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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Gary Hill

Excursions: A Sound Painting

Review by Rick Damigella

In the late 80’s and early 90’s I worked as a DJ at a small radio station. Jazz mostly, but we would feature unique programs focusing on different styles of music each night from 9 till 1 in the morning. Friday nights it was the hard core electronic music program. The name unfortunately has disappeared from my memory, but it aired just before Music from the Hearts of Space, which I’m sure a few of you may have heard of. The show featured everything from Tangerine Dream to Vangelis to every manner of 70’s experimental electronic music. Gary Hill’s Excursions: A Sound Painting feels like it would be right at home on this program. Excursions is a very unique piece of audio art. It is a set of sound paintings, designed to tell a story. I should be upfront and mention this is not music in the strict, clinical sense. It is, however, a uniquely different kind of recording, geared towards the most adventurous ears, fans of space sounds of the hardest hardcore variety or those who seek something non-traditionally ambient.

(Editor’s Note: The “Gary Hill” releasing this CD is in fact, the same Gary Hill who runs Music Street Journal – and is adding this editorial comment. I find it necessary to make that declaration in the interest of fairness. That said, I expected Rick to give me an unbiased review, and I have no reason to believe that he has done anything but that. I will add a couple comments to his track by tracks, too – because I know how the music was created since I did it. I should mention that this stuff was all recorded at least twenty years ago on what at the time was primitive equipment. So, the recording quality is not up to modern standards. This is essentially a re-issue of a cassette only release from that time period. And you can buy it at lulu.com/strangesound).

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Earth
The journey begins. The tones remind me very loosely of an 80’s era R-P- G in both sound and style as the notes go step by step.
Hyperdrive

Flanged rumbling sweeping across the sound spectrum, the aural color palette, speed and depth of the sweeps alter throughout the pieces. Very good for headphone listening. Hovering mostly near the low end of the octave spectrum. I would love to see this rendered as music at a Laserium show.

Arrival

A low frequency oscillating sweep, dark hits interrupt the pulsations. Tones brighten as it progresses and ends like a landing. This reminds me very much of an actual recording from a space craft sent to one of our neighboring planets. Keep reading to find out what it was.

Earthrise

Less than a minute. It sounds like a guitar fed through a filter of some type. (Ed. In fact, this was a ukulele with one string missing, tuned like the low strings of a guitar – but a couple octaves higher)

Black Hole (Visit to a Weird Place)

Starting off with a plucked bass guitar, the piece shifts to a heavily effected guitar. There’s some good, quick panning between left and right. It is unusual to find a cool ambient guitar piece like this. (Ed. Actually, this was all bass guitar. It was run through a guitar amp and after a short introduction played clean distortion was added and then feedback attained by crouching in front of the amp to play)

Message Home

Spacey, atmospheric keys with some discordant effects in places, this runs nearly perfectly into the next number.

Exploration

This feels like a direct extension of the previous piece. Both of these pieces reminded of the ambient space effects played inside the cues at Disneyland’s Space Mountain in the 70s and 80s.

Magnetic Storm

Very discordant tones - flanged chimes - distorted, detuned bells - It is interesting because this and several other pieces here remind me of the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn’s moon Titan, where radar signals were converted to audio. This is made cooler since this recording predates that bit of sonic science by many years. (Ed. For more information on this check out this link – http://www.esa.int/esaMI/Cassini-Huygens/SEM85Q71Y3E_0.html - it was my first time hearing this, too).

Saturn’s Rings

With very ‘80s analog synth tones, this is old school in a very good way.

Visit to a Weird Place Revisited

This is entirely low end ambient rumble. There is something oddly soothing while listening to it. I will mention the reminiscence to the Cassini-Huygens mission again here, and the sound reconstruction scientists made from recordings as the science craft descended through Titan’s atmosphere. Again, Hill’s recordings predate the science by several years.

Other World Intelligence

Trippy, backwards sounds, synths and voices. I wonder what you would find if played in “reverse?”

Homeward Bound

As “Arrival” ended with a ramp down, the ship lifts off in ramped up fashion.

Aurora

This has short, brighter ambient key tones.

Visit Revisited

As the awesome name implies, it is an extension of the low bass rumbling ambience from piece number ten.

Mission Report

One of the more varied and layered pieces, combining ideas from several of the other pieces here, thus making it an actual mission report.

Home Again
Revisiting the opening piece, this is extended by four plus minutes.
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