Ethereal Transects is a perfect December album, leaning into the winter solstice. The set honors the celestial orbs of our solar system, starting with the Sun and eventually restoring a bit of Pluto’s lost honor. Each artist selected a specific body and delved into its folklore, producing a slice of celebration.
Jez Winship’s extensive essay provides some important background. Tracing the history of our fascination with the cosmos, he revisits the ancient Babylonians, who connected sky gazing with ritual worship. Winship explains that the word “planet” comes from the Greek word for “wanderer.” Each planet was once believed to have particular qualities that aligned with humours and “reflected the divine order.” Deities took the name of planets, or vice versa, once a glitch had been sorted: Mercury and Venus were at first mistaken as two planets each, rising in the morning and evening. And then came the Zodiac and the assignment of personality traits. Astrology ran afoul of the Church, due in large part to the fact that for a time, horoscope almanacs were outselling Bibles! Science fared even worse, as Galileo was convicted of heresy, his name cleared a scant 300 years later.
Today we’re free to have a little more fun, to take things a bit less seriously, to enjoy the orbs for their beauty and to honor them in poetry, prose and song. Rob St. John’s “The Sun” conjures a feeling of sunrise through bright drones and (counter-intuitively) the sound of running water. When we think of sun, we think more of sunlight and its connection with morning and life. The birds and bugs begin to awaken, stretching their wings and preparing to search for breakfast. Magpahi traces the mercurial nature of the first planet, taking flight on a soaring diva vocal while flute and guitar set a ceremonial tone. The piece ends in glides, like changing moods. Flute appears again in Mary & David’s ode to the planet of Love, along with more water and a gong; one can imagine the wooing of a young maiden, the exchange of goats, even the two artists ~ with Biblical names ~ joining hands and running into the fields. And then the Healey Vale Brass Band enters, and the centuries crumble beneath their feet.
There’s no Earth on this album, but there is a Moon, thanks to Ian Humberstone, who loops voices to imitate witches and waves. The ethereal effect is beguiling, approaching and receding like the tide. Then it’s time to go to war. Embla Quickbeam wastes no time in breaking branches and starting a fire. It’s tempting to think of “Mars” as an environmental catastrophe, the dark drones drenched in danger. But it’s just as easy to hear the composition and simply see red.
After this, “Jupiter” comes as a shock: a huge dance beat, a vocal and a groovy guitar, courtesy of Carl Turney & Brian Campbell (Featuring Martha Turney). “ZEUS!” As Jupiter is the King of the Planets, it makes sense. Welcome to the pagan party! At least now we know why Mars is in such a foul mood, with such psychedelic choirs singing “Jupiter, Jupiter!” at all hours of the night. In contrast, Arianne Churchman’s spoken word “Saturn” is pensive, mysterious and looped, words dissolving into texture, reflecting the god of Time.
The Bluest Funz steps up to the plate to adopt “Uranus.” Back in the old days, people didn’t even know about Uranus; it was too far away. But The Bluest Funz whistles and splashes its way across “Uranus,” beating it with drums, caressing it with guitars, strolling across its hills. The track is a playful piece, as befits its pun. It’s up to Dean McPhee to restore some seriousness; “Neptune” dives into tonal oceans, exploring its depths. And finally Pluto ~ poor, poor Pluto. One can’t help but feel sorry for the planet, sorry, dwarf planet, subject to the worst astronomical shaming of our lifetime. But the joke is on us, as the planet ~ and the Disney dog ~ will outlive us all. Sam McLoughlin & Bridget Hayden’s closing piece grows curiouser as it progresses, with washes of strings that simultaneously warn and invite. This is the end of the solar system. Turn and go back. But don’t you want to see what’s on the other side?
With Ethereal Transects: The Lore of Celestial Objects, Folklore Tapes continues to make myth fun, excavating history in order to bring it back to life. Fittingly, the shape of a record is reminiscent of a sphere ~ although, in honor of ancient beliefs, it is also flat. (Richard Allen)