Like “Arboreal” by The Flashbulb, this album is one that immediately seized me and has maintained a lasting draw, despite the fact that there are a few tracks on here that are definite throw-aways for me.
This album came out in 2004 and the album name suggests the tone within; a whole lot of riffing on space and cosmology. But unlike, say, Symphony of Science, this guy makes use of wickedly cool nerd samples without being cheesy about it. I do love me some Symphony of Science, but let’s be honest; it’s cheesy. What’s on this album is a hipper approach to melding science and music…
I should clarify what I said in the opener: the tracks on here with the female vocals really sound dated, to my ear. They’re something reminiscent of 1990′s BT production. Which I listened to maybe a few times too many and now I’m just finished with that sound. So perhaps to someone else, those cuts wouldn’t grate as hard.
But oh man, when Sheehan gets it right, he nails it. And in a way that I’m super into. It’s electronic music through and through, with something interplanetary in the sound palette. It shares that “we’re totally in outer space while we’re listening to this” vibe that Visit Venus had, but it’s not a retro 60s sound, it’s more of a late 90s, early 2000s electronica sound. Upon hearing this album, I went and checked out the rest of his catalog, but was unable to find anything like this album (again like the Flashbulb, the thing I latch onto seems to be a one-off).
Sheehan makes good use of ambient sounds. Which makes sense because film scores are apparently his main thing. The intro track to the album is a dreamy ambient affair with the muffled sounds of airport announcements in the background. It’s something that sets the tone, making you feel like we’re about to depart somewhere. Somewhere dreamy.
Track two busts right into the meat. Carl Sagan’s distinctive inflection questions: “How… Did the Universe… Arise? …. What was around… Before that? … Might there have beennn. No… beginning? … Could the Universe be… Infinitely. Old?” There’s some kind of surreal but subtle effect on his voice too that seems to precede his words in a captivating way. Then the beat drops and Carl Sagan gets peppered around for a while as the vibe marinates. At 1:50 when that first quote gets reintroduced, it feels good; like it’s something you could be piloting a futuristic space fighter over the surface of an alien world to, looking all badass.
Track four, Phobos, weaves together a lovely multicolored yarn of samples, with subtle piano, hand drums, etheral vocals, and maybe a couple other electronic sounds I can’t put my finger on. Then it ends with this long-ass movie quote with minimal music behind it, neither building up nor breaking down, which something which I always find tedious (I’m looking at you James Warren). Fortunately this long-winded speech is the exception to the rule on this album.
Cut number seven, entitled “Cosmology” opens up with a set of 4 repeating chords from a string section, building into a grooving lounge-type beat with vibraphone and guitar. And booyah, Carl is back, this time offering “the current scientific story of the universe” in which he explains the big bang theory as only he can. Although it certainly doesn’t hurt that Carl has masterful oratory skillZ (that’s skills with a capital Z), I think a key component here is the fact that the music builds and swells along with what he is talking about. The energy changes as his discussion goes on, which is kind of a fascinating format that I wish I knew more examples of. It’s like a long speech about interesting things, wrapped inside of a changing groove that switches density to add or subtract emphasis from the speech. That’s in contrast to what I was complaining about before, where a long expository quote tramples over the music; the equivalent of a one sided conversation where the music just can’t get a word in. That the music flows in tandem *with* the oratory is a pivotal distinction.
“Degrees of Freedom” is also worthy of note; a pleasant, flowing groove that uses acoustic guitar above a mellow four on the floor beat.
And then there’s my favorite jam on the album, called “System”. We hear astronaut samples for the first time, and it works so beautifully I really wish there were more cuts just like this. The song uses acoustic guitar and strings alongside a series of synthetic sounds in a very impressive melding of these disparate elements. The mood it sets is one perfectly suited to the “magnificent desolation” as Buzz Aldrin described. A kind of yearning but still graceful and full of wonder.
This is a great album, full of musical cues that transport the mind on a journey across space and time, unlike anything else I can name. The two tracks marrying Carl Sagan samples with sweeping music that neither overwhelms his words, nor falls limply behind them–all while avoiding coming off as cheesy–make it a memorable listen alone. That Sheehan goes on to populate his odyssey with other compositions which stand on their own merits as clever sci-fi/science-y mashups make this album required listening for all nerdy types. This one is a touchstone for me, for all the reasons detailed herein.