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A beginner’s guide to space rock

by Calvin Cashen March 1, 2016
A beginner’s guide to space rock

Get lost in space with these trippy, atmospheric records

Space rock is a subgenre with tracings back to progressive and psychedelic rock, shoegaze, and alternative rock.

A founding member of Spacemen 3, Jason Pierce (pictured) has pushed the band’s atmospheric, spacey concepts even further with Spiritualized.

A founding member of Spacemen 3, Jason Pierce (pictured) has pushed the band’s atmospheric, spacey concepts even further with Spiritualized.

Other contemporary genres like stoner metal and electronica have paved the road for fusion genres. David Bowie famously dealt with space by integrating its otherworldly outline into his stage personas and lyrical content.

With no boundaries limiting its influence, space rock has been reshaped in a seemingly endless amount of contexts. It has no particular structure or rigid framework to speak of, meaning the genre’s fabric can break through the outermost reaches of sound and existence. In no particular order, here’s a list of four grade A space rock efforts that have gone on to define and recontextualize the genre’s infinite void of possibility.

 

Hawkwind – Space Ritual (1973)

Marketed as “88 minutes of brain-damage” upon release, this major space rock effort is a two-disc live album replete with psychedelic guitar licks and a shameless liking to science fiction. The album documents Hawkwind’s 1972 tour in support of Doremi Fasol Latido, which comprised of intergalactic set pieces and plenty of ray-gun stage lights. The songs are strikingly spacey but are distinguished by Hawkwind’s natural prog-rock finesse. As a whole, the album creates a fully immersive auditory experience through the insertion of multiple sounds. Gently weaving electronic synths with the rapid fire complexity of prog-rock, this cosmic soundscape wraps you in a space rock chokehold and rarely leaves any breathing room.

Brian Eno – Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983)

The great ambient master Brian Eno has such an extensive back catalogue that he’s capable of occupying any style with the natural skill of a virtuoso. His 1983 soundtrack (loosely considered a concept record) Apollo spares no expense in delivering a trance inducing experience—titanic yet ethereal. The album is a soundtrack recorded for the feature length documentary For All Mankind.

Upon first listen, Eno’s work on the album has a somewhat sedative effect, containing dark textures with a shapeless ambient aesthetic. The recurring themes of space are seated at the album’s forefront, and are made evident through Eno’s devout need to warp sound. Eno tinkered with the sonic foundations of steel guitar and synthesizers to produce the “floating” effects he desired. Many of the tracks feature backwards synth notes that were then layered with reverb and finally merged together into an elongated tone. Apollo perfectly taps into that smooth electronic sound that composes space rock’s plodding instrumentals.

 

Hum – You’d Prefer An Astronaut (1995)

You’d Prefer An Astronaut is perhaps the most underrated record that falls under the vague space rock umbrella. By the early ‘90s, space rock was readily categorized as a fusion genre. Numerous British and American “shoegazers” experimented strenuously with the concurrent noise-pop and metal movements to create a sound that’s as compelling as it is irregular. Hum is overtly space rock, utilizing euphoric feedback with droning reverb. Hum established a unique form of space rock with this major label debut. Fantastic tracks like “Stars” and “Little Dipper” loom over the same space rock motifs—vast intergalactic settings with an obsession for enigmatic female beings. Oozing guitar leads thrust these concepts of space into heavenly elation.

 

Spiritualized – Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space (1997)

Drawing on the raucous art-rock of the Velvet Underground and drug-addled minimalism of Spacemen 3 (of which Spiritualized’s brainchild Jason Pierce was a member), Ladies And Gentlemen is a perilous expedition into love and existentialism; space merely acts as a backdrop. Enlisting the London Community Gospel and guest appearances from the Balanescu and Dr. John, this hour long epic details a lush gospel framework and pairs it with space rock’s sonic ideals. With the prevailing sound scope of Spacemen 3 still intact, Spiritualized fleshes out their signature neo-psychedelica with heart-shattering vocal performances and sequenced Elvis samples. This record is on an entirely different scale than any other space rock related work, and has experienced acclaim as a bona-fide masterpiece. Spiritualized elaborates not only on space rock but the contours of music entirely. By fusing his vast selection of influences with striking sonic composites, Pierce ends up fashioning something transcendent for virgin ears. Ambition like that is as unmatchable as space rock itself.

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