All jokes about Spinal Tap pushed aside, it’s hard to get around the fact that the Ozric Tentacles are British. This makes all the difference in… well… the world.
It informs every level of their existence, and altogether separates them from their American counterparts — not making them any better or worse, just establishing an alternate set of rules. The Ozrics formation, nearly 20 years ago, places them at a much different starting point, both musically and culturally than American jambands.
Where bands in the U.S. mostly grew mostly out of a suburban culture yearning for something more meaningful, the Ozrics emerged from the U.K.‘s anarchistic festival scene that flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s. Sounding somewhere across between modern-day summer festivals and the legendary Burning Man, these events often found bands – impromptu and professional – setting up, unannounced, at all corners of the sites. It was at one of these gatherings – near Stonehenge, appropriately – that the Ozrics were born.
The band’s music – a psychedelic electronic fusion not wholly unrelated to the Disco Biscuits, Lake Trout, Sector 9, and all those fellas – predates all of the so-called trance fusion bands and does much the same thing. One gets the impression that to the Ozrics – or, at least, bassist Zia Geelani, with whom I spoke – none of their own music seems particularly revolutionary.
That doesn’t, of course, mean that it doesn’t sound or original. From his modest reactions to questions on the phone, one gets the sense that the Ozrics approach to an electronic fusion is the most natural thing in the world. With forerunners like the sadly overlooked proto-electronic wizards Gong, this might just be the case. As U.K. festivals transmogrified into raves, the Ozrics continued to mature, connected more intimately to a genuine electronic scene than their American counterparts who seem to be attempting to graft themselves to it with gusto.
In any situation, the music is pretty free of most basic structural conventions that even the most experimental (non free-jazz) bands tend to stick to. Their musical language is quite different. Just as an American dialect morphed out of the King’s English over time, eventually transforming into something quite different, the music of the Ozric Tentacles has grown into a mutated kind of progressive instrumental music. Where preprogrammed beats are almost unheard of in American improvised music, the Ozrics employ them as a natural part of their sound.
Tracks wind about over a pulsing electronic bed, more composed than anything else. In places, the band’s reliance on synthesizers and processed guitar sounds can sound dated, but the overall effect is hypnotic and does well to paint surreal soundscapes and pull the listener through them.
In Britain, their flights of fancy have won them a distinct cult following, free of major publicity, hit singles, music videos, and all those other trappings. As the band continues to tour year in and year out, they continue to push their creative boundaries. With the release of their 19th album, “the Hidden Step” (Phoenix Rising) comes an American tour, ready to launch on October 24th at the Paradise in Boston. If the growth of the new electronic-influenced bands in the past year is any indication, people will eat the Ozrics alive.
And, yes, they’re still British. As I pulled myself out of bed on a lazy Saturday afternoon to dial the 18 digits required to get me on the phone with the theater the band was playing at in Brighton, a cheery English voice greeted me. “Have you called about the interview?” it inquired.
“Great! Let me just patch you through then…”
I was soon put through to Zia Geelani, the bassist for the quintet, who – not surprisingly – spoke with a soothing British accent, pleasantly measuring his thoughts, and taking his time with his responses. Throughout, Geelani seemed just as interested in the differences between the Ozrics and American bands as his awkwardly probing interviewer. After the interview proper was over, Geelani proceeded to inquire into the makings of the American scene…
JJ: Your music doesn’t seem to follow standard song structure, but it all seems to sort of have this unified language to it. How did that evolve?
ZG: Well, standard structure generally involves vocals, if you’re talking about anything remotely commercial these days. One reason for the way it’s evolved is because we don’t have vocals. We concentrate on the structure of the music more than the standard band would. That’s where we find new avenues, new ways of looking at sounds and using them, because the emphasis is all on them and not on a vocal, do you see what I mean? So, it kind of evolves for that reason.
Also, we like a massive selection of all sorts of music, including ethnic instrumental music and African, Indian, Chinese… you name it. We incorporate all these different styles and ultimately that produces the kind of cacophony we make. (Laughs.)
JJ: What’s the song-writing process like?
ZG: There are two routes, normally, to the way we make the music. One is to simply get in the studio together and just jam. And, from that jam – all those jams – we’ll kind of divide it up and listen to the best bits and work out how to tie them altogether and make it sound good. From there, comes a track basically. It’s a very organic process. You start and you don’t know how it’s going to end.
For example, if a good drum track is found, we’ll keep that drum track and add all sorts of different ideas to it, some of which might never have been in the original jam but might have evolved out of listening to it over and over, you see.
The other way is to program tracks beforehand – all programmed drums based a lot on sequence – which is a much more cerebral approach. It’s not immediate like a jam. That’s basically the two ways we do music, really.
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