Combat Astronomy is the brainchild of US-residing British musician James Huggett—plus an assorted cast of international instrumentalists, who together create an almighty free jazz-infused industrial metal racket. Though that was not always the case, as the noise they make today is in stark relief to the project’s solo beginnings, grounded in IDM and typified by waves of proto-melody and random electronic bleats, anchored by crushing beats in odd time signatures and some seriously gravity-distorting bass drops. Boards of Canada are an obvious influence on this earlier sound. Debut record Lunik (2001) comes across like a harder Geogaddi; woozy hypnagogic atmospheres, phantom number station samples and all. Meanwhile, the bludgeoning percussion could be a precursor to William Bennett‘s Afro Noise initiative, with harsh African-styled polyrhythms that wouldn’t sound out of place at a Cut Hands show. 2002’s follow-up Solar Radiation swaps the debt from the Warp roster to Kid606 and the razor-slashed glitch and breakcore scenes that were all the rage 10 years ago, mixing in more straight-forward rhythmic patterns and some industrial bass guitar rattle for good measure. That record was apparently unreleased for years, possibly because it’s so derivative, but it’s not an unrewarding listen.
At some point after that, Huggett re-tooled the project into a bass guitar-driven jazz/industrial/metal hybrid, learning to play fretless bass from scratch and collaborating with free improv saxophonist and clarinetist Martin Archer and other woodwind players to produce the skittery skronk of 2005’s Dematerialised Passenger, and the jazz fusion crossed with late-period King Crimson heavy prog of 2008’s Dreams No Longer Hesitate and 2010’s Earth Divided By Zero, both with vocal contributions from Elaine di Falco. More recently, 2011’s Flak Planet (previously reviewed here) drops the singing, and the beauty, for a more brutal sonic attack overall. While all retain some of the more psychedelic flourishes of the early material, the ensemble records are largely underpinned by jazz and rock drumming, and propelled by Huggett’s downtuned bass (Meshuggah is the direct reference here). The songs tend to lock into hypnotic grooves, with blurts of saxophone and clarinet adding background texture. At its best—and especially on Flak Planet—the effect is mammoth in scale.
Their latest, Kundalini Apocalypse, ignores the “space metal” digressions of 2011’s Barricades EP and doesn’t change substantially from Flak Planet‘s bass-drums-horns equation, though perhaps Huggett’s been listening to some Blind Idiot God in the interim; opener “Kundalini Dub” comes off like a funkier take on that band’s giant-slaying Cyclotron LP. He may also have been revisiting his formative works—the Boards of Canada vibe resurfaces on “Telos Reprise.” Di Falco’s vocals are back as a sonic element on the opener and “Path Finders,” but dehumanised: cut up, echoed, stretched, stuttered and otherwise manipulated into wordless sounds. Archer’s horns throughout are similarly mangled by Huggett’s magic boxes into dystopian spacecraft noises, or alien animal calls. The record’s strengths lie here, and in its multiple textures. There’s room for all the layers to be perceived, and it’s a credit to Huggett’s generous production job that the processed reeds aren’t completely drowned out by the pounding percussion (programmed but barely perceptible as so) and massive grinding bass that take centre stage.
However, and especially with players of such pedigree and a back catalogue that rewards exploration, it’s disappointing that Kundalini Apocalypse slips into troughs of boredom so easily. Much of the middle section from “Recoil” through “Quiet Mutiny,” “Telos” and the ponderous 10-plus minutes of “Orchard of the Snakes” blends into an indistinct blur of self-similar bass riffage that continues into “Wrong Wheels” and “Sequence Seven,” tracks only saved by much-needed changes in texture. Thankfully, the final quarter of the record is given over to “Cave War,” a sprawling, haunted space opera where the bass ebbs with menace below digitally damaged vocals (credited to the Juxtavoices choir), then leaps out and interweaves with Archer’s twisting, looping saxophone. The drum lines alternately pound and roll as the players playfully bounce the emphasis between them, from blistering sax solos over solid bass rumble to stabbing horn blurts as the bass groove takes over. It makes for an exhilarating climax to a mixed bag of a record.
Stream “Cave War”: