Into the Not-So-Wayback Machine- Listening to Centaur’s “In Streams” (2002) in 2014

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As much as the Internet lends itself to giving its users a false sense of its all-encompassing immensity, so does the momentary nature of youth lend a false sense of universality to our impressions.  In my early- to mid-twenties I was very, very into the laid-back urgency of HUM’s spaced-out psychedelic metal, all brilliant production, intricate layering of delicate sounds, and heavy, heavy guitar riffs.  When that band broke up and frontman Matt Talbot  released what would end up being the only record by his new band, Centaur, I was ravenous for something even harder, more all-encompassing and urgent than what even the nearly perfect HUM catalog had to offer.  I wanted another HUM record that I would react to just as intensely as I had to all the ones that came before.  The problem, of course, is that when you first hear the music you wind up loving, you love it precisely because you have built up no expectations, you have no defenses against the truly new thing that you are about to hear.  Expectations are defense mechanisms that, interestingly, actually seem to “protect” you from exactly the pleasant experiences that you are hoping to repeat. (I defense of expectations, I still get a little teary-eyed when I think of how beautiful it sounded to hear HUM project a shimmering wall of space out over Lake Michigan from the Death Star-sized sound system on the stage at Chicago’s Millenium Park; who wouldn’t want to repeat that experience?)

On this past weekend’s birthday record store raid I came across a copy of Centaur’s In Streams, so I bought it.

Pro tip: Even in the age of the Internet, even in the age of mechanical reproduction, the availability of art is finite.  If you see an old, rare, out-of-print record you know is “important” to you, just buy it.  You may never find it again.

On this listen, on my birthday and 12 years after its release, I was particularly attentive to the differences in my impressions, and to the details of the record’s production.  Many recognizably “HUM” flourishes were there, from Talbot’s use of a pretty, undistorted guitar, to beds of long feedback, and, yes, occasional walls of hairy, distorted lead guitar.  What leapt out at me, however, impressing me on this listen but leaving my younger self cold, was the extremely deliberate use of restraint throughout.  All the ingredients of a Hum record were there, but, at every single point when Talbot could drop the wall of sound on you, he pulls back.  Nothing is gratuitous, nothing is overused.  The songs are marked by their expansiveness, their space, their ragga-like quietude, rather than by force and urgency.  The songs take their time, and the joy-buzzer distorted wall of sound is always shut down as soon as it can be.  Seeming to be an extension of where HUM was going on the orphan single “Aphids”, this is an overlooked masterpiece, a picture of the genius Talbot at the very top of his craft and fully aware of the power of the techniques he pioneered.  He was a master that had ascended faster , unfortunately, than his late-adolescent boys-club of fans, still limited by their own aggressive expectations, could.  I’m grateful for record stores, long Saturdays, and the serendipity that the two of those combined engender for reuniting a more able listener with a record he had failed so miserably in the past.

When the weather warms all I want is to rest in sunspots in the fading afternoon

How did I not know this?  Hum, obviously the best band ever done wrong in a major label deal (and, yes, also just the best band ever), is the only thing I want to listen to when the skies clear and the sun starts warming the colors out of the trees.  Hum fansite MISSION CONTROL has an entire archive of demos, B-sides, and hard-to-find records up.  The site also curates a Youtube channel.  I had never heard either the “Puppets”/”Aphids” single or the b-sides off of “Stars”.  When the thundering guitars drop in and I’m surrounded by the sound, I know I am lucky to be alive to hear something so beautiful.  There is something like god somewhere inside that sound.

Clearly in this Afternoon

Clearly we will have to turn and come home soon.

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Axolotl speaks: Hum is playing a reunion a reunion show on New Year’s Eve at Chicago’s Double Door.

I have my tickets.

In that emotional space between a good drunk and sobriety, I’m sitting here on this Sunday morning listening to Hum’s monument to perfection, 1997’s Downward is Heavenward, at the infinite and revealing mercy of every moment in that beautiful album that swept off the Illinois prairie and into my permanent regard.

I am particularly vulnerable to the band’s sound for reasons of my nativity, perhaps, with the spacey thunder of those guitars that imply infinity so akin to the endless flat expanses of Illinois fields over which the unbearable heat and humidity of summer shiver. This does not change the fact that this criminally overlooked album should qualify as one of humanity’s few fingertip brushes with G-d.