Hey, gang - to promote the July 13th WISE Hall appearance of the Melodic Energy Commission
, here's a piece of writing I did for Discorder a few years ago, when I was just getting started at this being-paid-nothing-for-talking-to-local-musicians game.
Time Slips Away: The Resurgence of the Melodic Energy Commission
An interview with Don Xaliman and Randy Raine-Reusch
by Allan MacInnis
I was a young punk kid into DOA and the Subhumans when a friend lent me a decidedly odd local LP, The Migration of the Snails, on which his relative, George McDonald, had played. A theme album, it featured song titles like “Gastropods in Transit” and “Escargot,” and had bizarre, snail-related album art. The music reminded me of progrock and Tangerine Dream at times, psychedelic rock at others, but had an arty, ethereal quality that defied easy pigeonholing, and I had no idea what some of the instruments listed on the back were (khaen? Gas and steam bass? Delatronics?). The strangeness of it stuck with me – but I didn’t spin it more than twice, and went back to listening to the Dead Kennedys.
Flash forward 23 years – 23 years filled with musical and psychopharmacological experimentation – and I’m standing at Cathedral Square, listening to a city-commissioned art project by Mercury Theatre III. George McDonald is playing a homemade Theremin as part of a space-noise jam, but I don’t recognize his name. A few months later, local musician Dan Kibke introduces me to George, in the audience at an Acid Mothers Temple show at Richards on Richards, but I’m preoccupied with practicing my Japanese by offering Makoto Kawabata a “special” cookie and still don’t clue in. A few months later still, Dan plays me a disc George is on, and the penny drops: “Wait a second – didn’t these guys once record an album called The Migration of the Snails?”
And so the old adage is proven correct: when the listener is ready, the musician will come, in this case in the form of the Melodic Energy Commission. Vancouver’s best-kept psychedelic secrets re-released their first two LPs, Stranger in Mystery (1979) and Migration of the Snails (1980) on one disc, Moonphase Compendium, in 1997. Last year, the core members of the band, Don Xaliman, George McDonald, and Randy Raine-Reusch (alongside a host of non-local collaborators) released a well-received new CD, Time Is a Slippery Concept, on Xaliman’s “indy audio video studio” label, Energy Discs They’re now set to actually try to get heard in the city that spawned them.
Describing their music is no easy feat. It’s pop music, to be sure, and spacy, but difficult to pin down otherwise. Raine-Reusch, who makes a “full-time career in the music biz,” as composer, musician, and writer, lists influences from “the Beatles, Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and the Dead,” to “African and Indian music, jazz, and blues.” He’s fronted a 30 piece didjeridu orchestra and has associated or played with avant-gardists as diverse as John Fahey, John Cage, Eugene Chadbourne, Mats Gustafsson, Jean Derome, and Pauline Oliveros. If you think you’re getting close to being able to categorize him, note that he also played various world instruments on Yes’ The Ladder and on Aerosmith’s album Pump (!), organized festivals in Borneo and has collaborated with Cirque du Soleil, Ann Mortifee, and Alpha YaYa Diallo. Like Don Xaliman (who recently “performed on faglung – a Filipino stringed instrument – for the governor general of Canada at the Chinese night market”), he is fond of traditional instruments from other cultures. On the new album he is credited with playing flutes, saling, balimbing, shakuhachi, dizi, duduk, and more – a pretty diverse list, given that the overall texture of the disc is electronic.
In case you still aren’t clear on just how difficult the MEC are to type, there’s a rap tune, too (“Beehive Jive,”) and a track, “For Sure,” that evokes Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore,” with Xaliman’s mystical vocal stylings – at least up until it starts to sound like an Indonesian gamelan orchestra. These guys are slippery, indeed.
Raine-Reusch, as accomplished a musician as he is, points out that Don Xaliman is “really the core of it all. We all do our own thing and get together when Xaliman calls us.” Xaliman, who also plays guitar, keyboards, and writes the band’s lyrics, described his process via email: “Over the years Commissioners at improv sessions have been enticed to display a heightened state of creative bliss and it’s sonically frozen in time,” and added to Xaliman’s sound library. Xaliman “restructures the cream to form a composition that never existed before. It's really an extraction process. Harmless, but capable of enhancing or distorting reality. That's why some people refer to our music as psychedelic: we have found ways to create psychotropically appearing musical soundscapes with and without actually consuming the elixir. ‘Psychedelic’ refers to the experience the listener receives, rather than the experience the musician is having. It's really just about painting mystical, magical, sonic scenery… At times the sound is made up of many layers of almost subliminal instrumentation. I use that method to create full and unusual ambience rather than just throw a bunch of reverb effects into the mix.”
Xaliman’s sources for the new album were recorded over a 20 year period, and include recordings he made of “2000 drummers at the Plaza of Nations and 100 people chanting Ohm in Kits House,” to which Randy added dulcimer and George, Theremin. As he says, “there are well over 2000 musicians on this album.”
The band owes much of its popularity in “European space-rock circles” to Del Dettmar, who, Xaliman explains, “learned his chops from playing sheets of synthesized sounds with Hawkwind for their first five albums.” Dettmar was in BC to make some money planting trees when he struck up a friendship with the MEC, and “helped put the music together for the first two albums. He had a British analog EMS Synthi and is a true wizard with a wand – a woodsman double headed axe with a big bass string clamped to the handle… Melodic Energy Commission was fortunate to have a brief ride on his cloak-tail, and even though we never sounded much like Hawkwind, we were well received for our imaginative textures.” Their long out-of-print LPs fetch hefty collectors’ prices in Europe, and their CDs are easier to find in stores there than here.
Another reason Vancouverites may not be so familiar with the MEC, as Xaliman explains, is that they’ve “rarely performed live as the Melodic Energy Commission, either here or anywhere else.” In 2005, they did a “music and laser improvisation at the Planetarium,” called 'Nearly See Clearly,’ which Xaliman recorded and may yet release. Otherwise, they hadn’t performed with all three core members since the mid-1980s, when they opened for Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band on their farewell tour, at the Commodore Ballroom. Xaliman proudly reports that the band got a “heartfelt standing ovation and an encore,” got to say hello to the Captain, and were compared to Gong by one of the band members. They also had fun eating the food and drinking the beer on the Captain’s rider.
I asked Xaliman about his philosophy of music. “Music has the potential of moving energy within our being and altering moods. It's like a movie where you get caught up in the comedy, adventure and dramatic ride. We want you to leave the theatre feeling that you experienced a good story and will come back someday. Like after an invigorating sonic massage. A refreshing vacation to the space between particles of time.”
As one might gather, there is a fondness for hippie culture in Xaliman, who likes “its tribal integrity and [the way it’s] morphed itself into a colourful street and village culture.” He says, “along with every other cultural influence that's swayed me, I am part hippie, part techno-traveller, and an alien crossbreed.” Raine-Reusch concurs: “a lot of the ideas of the early hippie movement I still live with: peace, harmony, the need to preserve nature.... I have a hard time with all the greed and war in the world at the moment.”
Given their music and values, one might be surprised to discover that the members of the band I talked to are not, in fact, big fans of drugs. Raine-Reusch’s mother was an alcoholic, so he “stayed away, except for a short and disastrous foray.” A Taoist since age 15, to enhance his perceptions he has “focused on deep meditation and trance.” Xaliman likewise says that he is “not into doing drugs,” and prefers thinking of their music as “Otherworld Music,” rather than “psychedelic.” (He coyly adds, however, “I sometimes partake in sacred herbs with psychoactive properties.”) During the peak of their live performances in the early 80s, they did drink a fair bit of alcohol, Xaliman notes. This phase was documented on a cassette called M=E/C2, and a rare 45 rpm single, distributed mostly in California and Scotland. “I never liked the mixes but the music truly rocks,” Xaliman says. “Recently I transferred the raw tracks to digital and am looking for a spot of time to mix them properly. They are so different that I may think up another band name for that project…”
George McDonald is “presently working way up north in Alberta, searching for oil,” and could not be reached for comment. Don says “he's built the most amazing Theremin and is anxious to perform with it and his electric guitar,” and will definitely be involved in future MEC projects. One release to look forward to, Congenial Twist, will be coming out this summer. Xaliman describes it as “joyous, mysterious instrumentals made with unusual sounds and instruments… composed for a magic and reptiles show. It will have an accompanying storybook for kids.”
Xaliman is also interested in video and visual art, and has been “intermittently exploring photography and graphics for posters and album covers, recently for Mantravani Orchestra, Orchid Ensemble, Richard Hite and the recent designs for Melodic Energy Commission.” Some of his work can be seen on their website, http://www.melodicenergy.com/
. The band is hopeful that the Internet will pave the way to their becoming better known; though Neptoon and Zulu stock their discs, most of their sales have, as of yet, happened through their site. Raine-Reusch’s website is at http://www.asza.com/
. MP3s of a few of their tracks are available at http://www.myspace.com/melodicenergycommission