It's Not You--I Just Need Some Space
In Donald Barthelme's short story "Game," two military officers are manning the command console of an underground nuclear missile silo. Although each man possesses a .45 in case the other becomes unhinged, they treat each other quite cordially and professionally. At first. But 133 days into their confinement, the .45s no longer seem a cautious formality. One of the officers crouches on the floor, playing jacks for hours, refusing to share them with his pleading bunker mate. The denied officer finds purpose in writing a 4,500-word technical description of a baseball bat on the bunker walls. At one point the commanding officer straddles the launch console in nothing but a black bathing suit, stretching his arms in a futile attempt to simultaneously turn the two launch keys (his partner, having already made the same attempt, is not alarmed).
At one point in the story, the narrator simply states, "I am not well."
When local space-rock quintet Dallas Orbiter learned that they would be playing last May's Heliotrope Festival at Franklin Art Works, they decided to construct a droning instrumental piece that would follow the story line of "Game." They knew full well that the abstract relationship between their music and Barthelme's words would be vague at best to the audience, even among those who may have actually read "Game." That's the whole point.
Like the protagonist in "Game," the five guys in Dallas Orbiter may not be "well." And in the sense that they have lost interest in making music that is familiar and expected, or worse yet, "normal," you should be damn glad.
You should be especially glad for Magnesium Fireflies (Princess Records), the band's third release since forming in 2000. Aside from having one of coolest album titles to come out of the Minneapolis music scene in recent years, Magnesium Fireflies magically melds the mystic experimentalism of Pink Floyd, the quirky playfulness of the Flaming Lips, and the honey-soaked harmonies of the Hang Ups. Yet, the richly layered songs on this album never seem overly ambitious or offbeat just for the sake of being offbeat. Sure, there are plenty of pulsating beeps and warbling echoes dancing at the edges of the songs, the kind of effects that have contributed to Dallas Orbiter's categorization as a "spaced-out, psychedelic rock band," as singer-guitarist Mark Miller puts it. But those effects enter the ear like a tipsy whisper, a cosmic sweet nothing, rather than some sort of grating Death Star free jam.
At a recent Thursday-night practice session, Miller sits hunched over a Rhodes piano in the studio that he and the rest of the band built in drummer Greg Flanagan's basement. He slowly rubs his cheek as he struggles to find just the right words to describe his band--and as cool as he tries to play it, it's quite clear he loves this band. Stocky with a wide, face-consuming smile, Miller looks a bit like Jack Black, but with eyes that show just a little more warmth than the comic actor reveals. To his left, Flanagan and keyboardist Jon Schmig are sitting next to the band's computer (one of the more heavily used "instruments" in Dallas Orbiter's arsenal). Eric Lodahl, the "chronically hired and fired web developer," who has a much more permanent job playing organ and guitar with the band, is lurking in a dimly lit corner. Bassist Dan Gahres is sick at home, but he's mentioned often. Everyone's coat stays on for the entire evening, being that the temperature in this cramped studio seems to be hovering around 55 degrees. But there is a palpable warmth and affection between these guys.
In contrast to some of the "intellectual" noise-rock that Dallas Orbiter has been compared to, you'll actually want to listen to all eight songs on Magnesium Fireflies--each and every one. The euphoric weightlessness of a song like "Arise," with its catchy-as-hell refrain, "Arise, magnesium fireflies," imbeds itself into your subconscious playlist practically from the very instant of its explosive opening.
Then, on the very next song, "So Pretty," the band demonstrate their sonic and thematic dexterity, exposing an unexpectedly raw and intimate side. When Miller softly croons, "You're so pretty when you're digging my grave," you can almost feel his breath on your ear, the thin tenor of his voice adding an eerie poignancy to the understated resentment. Miller says much of Magnesium Fireflies touches on the disillusionment and unfathomable complexity that inevitably surfaces in every relationship. He sheepishly admits that his own recent divorce is heavily represented on this album.
By the time you get to the rambling epic "The Kids," with its plodding bass thuds and hovering minimalist guitar lines, you feel as if you've settled in for a few slow-speed laps around Jupiter, the Earth just a smudge on your rearview. You've come a long way.
"There's a lot to listen to. If you see us load in for a show, there's two complete truckloads of gear," explains Flanagan.
When you gaze upon the constellation of effects pedals that litters their practice room floor, it comes as no surprise to learn that three members of Dallas Orbiter earned bachelor's degrees in music recording technology from the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. Everyone in the band met at UW in the early 1990s, but it took nearly a decade for these old friends to come to their senses and play together as Dallas Orbiter.
Although Magnesium Fireflies represents something of a "return to structure" as compared to their last release, the more experimental Dallas Orbiter in a Vat of Laser, the band is cagey when asked to predict what their next recording might sound like. But they do provide a glimpse of what could be involved.
"We've got six hours of recordings that are just us banging on instruments with tools we found in the shop," Miller says. "We've sort of developed our own language, and when you've done that you don't want to give it up, because it's so rare."
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