Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sensor Scan: Space Ritual

There's a certain set of expectations that are put in place when you put on a record with a title like Space Ritual. These are further heightened when you glance at album artwork like that, which has got to be one of the most gorgeously mind-warping bits of sleeve design I've ever seen. So suffice to say I guess I expected that whatever this album was going to sound like it simply had to be some kind of consciousness-elevating, perspective shifting head trip. What I experienced was not quite what I anticipated, but an experience Space Ritual certainly is.

Music is one of the hardest things for me to write about, and it aggravates me no end. Probably nothing resonates with me as powerfully as music does, but it evokes such a complex tapestry of emotions, moods and imagery for me I often find myself unable to translate my feelings into anything resembling coherent language. I'm no musicologist or music critic and maybe that has something to do with it, but either way, no place do I feel the torment of Avital Ronell's ethereal phantom dictator than when I try to say something intelligent about music. I always end up feeling like the protagonist of William Shatner's “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, haplessly and fruitlessly trying to describe enlightenment to someone who didn't experience it firsthand. I'm also once again handicapped by the fact I'm writing about a group of artists I'm not especially familiar with and feel woefully underqualified to actually talk about.

But even so there are a fair amount of interesting things I was able to notice about Hawkwind's Space Ritual even given my limited experience with the band that slot the album very nicely into the cultural zeitgeist of the early 1970s. Hawkwind, firstly, are a UK-based rock outfit who combine elements of Psychedelia, acid rock and prog rock and who are usually credited as the originators of space rock, which fuses all of these disparate sounds together through an interest in science fiction motifs. While this isn't the kind of space rock I'm familiar with (which uses a lot more electronic instruments, distortion and overdubbing) it is quite an apt description of what Hawkwind sound like. With their heady themes and incredibly skilled guitar shredding, Hawkwind are also seen as the intermediate step between the Hippies of the Long 1960s and the Punks of the Long 1980s. They were also one of the most laudably workmanlike bands of their time, regularly doing one show every three days and once playing five consecutive nights for free outside, not at, the Isle of Wright Festival. Space Ritual itself isn't an album in the traditional sense: It's a double-disc live album chronicling a night from Hawkwind's 1972-3 tour to support their Doremi Fasol Latido album. However, like so many great live albums, Space Ritual holds together perfectly on its own to the point it more than overshadows the records it's ostensibly trying to support.

That Space Ritual is a recording of a concert is key to grasping its impact, as it really does feel like this kind of music is meant to be shared with a live audience. Apparently the Space Ritual show was a gigantic multimedia extravaganza with a full visual component that the actual performance was but one component of. This does seem to hurt the version of Space Ritual we can listen to today a bit, however: Without the full stage experience, the album comes across on more than one occasion feeling like a soundtrack, and a soundtrack that doesn't *quite* stand on its own. It is something of a shame there doesn't (to my knowledge) exist any video of the show to go along with the album. It feels like something's missing without it. But even without seeing the visual accompaniment, it's clear Space Ritual was a hell of a show, and that translates into a pretty incredible album as it.

Hawkwind refer to themselves not as musicians, but “musicnauts”, and Space Ritual is ostensibly a rather loose narrative about travellers frozen in suspended animation and sent on a faraway journey throughout the deepest reaches of outer space set against the backdrop of an exploration of the concept of the music of the spheres, the idea that all celestial bodies have a kind of fundamental resonance and that, when taken together, the universe itself generates a kind of music. This music isn't audible as much as it is an extension of fundamental mathematical truths that organise the natural world. Tacitly, Hawkwind has these themes stated by author Robert Calvert, who recites some pieces of sci-fi poetry to introduce different sections of the performance. Calvert was one of the “New Wave” of science fiction authors who were among the first to come out of Psychedelia and attempted to blend that sort of philosophy with the tropes and ideas of science fiction and was a lifelong friend of Michael Moorcock (who even wrote the song “Sonic Attack” for this album). On Space Ritual however, Calvert actually winds up feeling largely extraneous, as his observations feel a bit overly futurist and facile at times.

But the heart and soul of everything is Hawkwind's instrumentation. This is certainly some of the most inventive and skilled riffing I've ever heard, creating an echoey, droning sense of space that sucks you in and propels you forever forward. This is reinforced by a neverending percussive Motorik beat all throughout Space Ritual that Hawkwind delightfully refer to as the heart of their starship's engines. Motorik, for those unfamiliar with it, is a term referring to a specific 4/4 beat typically associated with Krautrock meant to evoke a sense of movement. It's usually most associated with Kraftwerk's 1974 Autobahn album and its imitators, where the Motorik beat is literally used to represent the feeling of driving on an autobahn, although Neu!'s debut album from 1971 is probably more properly called the codifier of the style. On Space Ritual, Hawkwind blend their Motorik beat with their already impressive guitar work to create a soundscape that really does feel as if it's going ever onwards towards infinity.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about the music of the spheres conceit on this album. On the one hand it's a delightful concept to think about, but on the other hand it has, to me, rather troubling connections to things like “sacred geometry” that, combined with the concept's links to esoteric Christianity (not to mention Calvert's overly blunt paeans to sci-fi futurism on the album itself), tend to make Space Ritual feel like a very straightforwardly Western approach to mysticism. The West of course has its own long and interesting tradition of spiritual heresy that shouldn't be entirely discounted, but I personally tend to be a bit sceptical of any approach that leans too heavily on things like Platonic Ideals and the Greco-Roman conception of math and logic as some sort of fundamental Truth about the universe. The way I see it, that way lies Scientism.

But on the other hand, I'm not going to pretend I'm not rather fascinated by a philosophy that's positing music as something that links humans with a larger cosmic consciousness. Shamans have been telling us that for milennia. And that's where Space Ritual truly lives up to its title in my opinion: This is an album that, on the whole, works very well if you tune out of your conscious awareness: It is very, very reminiscent of a kind of musical gathering called a drone or a trance session, where musicians come together and improvise a performance on the spot simply by becoming attuned to each other's movements and sound. Just as in a real shamanistic group trance, participants have a heightened or altered state of awareness where they're more in tune with each other and their own spirituality than external forces. That's why I would imagine this worked so well as a live performance, especially given the band's Psychedelia-tinged history: An entire arena-sized concert of people tuned into something like Space Ritual would have been something pretty incredible to be a part of. That's where the music of the spheres stuff really works: Hawkwind used this show as a concert-sized trance session in an attempt to attune them and their audience to the inner workings of the cosmos. Whether or not they were successful can really only be decided by the people who were there.

The other intriguingly noteworthy thing about Space Ritual is that Hawkwind are very much a working class kind of act: Their behaviour during their tour alone makes that clear. This is an outfit that has been quite rightly described as “the people's band”. This is possibly the most important thing about this show: Hawkwind are clearly positioning themselves as working class mystics. This even explains Bob Calvert's cheesy, blustery spoken word introductions, because this means we're right back in the territory of William Shatner and The Transformed Man. Just as Shatner's character was ultimately unable to describe his apotheosis in an elegant manner, nor should Calvert or Hawkwind be expected to put theirs into words either. “Space Is Deep” indeed. Just let their music speak for them and come aboard. Space Ritual is yet another sign science fiction and outer space mean something different to us now and, furthermore, it's proof Star Trek really was on the right track near the end there.


  1. I came across this album during my college-age krautrock binge, and it was, primarily, that propulsive and percussive motorik that drew me to it. The concept and visuals behind it didn't really begin to interest me until later listenings. But of course, as you point out, the performance was a Space RITUAL and not merely an aural account of space. And for it to be a ritual, you have to be present, which sadly we can't today. But this is the closest thing we have. I've long thought that the mark of a good live album is that it makes you wish you were there to see it, which Space Ritual certainly does.

    Of course, to most people (or at least most Americans), Hawkwind is primarily known as "the band Lemmy was in before Motorhead." Though this is understandable - Motorhead is more populate in the U.S. And there is at least one important parallel: Hawkwind has always been the psych band that punks also liked, while Motorhead has always been the metal band that punks also liked. He is, in any case, a huge part of the sound here, straddling the line between bassist and rhythm guitarist. Not that every member of the ensemble wasn't important, of course.

    I am inclined to think, as I think you are, that the poetry interludes succeed because of their cheesiness rather than in spite of them. I particularly like the Dalek-like interjections in "Sonic Attack."

    1. Hawkwind is primarily known as "the band Lemmy was in before Motorhead."

      For me (predictably) the Moorcock connection is the primary association.

  2. At the time, the intended audience for the album would have been expected to supply their own visual spectacle with the aid of their psychoactive chemicals of choice.

    I've been a fan of Hawkwind for ages, and I love this album in particular, but I would be wary of any attempt to discern any coherent philosophy behind it all. Hawkwind were more about playing with whatever ideas came to hand, whether through sci-fi, drugs or the pseudoscientific mystical zeitgeist, than any kind of deeply considered philosophy. Musically, they are doing their exuberant best to fuck the audience up, and they blast the audience with ideas just as much as with light and sound.

    My abiding memory of my first Hawkwind gig was the instrumental opening, during which a dancer came on stage in a luminous skeleton outfit. Pretty cheesy, but you should have heard the shrieks dotted around the concert hall of the people whose acid had just kicked in and were utterly terrified by this sight. You can bet the band knew exactly what they were doing when they thought that one up.