ALBUM REVIEWS: Lucifer – ‘Black Mass’; Ataraxia – ‘The Unexplained’: spooky Moog vibes from Mort Garson, reissued

SIXTIES’ and Seventies’ electronica is a weird and eccentric world, seemingly populated by mad genii and creative mavericks with clipboards and lab coats, observing banks of machinery at sonic play.

Actually that conception isn’t too far from the truth: Raymond Scott and his Manhattan Research, Inc. while using the new musical technology to place interlude music in films and ads, were as much concerned with what these transistors and valves and wires could actually do, once cajoled. Ditto, the brilliance of Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire and everyone at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Joseph Byrd, who made one album apiece in the Broadcast-predicting The United States of America and Joe Byrd & The Field Hippies, moved from music into university-level academia after these twin slices of psych-tronica genius.

And then there was Canadian Mort Garson: his wondrous works for early circuitry have been fully embraced by those fine folks at Sacred Bones, and this next week sees a quartet of reissues from his multivalent catalogue, as well as a further run around the block for 1976’s Mother Earth’s Plantasia, an album of music for your plants, which is getting a repress and even an eight-track cartridge issue, should you be so fantastically retro it hurts. Yep, you read right: music for your plants. Step inside the world of Mort Garson.

Mort Garson in the sound labs

Coming up through the backrooms of the 60s’ music scene, arranging and writing – his first big moment was a co-writing credit on Cliff’s early solo smash, “Theme From A Dream” – Mort’s electronic road to Damascus moment came at a music engineers’ convention, when he met Robert Moog himself. He was already writing his The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds album for Elektra and decided to incorporate this fancy new device.

(This particular work isn’t, as yet, set for reissue – c’mon guys, you know you need to; but is everything you need a cosmic hippy-era album to be, all sitars, strange whooshes and sonics, heavily-scented smoke and incantation about the dozen Western astrological signs. It’s brilliant. I happen to be Aquarian, so that’s the track you get to hear if you click through.)

He went on to Moog up the hippy musical Hair on Electronic Hair Pieces and refashion the Wizard of Oz story for the synthesiser age as The Wozard of Iz.

But given we’re at the time of year when the nights are drawing in so fast, and that particular day – Samhain, Hallowe’en, The Day of the Dead – is upon us, let’s take just two of the four imminent reissues: Lucifer’s Black Mass and Ataraxia’s The Unexplained, both dark and cosmic works. It’s time these albums came out to play in the light after too long lounging in the whispered side alleys of big-bucks collectability.

Mort recorded Black Lucifer in 1971, and it’s held in some quarters to be his absolute masterpiece. Its ten tracks have reportedly inspired artists as diverse as Coil and Oneohtrix Point Never. It opens in the dark winds and chatter of “Solomon’s Ring” (the occult pentagram), which sails on an almost Eastern layer of melody before accelerating into passages of eerie subhuman groans and tone sweeps, evoking some infernal gathering.

“The Ride Of Aida (Voodoo)” evokes some spectral New Orleans, all processed high-priestess chants and a dark Afro atmosphere, with the Moog melodies insinuating themselves among the pulsing polyrhythms. “Incubus” is space-sleazy, all steamy groans, rising melodies and Broadcast-like future swirls and sweeps of sound; it’s sultry in a shadowy way.

“Black Mass” itself is a patchwork of eerie drones and bleeps, chimes, fractured monastic voices, and thrumming kick drum. It and its sister track “The Evil Eye” lure you over to the dark side; the latter is all sinister resonances and distant thunderclaps of noise, employing all the B-movie creepiness of singing, theremin-like microtones. “The Exorcism” whirls you around in a similarly textured dance of foreboding melody, dropping into spacious evocation of the expelling ritual.

“The Philosopher’s Stone” is a shadowy, arpeggiating and elegant movement, transmuting spacious layers of icy melody and distant, supernatural percussion into a tune that raises both a nervous giggle and the hairs on your arms.

All in all, it’s an album to sip a rich winter punch to while black candles burn; but it’s also a really deep and great electronic work, aiming for, and hitting, the eerie side of life while also be immensely creative. 9/10

In 1975, towards the end of his albums career, Mort revisited the theme of the supernatural once more, this time while wearing the cloak of Ataraxia (it’s a state of freedom of fear from emotional disturbance). The Unexplained: Electronic Musical Impressions of the Occult is a little brighter in its aesthetic than Black Mass: use the cover as your guide. Less an essay in black, it allows for other colours, exploring different shades of the otherworlds – it’s closer to Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds in more a playful and psychedelic exploration of the unknown. “Tarot” is a grand, rising organ melody, all draped around in swirls of synth and an almost funky chattering, scatting melody. Definitely more, say, Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors than The Wicker Man.

Although saying that, “Sorcerer” is wildly atmospheric, funereal, full of scatterings of atmospheres and revisiting some of the voicings from “The Ride Of Aida (Voodoo)”. “Deja Vu” again has a soundtracky elegance, luxurious and mysterious; definitely more purple cloak than widow’s weeds, delighting in its shiver. And it’s that tone, the exciting fun of the unknown, that sets the conceptual tone throughout this album: “Astral Projection” is a thrilling and giddy swirl, part in waltz time, perfect to soundtrack a soul spinning through the ether.

“Seance” is gorgeously creepy, fanning out from a semi-tonal repeat, the perfect horror interlude; big washes and snarls of sound sweep out, draped with swooping orbs and transmitter tones, resonant and pregnant with spectral intent. “I Ching” is a chit-chatter of bright, ringing mystery.

The title track would’ve served brilliantly for some late 70s’ series investigating the weird side of the universe, setting hipshakin’ Moog funk into play with valve-generated hiss and zizz. It breaks down to a proper dancefloor funkiness, and almost winks an eye at Arthur Russell in its raw and skeletal bounce. “Wind Dance”, which closes, again looks for that open, dark atmosphere and then flies abruptly into a krautrock propulsion, driving and insistent and really, really close to what electronicists such as Conrad Schnitzler, formerly of Tangerine Dream, were doing at about this time. Evidently Mort had his ear to the ground to incorporate these other developments into his world while still keeping it weird. 8/10

If you’ve ever dipped into the world of Stereolab, Add N To (X), Broadcast, Scarfolk, Ghost Box, etc – or indeed, with Christmas approaching, you have a nearest and dearest who just adores that aesthetic – then this brace of records are for you. (And them). Black Mass comes on pink splash vinyl; The Unexplained on orange and green splash. They’re very much companion pieces that fully complement each other; if I really, really had to choose, at the end of some ouija board pointer, swivelling between the two, then it’s Black Mass by a nose for me, with its brilliantly shiversome moods.

Lucifer’s Black Mass and Ataraxia’s The Unexplained will both be reissued on coloured vinyl on November 6th, as will the compilation of previously unissued material from the vaults, Music From Patch Cords Productions, and the hyper-rare soundtrack Didn’t You Hear? This quartet of Mort Garson nuggets is the a real absolute gift for all aficionados of electronica. For further investigative purposes and to order all or any of the reissues, head over to Sacred Bones, here.

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