Friday, July 8, 2011

Mystical Journey: Shpongle on Tour

It seems everyone is a DJ these days. Throw on the latest Britney Spears “song”, stretch it three times the radio edit’s length, and liberally throw in some monotonous autoerotic come-ons. Jack up the speed, throw in a few more beats and be ready to pummel the average clubber into submission. The result is that clubbing is not just tiring, it’s a primal assault on the senses guaranteed to level the hardiest partier.

Thank goodness there are still adventurous electronica artists with Shpongle’s vision and ingenuity.

Formed in 1996 by Simon Posford, British musician and mastermind behind the noted electronic act Hallucinogen, and Raja Ram, co-creator of The Infinity Project and owner Tip Records, Shpongle started life as a downtempo electronica project. Their style has evolved organically from psychedelic conglomeration of analogue and digital sounds into a marriage of western psychedelic trance beats with aboriginal, Indian and Brazilian musical influences. Do not mistake this for now-trendy but faceless “world music” you’ll buy off the counter at your local Starbucks on impulse and play harmlessly at your next dinner party. The problem is that such music has no personality.  Shpongle is anything but that, do not confuse the two.

Posford (left) and Ram (right)

The band’s persona is that of a human face with the eyes layered and superimposed one over the top of the other to create a distinctive mask. One can’t help but be immediately faced with an alternate consciousness that recall both mind-altering psychedelic states and long-forgotten ethnic deities. In other words, unlike so many contemporary electronic artists, Shpongle are intent on giving their music its own multi-sensory signature and creating it organically, rather than building a set of remixes for other artists. This is not your mama’s electronic band, and certainly has a different philosophy than the “mix” that you run to at your local gym.

Posford’s background is unconventional by electronic artist standards. Trained as a sound engineer, Posford’s musical influences include psychedelic 70s rock bands such as Pink Floyd, The Cure and American humourist Bill Hicks. It’s not difficult to see the scale and influence reflected in the Shpongle oeuvre. He went to work as an engineer in the infamous Butterfly Studio in Brixton, under the tutelage of pioneering dance music artist and Killing Joke bassist Martin Glover, better known as Youth. It was here that Posford honed the art of creating psychedelic trance music under the stage name Hallucinogen. Posford then went on to found Twisted Records in 1996, which since has been the home to Shpongle and other boundary-breaking electronic artists such as Ott, Prometheus and Younger Brother.

What separates Shpongle’s music is the group’s fearless creation of sonic soundscapes. Posford and Ram are above simply sampling or looping already-familiar beats and lazily attaching a dance beat to it. They bring a sense of humour, playfulness and respect for both major sonic ingredients into the mix, co-mingling them without isolating them or mashing them into an interminable torture chamber piece. The instrumentation is organic and incorporates tribal chants, aborigine influences, Bollywood, Spanish guitar and a light touch – nay, a caress – ensuring that the beat doesn’t beat down the listener. The mind-altering scale of their works would certainly, in their sensibility, perfectly accompany reading works by Richard Dawkins, Robert Anton Wilson and Carl Sagan, all of whom Posford counts amongst his favourite authors. Their interest is in creating an experience with the music, one that transports the listener beyond the confines of the club and into a higher state of consciousness. Their oeuvre has been described as “mind-altering”, and their very name is a colloquialism denoting consciousness-bending euphoria.

Shpongletron, under construction
To ensure that they create a true audiovisual experience for their devotees, Shpongle have embarked on their Sphongletron Experience tour, which features Posford performing in a fifteen-foot-tall LED-laced video-screen-besotted set replicating the band’s mask. When one attends a Shpongle show, one does not merely sit and watch someone hunkered down at a computer with headphones: this artist knows how to put on a show. There is a dizzying array of photographs on the band’s Facebook page depicting the amazing light show that accompany their sets. Rather than relying on the local venue’s lighting crew to create the show’s effects, Shpongle create their own lighting and wield the vision of their shows, forging a perfect harmony between sight and sound that does not exist to induce seizure. This is a cutting-edge audiovisual experience within a unique structure. A Shpongle spectacle is designed specifically to exhibit the intricate, crisp layers of their music. For a look at The Shpongletron Experience, check out this clip previewing the tour.

Shpongle are currently on tour and stop in the Blogger’s hometown of Vancouver on July 14, 2011, at the Vogue Theatre. General admission tickets are available in person at the Theatre’s box office. You can find more information on Shpongle on their official YouTube channel. They also have an active MySpace page which you can check out here. Take note that Posford’s DJ gig at Celebrities Nightclub in the summer of 2010 was completely sold out, and that’s without the one-of-a-kind visual experience.