Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Description of "Monstrous Fire" by Distance to Jupiter

This is the 14th Distance to Jupiter album. Put on your headphones, turn down the lights, and close your eyes for 44 minutes. Listen to the whole thing using the widget above, with accompanying notes below.

Track Notes

Track 1: Sleep. The origin of "Sleep" (known as "Hypnos" during prototyping, but originally titled "What The Fuck Is This?") can be traced back as far as January 8th, 2009, though work was not resumed on this track until almost a year later (December 31st, 2009). This track was the first track recorded for the prior album Lines in the Sky (2009), but it was quickly abandoned, despite its imagery and potential (it did not seem to fit that album's "electro-medieval" undercurrent); thus, it became the perfect starting point for Monstrous Fire, and there was never any doubt that it would be the first track on the new album. It offers a solid departure point for a distinct new direction.

Track 2: Hidden Reality. This was the sixth track recorded. It emerged swiftly, almost fully-formed, during a rainy, windswept winter day in Phoenix, Arizona (2/20/2011). The track's title relates to its inspiration: the book "The Hidden Reality" by Brian Greene, which I had just finished reading; and that, coupled with attendance at the most recent Origins debate, had really pushed my mind into the deep end of the cosmos. When I awoke the next day, I really had no idea that by dusk this track would exist. Though it experienced some subtle iterations in the weeks that followed, these were primarily related to the final mix. The initial sequence of notes—sadness—manifested at random, as my hands fell on the keyboard. I'd been thinking about Hugh Everett and the effect his "Theory of the Universal Wavefunction" (later called "many-worlds") had had on his life and career. I find it fascinating that Everett stopped his research in theoretical physics after obtaining his Ph.D.

Track 3: Quantum Man. Work on this track commenced the day after finishing Lawrence Krauss's new book on Richard Feynman called "Quantum Man". The track, the 5th recorded, has a distinct structure, with a sort of analytical tone slowly being overtaken by a far more alive sound—that of a buzz-laden guitar. It mirrors a pattern that Krauss points out in the book about the way Feynman lived his life. He was a man who embraced simultaneous life paths (like particles in quantum physics itself). The imagery in this track attempts to embody that simultaneity. A Nobel laureate's life and the life of a rock star inextricably commingled—bound by the distant echo of applause from a Nobel Prize ceremony now lost in time.

Track 4: Forgotten. This track (the 10th recorded) emerged from the up-tempo wreckage of the second track recorded in the Monstrous Fire project (a track which never made it beyond prototyping). Dropping the tempo considerably and jettisoning most of the performance, I discovered there were some truly mind-expanding note progressions hidden in the murk. The vibrating bass drone was of particular interest, and it seems to hit all the right regions of the brain in just the right ways. The place this track describes is a forgotten one. It speaks of the ruins of a vanished civilization, carved into the black stone of a frozen continent.

Track 5: Monstrous Fire. The title track, recorded late in the project (12th). The imagery here is subtle, backed by a driving electronic tempo, evoking trance-like feelings; this is a meditation session aboard a faster-than-light star ship. This is a journey into a distant planet's unexplored countryside beneath a darkening sky. The title emerged from a curious bit of synchronicity. Back in 2008, the bookseller Barnes & Noble released a gigantic tome of H. P. Lovecraft's work, called "H. P. Lovecraft: The Fiction." It's a feast for any Lovecraft fan (1,100+ pages). Despite already owning a set of the definitive Arkham House editions of Lovecraft's work, I grabbed a copy without hesitation and promptly forgot about it once I lugged it home. So years later, as I listened to what would become track 5 ("Monstrous Fire") through headphones, I stood before my bookcases. I had the track on repeat, listening to the final mix, and I randomly took down the Lovecraft tome. However, I had just glanced at my computer screen, noting the track was 6:14 in length. I am not sure why, but I turned to page 614 in the book, and the first two words on the page were "monstrous fire" - but more than this, as it turns out, this passage is from my favorite H. P. L. story of all time: "The Colour Out of Space" - and in fact, it's from the very paragraph I often cite as to why. Here's a clip: "...the farm was shining with the hideous unknown blend of colour; trees, buildings, and even such grass and herbage as had not been wholly changed to lethal grey brittleness. The boughs were all straining skyward, tipped with tongues of foul flame, and lambent tricklings of the same monstrous fire were creeping about the ridgepoles of the house, barn and sheds. It was a scene from a vision of Fuseli, and over all the rest reigned that riot of luminous amorphousness, that alien and undimensioned rainbow of cryptic poison from the well—seething, feeling, lapping, reaching, scintillating, straining, and malignly bubbling in its cosmic and unrecognizable chromaticism." Monstrous fire, indeed.

Track 6: We Have Always Been At War. Another dark scene, documented, presented, and processed: war. The last track recorded, the initial three notes were found in an abandoned project file from some earlier point, akin to some blasted out warehouse in the middle of a battlefield. When transformed from guitar into a brooding synth, the track took off. The images presented are of war approaching, at first on a horizon, but coming ever closer, until finally it's right outside your door: machine gun fire, explosions, roaring jet fighters, and the shouted orders of soldiers on the run. The title did not occur to me until I was listening to the final mix. Those who've read George Orwell will understand the reference. In keeping with the theme of synchronicity at work in the Monstrous Fire project, I had started to feel vaguely creeped-out by this track, having listened to it so many times. I'd been upstairs for four hours and decided to head back down into a darkened house. The room below was bathed in a subtle gray-blue tone by the television. When I realized what was on screen, all I could do was smile: Michael Radford's amazing 1984 version of Orwell's "Ninteen Eighty-Four." We have always been at war.

Track 7: Silver Key. The 9th track recorded. A sequence of agonized, searching notes, growing, repeating, augmented by a blooming, infectious beat; winds of swirling synths, and the guitars which attend to them; distant bells like a beacon, conquering the buzzing digital swarm, before giving way to a seething bank of corrupted violins. A track not so much about imagery as raw feeling. It's about a revisited dream place, overflowing with mysteries locked within the unconscious. The album almost took its title from this track, but something kept that from happening. Something... monstrous.

Track 8: Unexplored World. Recorded 11th, this track is all about exploration. It is a theme I couldn't escape during 2010 and into 2011, attending several Origins events at Arizona State University. At the kickoff seminar for the 2011 event, Werner Herzog was speaking about his new film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and as I listened to him speak, I realized there were likely more places on our planet still waiting to be discovered. For as much as humanity has spread bacteria-like across the planet's surface, places of mystery remain, and this is culturally very important. This track is an ode to the unknown people of the Cave of Forgotten Dreams. This track is my internal theme to the Origins initiative. There is a rhythm here, and a depth. This is mystery and discovery. The bass notes seem to dive, to burrow, to uncover new things, like sonar pulses in the ocean of Mind. A fitting end to Monstrous Fire.


The album has had two working titles. Throughout 2010, the project was known simply as "Ready" (which was a nod to the text prompt you see on the bright blue screen of an Atari 800 computer). In early February, 2011, thematic elements related to the unconscious started to manifest and it was dubbed "The Gods of Sleep." In late April, 2011, the album's final title was determined (see above).

Inspiration for the Monstrous Fire album flowed from several Origins events at Arizona State University in 2010 and 2011, as well as from the pages of "The Hidden Reality" by Brian Greene, and "Quantum Man" by Lawrence Krauss. It was a fascinating project to bring to completion. So many strange little details fell into place during composition and recording.

The Monstrous Fire project originally contained 12 tracks. 4 were cut. The following list contains the sequence of track creation along with the number of prototyping iterations each track experienced:

#1 ["Sleep"] - 21 iterations.
#5 ["Quantum Man"] - 19 iterations.
#6 ["Hidden Reality"] - 14 iterations.
#9 ["Silver Key"] - 17 iterations.
#10 ["Forgotten"] - 6 iterations.
#11 ["Unexplored World"] - 5 iterations.
#12 ["Monstrous Fire"] - 13 iterations.
#13 ["We Have Always Been At War"] - 8 iterations.

Tracks #2, #3, #4 and #7 remained unnamed, and never really emerged from the prototyping phase. Weirdly, an empty project file exists for track #8 though nothing was ever recorded.