Vibracathedral Orchestra - Wisdom Thunderbolt (VHF CD)
Is this the first new VHF release in a while, or have I just not been paying attention? Same for the VCO too - they went pretty quiet for a while after undergoing some serious personnel swaps, but they've come back mighty strong on this album (their first on VHF since 2004's triple CD-R set "Pontiac Lady). I was wondering if it was gonna be curtains for the group, after co-founder Neil Campbell left in 2006, shortly followed by Bridgette Hayden's departure. I'm still not 100% sure on the status now because the seven tracks on "Wisdom Thunderbolt" ain't exactly brand new themselves. Both Campbell and Hayden are here in addition to mainstays Mick Flower and Adam Davenport. Throwing their weight behind the quartet include heavy-hitters like Matthew Bower, Chris Corsano, Pete Nolan, and John Godbert. Woof.
For a record that could conceivably be the group's finale (though I doubt it will be), "Wisdom Thunderbolt" provides an excellent summary of almost all facets hitherto explored by the collective. In their decade-plus of activity, the VCO have touched on everything from krautrock and psychedelia to noise and punk rock to stoner rock and La Monte Young drone levitation, and they're all on display here, oftentimes in the same song. Most noteworthy is the sprawling 12-minute centerpiece "Rainbow Whirlwind", carving out strobing synthesizer shudder against an achoring near-beat more akin to a CD player skipping. The group splash generous helpings of cymbal, bell, and chime chatter over top, before the electricity of Flower's guitar lines drive the piece out into aforementioned psych/raga spaced-out territories akin to the drawn out, melted-sound symphonies that take place on "Pontiac Lady" or the "Live on WFMU" LP. The group visit this sound a couple more times on the album, particularly on "Ochre Dust" featuring a subdued Matt Bower or "A Natural Fact": a great piece of bluesy jamming akin to the Dead tag-teaming with Les Rallizes in an opium den somewhere. Unfortunately the quality of the recording is markedly poor, and phases out almost entire the usually devastating effect of Chris Corsano's robotic stomps.
The group also hint at the pseudo-"world" music references (particuarly African and Indian) they've previously checked on tracks like "Packhorse" in the past - dig the snakey tribal percussion and flutes infecting "Order of the Broad Eraser" (skewed by expanding electronic gulps) and the sidewalk celebration of closer "What!!!", at least before it drops off into a gnarled and eerie venture into dark woods with Hayden's moaning vocals working hard to conjure up visions of spectres and the like. On the title track, an 8-bit guitar (?) loop lends a vaguely-rockist air to the otherwise folkish, starry-eyed ecstacy that takes place, but the sound never fully manifests itself until "Sway-Sage", the best argument for VCO as rock n' roll heroes to date. Similar to "Baptism > Bar > Blues" from 2005's "Tuning to the Rooster", it begins with a brief clip of something clearly lifted from another artist. In this case it's an 8-second excerpt from a 70's classic rock anthem I can't identify, before the group go full throttle amidst cries of "woo!" (band or audience, I'm not sure which) and guest Pete Nolan's furious drumming that sounds almost exactly like John Bonham on "Rock and Roll" - how apropos.
While I'm sure some people have thought past VCO releases to be a chore to get through, I can't imagine anyone saying the same of "Wisdom Thunderbolt" - the album's diverse and colorful enough to keep anyone transfixed, and I wouldn't be afraid of saying this is their most accessible album yet (ever?). If, for whatever reason, you find the gravy to be in Vibracathedral's droning, longform, meditative excursions, this record probably isn't for you...but if you want to hear the group clearly at the peak of their creative abilities, putting any other imitators to shame in the process with their highly-attuned sense of interplay and exchange...well then welcome aboard.