on modern metal music. Mainly instrumental (Elaine di Falco adds her wordless chants to E/0, but that serves merely as an added instrument, rather than a vocal centre), there are two main musical elements or plateaus in COMBAT ASTRONOMY’s music. The rhythm section is based on James Huggett’s amorphous cyborg machinery: heavy chugging riffs from his fretless bass in symbiosis with programmed drums churn out the complex time signatures and cyclic patters, bringing to mind the machine-like polyrhythmic monsters of Meshuggah and Godflesh.
Above this heaving earth of COMBAT ASTRONOMY’s microcosmos floats not guitars, as one would expect from a metal band, but several aerophones, contrasting the machine-like rhythms with spastic explosions of noisy jazz improvisations fluttering like some taunting ghosts above the steel-and-flesh constructs below. The middle ground between the rhythm and the improvised wind instruments float organs and electronic sounds, tying together the whole landscape of sounds. At times in sync with the rhythms, at times juxtaposing them by doing something completely different. Sounds are mainly Martin Archer responsible for: on E/0: three saxophones, two clarinets, plus an “unidentified Chinese reed instrument”, and on FP: organ, zither, the same aerophones plus a bass recorder. On Flak Planet, the core duo is expanded by two more wind musicians, adding bassoon, three kinds of flutes, two tenor saxes, and one “Reindeer horn”. That is, if any reader has any issue with jazzy honks, toots and flurry squeels, keep out!
So, what differentiates these two albums, the third and fourth of COMBAT ASTRONOMY’s catalogue? Well, for starters, the addition of two musicians on FP creates the natural result of being noisier, more stubborn and explosive, frankly more difficult – more avantgarde, so to speak. E/0 depends more on ominous and doomy harmonies akin to avant/jazz rock (in opposition) orchestras of the 1970’s, like UNIVERS ZERO, ART ZOYD, SHUB NIGGURATH etc. Less abbrasive and more easily accessible (though that’s highly relative, mind you), it seems to me that E/0 is also slightly more ambient and atmospheric, whereas the noisy improv ordeals of FP demands more attention from the listener. All in all, the two albums offer in principle the same: severely heavy avant/jazz metal, filled to the brim with polyrhythmic churning ground structures, expanded by an angular cacaphony of the most massive wind section on the avantgarde side of metal, woven in seering unsettling atmospheres and sound landscapes. Though one might ask whether this is metal with avant/jazz-elements, or avant/prog music with metal elements. You may as well see this band live (if they perform) alongside PRESENT, GUAPO and ZU at the resuscitated Rock In Opposition featival, as next to VIRUS and GODFLESH at the dying Hole In The Sky festival. At least I’d wish to do both.
Something that brings down the whole experience has to be mentioned. Both albums reach out for almost an hour, and do not offer that much variation: “aerial” elements of their cosmology expand and elaborate constantly, but the “ground” of the rhythm section stays more or less the same, with the exception of (very welcome) ambient segments. Being without words (and FP completely without voices), I would have enjoyed some more experiments, more dynamics, more changes in velocity perhaps. But all in all, COMBAT ASTRONOMY is a beast in itself, an astounding fusion of the force of polyrhythmic metal and experimental avant/jazz sounds, both equally energetic and explosive. Always possible to relate to bigger names (as those mentioned here), but indeed singular in vision and execution.
Release: 2010 / 2011
Avantgenre: Space/time Contortion Metal
Duration: About An Hour, Both Of Them
Origin: US / UK
Official site: http://combat-astronomy.bandcamp.com
Review online since: 07.07.2011 / 11:56:30
(EARTH DIVIDED BY ZERO)