Instrumental releases are a strange thing. They are also extremely diverse.
You have OSTs for Films and Computer Games, solo musicans who record material (notable ones in the realm of Guitar: Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Buckethead), recreations of classical pieces and performances of said pieces, chiptune, electronic dance music… The list goes on and that is barely scratching the surface!
In more casual realms, instrumental tracks usually feature in albums to help ‘move the music along’ – acting as a progression marker. It is commonplace to find an instrumental track which usually clocks in at less than 2 minutes in length opening up an album. In rock and metal, this track will more often than not be the music the band will walk on stage to and it will act as the signal for the start of their performance. In other cases, some instrumental tracks act as an interlude or a transition from one track to another, acting like a bridge of sorts and in other cases, they often complete a sequence of songs; either opening, linking or closing the series of tracks (Dream Theater‘s ‘A Mind Beside Itself’ trilogy on the 1994 ‘Awake’ release employs this with ‘Etromania’ being the instrumental track).
Whilst this is interesting from a compositional and structuring progression approach, there is sometimes a distaste of these tracks on releases. Personally, I find the opening instrumental gambit many bands employ to be an annoying and futile endeavour – these tracks either should just be incorporated into the following track, giving it an extended introduction of sorts, or moved to the bonus tracks. Another view is that these tracks are simply space fillers to pad out the substance of a release. This view can be easy to agree with, especially if the band features a renowned virtuoso musician (insert gratuitous fretboard wankery track here as example!).
But for a band to take a purely instrumental direction when they aren’t tasked with composing the soundtrack to something other than their own musical vision is a bold move. There are few artists in the rock and metal world who have had major success with a solely instrumental approach. More often than not, these artists usually lean towards the more progressive side of the spectrum, branching out into the more psychologically inclined sub-genres of music. My Sleeping Karma from Germany are a Stoner Rock and Doom influenced band who incorporate various Eastern influences and Psychedelic Rock styles, Syberia from Spain are a more progressive metal leaning band who create massive sonic landscapes for you to get lost in, and Clouds Taste Satanic are a Doom metal band who create a massive wall of crushing heaviness.
Sons Of Alpha Centauri are another one of these instrumental focused bands. Formed in 2001 and beginning their existence as a two piece (which would eventually become a 4 piece), the English musical project has adopted a slow and steady approach to their music. With one full length release, a limited edition demo, several split singles and collaborations with bands including Karma To Burn and Yawning Man, and a very small number of live performances to their name, this enigmatic four piece takes the Stoner Rock/Desert Rock/Space Rock approach to their music. With over a decade between their self-titled debut release and ‘Continuum’, the band has had plenty of time to craft their music and it shows a dedication to releasing what they perceive to be ‘finished article’. So hop on, buckle up and let’s get rolling.
With the Desert Rock/Stoner Rock background, you would be forgiven if you imagined yourself riding through the desert on a seemingly endless highway; shades on, radio playing and sitting behind the wheel of a classic 70’s Camaro, taking the journey to wherever the music and road goes. With this release, this mental image is fulfilled to an extent. The driving feel of the Desert Rock gives way to the horizon-expanding Space Rock, and soon your Camaro becomes the Millennium Falcon and you’re doing the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. The music makes a dramatic jump in sound and direction and there is plenty of atmospheric impact to link it all together.
‘Into The Abyss’ is the token start up track which lays the foundations for the chunky desert-blues ‘Jupiter’ to really kick things into gear. With shifts from thick and steady chords to jarring chord stabs and slick bluesy sequences augmented by soaring synths, it works well to introduce what SOAC are all about, but the following track is what defines them as a band. ‘Solar Storm’ is a track I have nothing but high praise for. It has that dirty fuzz laden tone, a real energetic tempo, some sweet atmospheric edge courtesy of the synths and a real foot to the floor, high-octane Desert Rock attitude. Hook-laden riffs, surging synth bursts, simplistic composition which is executed in a highly effective manner. It even has those little synth and tamer sounding melodic spots which help break up the surging feel and give you a chance to recover before re-emerging once again.
After the storm comes ‘Io’, which is more straight forward. Its simplicity is the core of the track and it doesn’t try anything flashy, simply progressing things at a slower rate, facilitating the shift from the Desert to the great expanses beyond our atmosphere. ‘Interstellar’ is a finely executed slice of Space Prog. It’s carefully measured and calculated to the extent that the timing of each significant instance in the song is clear and concise. This meticulous attention to detail helps it out when it has to follow on from the standard Solar Storm set. The fading in and out of prominence with regards to the synth parts give the track an intriguing dynamic, helping you piece together just where you are in relation to the grand scheme of things SOAC have crafted for this release. This compositional focus surfaces once again for the final track, ‘Return Voyage’, which ties together the Desert Rock and Progressive-minded Space Rock, to create an 11 minute monolith which towers over the release, making up 25% of its total runtime.
‘Return Voyage’ has the hard hitting Desert Rock edge in places with regards to the heaviness and the rhythmic components, whilst still being predominantly Space Rock minded. Synth parts once again direct and drive the track, with subtle adjustments, to the navigation systems of the song. Clean and simple progressions augmented by the synth lines become chunky, thundering, distorted monsters, pushing the synths to the back before being brought under control once more. It’s only towards the end of the track that this little loop breaks. A brief cool down spell allows the atmosphere to build and the distortion to kick in once again for one final run before it edges away, subtly then suddenly fading out into a revisiting of the intro to tie it all up.
In all, ‘Continuum’ is a tale of two songs – ‘Solar Storm’ and ‘Return Voyage’. The rest of the release is basically filler built around these tracks, with little purpose other than to show what the band can come up with or to steer the music in the direction these two tracks take. This isn’t a slight at the obvious talent Sons Of Alpha Centauri possess, rather an honest assessment of the overall feel of the recording. This release may have taken 11 years to come into existence, yet much like the scenery in the desert or the galactic expanse, there’s a lot of nothing going on, save for the odd cactus/space junk to provide scenery. ‘Solar Storm’ and ‘Return Voyage’ are like the rare planets in a vast system or an old oil well in the sands – something to be excited about, but once they’re gone, you’re back to just sitting there and waiting for the ride to end.