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Music Review: Groundtruther – Altitude

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I'm always amazed at the money that's thrown into cutting-edge science. The investments have given us super-powerful computers, the space shuttle, incredible advancements in medical technologies, and all manner of consumer products. Though I'm not that much of a space buff, the science of the SETI project has always interested me. There's something both inspiring and more than a little creepy about an array of antennae listening for signals coming from extra-terrestrial lifeforms. Maybe someday, we'll find out…

Nah, it'll never happen. Not as long as Groundtruther is in business. After listening to this music, I'm fairly certain that Messrs. Hunter, Previte and Medeski have figured out how to intercept the incoming signals: and the results are being filtered through their instruments.

In fact, I can now reveal that I was lucky enough to attend the recording session. The event's broken down location made me a little nervous, but my fears vanished once I stepped inside.

The three musicians had set up their equipment in a huge abandoned warehouse. Apparently, they've discovered that a cheap & easy way to pick up the signals is to wrap some tinfoil around a big chrome pipe that's suspended up near the ceiling (Shhh…the secret technical term for this is a "Warsaw Radio Mast." Calibration of the receiving mast is quite simple, the tinfoil wrapping just needs to be slid down the pipe in either direction). Some heavy shielded cables snaked from one end of the pipe down to a black box located behind John Medeski's mellotron. Word has it that the box holds a very sophisticated amplifier that properly boosts the incoming waveforms to useful levels. The thing must take a lot of power because fat lines are taped to the floor, running all the way out to the back of the building where several diesel generators are located.

Despite all of this high & low technology, the music is surprisingly organic (and loud!). Much of this is due to the group's collective ability to groove hard no matter what abusive sheets of sound are slung out from the other members — basslines swoop, blirpy noises blurp, guitar figures attempt to respond before decaying into the distance, and the moog drops handfuls of sound shards all over the cracked concrete floor. Those adjectives taken in total might imply a kind of chaos but the music holds together much more tightly than that.

In fact, by the time the guys begin to close out the first hour, it seems that they try to clear the air of abstraction a bit by rocking out with "Empire State." This must have pissed off one of the locals because somebody punctured the generators' diesel tanks…and there went the power.

There is no record of what transpired during the time between this catastrophic outage and the official restart of the recording session (the guys wouldn't let me into the back room), but clearly Groundtruther was inspired. Without the background whirrr of those engines, the instruments really shimmer in the wet echo of that warehouse. John Medeski switches to piano, Previte to an all acoustic kit, and Hunter to the acoutic guitar. Undeterred by the enforced shift of aural venue, the level of interplay is ratcheted upwards. Piano arpeggios chime into the air as the acoustic guitar attempts to fashion a mating pattern, and the drums shift roles from rhythmic to melodic instrument and back. There are indeed moments of seeming chaos and violence ("Tectonic Revolution"), creepy soundscapes (just what the hell is going on with the chanting in "Cold Seep"?), as well as extreme & ominous beauty ("Subduction Mode").

After going over my notes, I discovered that a few facts needed to be straighted out. I wanted to ask Charlie Hunter to comment on the amazing versatility of Groundtruther, especially given the adversity endured that evening in the warehouse. Also at the top of my list were the Warsaw Radio Mast and that black box.

My calls were not returned.

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About Mark Saleski

  • Wow! How’d you get into the session?

  • uhm…i made the whole thing up?

  • …Did you ever realize that something was fairly clear in retrospect and feel really, really silly?

  • yes, my first marriage.

    feel better now?


  • “Wow! How’d you get into the session?”

    They mistook him for an extra-terrestrial lifeform.


    Lame jokes aside, thanks for turning me onto to this one, Mark. It’s every bit as beautifully twisted as you described it.