Avant-garde metal continues to gush forth from New York City at an unprecedented rate, and the latest manifestation comes in the form of the trio Titan to Tachyons. The rhythm section consists of what one might call usual suspects for this kind of act, specifically drummer Kenny Grohowski (Imperial Triumphant, Secret Chiefs 3, various John Zorn projects) and guitarist Matt Hollenberg (Cleric, John Frum, Simulacrum), here playing bass. These two join somewhat recent Big Apple transplant Sally Gates (ex-Gigan, ex-Orbweaver) to complete the group. Their debut, Cactides, is a science fiction-inspired album of instrumental metal out this week via Nefarious Industries.
While Gates’ previous bands were certainly experimental, they were also firmly rooted in death metal. As an instrumental trio, Titan to Tachyons are not constrained by such subgenre designations, and while certainly heavy, they venture quite far afield right from the start. Album opener “Morphing Machineminds” is a thoroughly mashed-up take on metal and jazz, with an unmistakable nod to the kind of psychedelia that informs their sci-fi inspirations. The riffs are heavy, but they swing, fusing the doomy groove of Black Sabbath’s “Into the Void” with Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine.” But this quickly gives way to slinky avant-noir guitar work, before the heaviness returns just as swiftly with an oddly-timed sludge riff. This is challenging music, though a head-nodding groove is nevertheless omnipresent. Whether the drums are blasting or performing a bit of free percussion, the flow of ideas almost reminds one of some sort of demented waltz. Then in the middle, Grohowski unleashes a blast beat while the bass and guitar wail freely. The shift should feel abrupt, but it doesn’t. From here we get bits of Mr. Bungle-inspired free funk and noise rock cadences, all finding their way back to free blasting and those infectious swinging riffs as well. What’s most surprising is the coherence with which it all hangs together.
“The Starthinker is Obsolete” pushes the limits even more. Without lyrics, one can only construct an individual interpretation of such a song title, and how does the music play into such imaginings? Caspar Brötzmann-style slabs of discordant guitar alternate with clean-toned slips across the fretboard, yet the group finds another doom riff with which to anchor the tune before it becomes incoherent. There are even moments when the combined motion of the trio reminds one of Primus at their heaviest. “Tycho Magnetic” opts for a more melodic approach, as memorable as it is unusual. The material is still quite heavy, but nuanced with strange guitar tones. The band then works this base material through multiple mutations, sometimes chopping it into smaller fragments and others working it through cleaner tones which have a Secret Chiefs 3 vibe.
The fourth track, “Earth, and Squidless,” once again starts in a Primus-ish zone, but in a matter of moments the guitar seems to conjure shades of the Melvins, Dazzling Killmen and Marc Ribot, almost simultaneously. Unbelievably, this all occurs in the first two minutes. Once again, Titan to Tachyons hit on many points of interest during the journey of a single song, but they have a way of finding points of familiarity along the way, allowing the listener to feel like they are not being left behind.
The album closes with “Everybody’s Dead, Dave,” a looser, more improv-based piece which includes guest Trevor Dunn on bass. It starts off quieter than what came before, but possesses a more sinister vibe. When the band more directly engages Gates’ guitar, things get more aggressive, still in free time. When they leave again, she finds a melodic figure that seems to conjure the feeling of floating in unknown space. The others drop in and out, like astronomical objects bouncing off of one another. The guitar figure returns at key moments and at one point sets Dunn up for a stunning bass solo. He and Grohowski spar in a bout of fascinating interplay before Gates takes the helm again, now improvising variations on the theme she discovered earlier. The piece slowly winds down with strange guitar effects and bass rumblings, like the stellar event we witnessed fading into the distance.
With Cactides, Titan to Tachyons have set their controls for the heart of a very alien sun. One can always ponder how instrumental music can actually be “about” something when there are no lyrics, yet with music like this, words might have just gotten in the way of the experience. This isn’t music inspired by the science fiction of Star Wars or The Jetsons, this is closer kin to Stanley Kubrick’s take on Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Philip K. Dick’s Valis trilogy. Cactides revels in its weirdness, and the atmosphere it generates is as compelling as the musicianship is astounding.