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Expo '70, "Mother Universe Has Birthed Her Last Cosmos"

cover imagePolish label Zoharum take a very deep dive into Justin Wright’s exquisite solo guitar psychedelia with this sprawling 2xCD collection of various limited Expo '70 releases. For the most part, these extended pieces have a very drone-based and cosmic bent, but the two 2009 collaborations with Umberto's Matt Hill are legitimately transcendent and entrancing epics of slow-burning space-rock nirvana. Giving those two pieces a well-deserved second life is unquestionably Mother Universe's raison d'être, so the remaining pieces are more for devout fans and completists (though they are also quite good in their own right). The various physical formats all compensate for potential Expo '70 overload in their own ways, however, making it very easy to alternate between experiencing Mother Universe as a concise distillation of some of Wright's finest work or as an immersive and extended lysergic plunge.


Every couple of years, I go through a phase in which I quixotically make yet another concerted (and doomed) effort to like Hawkwind.I generally love the idea of Hawkwind, but I suspect their actual music will always be too heavy-handed and indulgent to fully connect with me: the gulf between what I want them to sound like and what they actually sound like is just too wide.The reason that I bring that up is that Wright has uncannily managed to replicate the imaginary Hawkwind that exists only in my mind with the 22-minute title piece that opens this album (it originally appeared as a CDr on Mother Tongue). Of course, Matt Hill deserves a lot of the credit for that success as well, as his wonderfully rolling and propulsive bass line provides the perfect foundation for Wright to gradually build up a gorgeously rippling and elegant swirl of shimmering arpeggios and understated soloing that dissolves into a lingering vapor trail.Structurally, the piece is essentially just an extended vamp, but "Mother Universe" easily transcends any limitations that may suggest, organically ebbing and flowing through rhythmic shifts and occasionally sounding like it is on verge of being sucked into a greedily whooshing black hole.The following "Ostara," on the other hand, feels like it was sucked into that black hole and spat out the other end as a pulsing and splintered ghost of its former self.In lesser hands, "Ostara" would probably linger forever in that state of hallucinatory deep-space suspended animation, but here it gradually evolves beyond mere ambience into a queasily roiling fantasia of cosmic dread worthy of Andrei Tarkovsky.While that is quite a wonderfully immersive illusion, Wright still has one last trick up his sleeve, as the final moments of "Ostara" sneakily re-cohere into something approaching a song…before dissolving again into an eerie coda that sounds like a broken reel-to-reel machine endlessly repeating the same tape snippet at the wrong speed.

The remaining four songs are taken from the Woolgatherer Visions and Mechanical Elements tapes on Norway's Gold Soundz label and date from roughly the same period.They are either relegated to a second disk or a supplementary download, depending on physical format, which I suppose makes them bonus tracks to some degree."Tropical Trip Through Acid Clouds" initially sounds like fairly standard Expo '70 fare, unfolding as a delay-heavy riff beneath a trippy haze of looping and blurred improvisation, but then it unexpectedly gives way to a pulsing and futuristic-sounding soundscape evokes the flickering corridors of a damaged and abandoned space ship.That eventually becomes the backdrop for some more soloing, which illustrates the key difference between these four pieces and the previous two: these feel like good ideas in raw form that have not yet been edited to perfection.Sometimes that more spontaneous approach still works wonderfully though.The following "Hexed By A Devil in the Cemetery," for example,is a darkly throbbing drone piece that Wright beautifully embellishes with an unsettling arsenal of echoing, spectral scrapes and uneasily quavering synth coloration. Elsewhere, "You and Your Dreamcatcher Should Take a Hike" is a foray into buzzing and meditative minimalist synth drone, while "Neither Here Nor There (A Study)" takes a similar theme and uses it as the backdrop for a dreamily meandering flow of looping, intertwined guitar patterns.Of the four, "Hexed," "Dreamcatcher," and "Neither Here Nor There" all stand out as understated gems, with the latter two evoking sublime, trancelike states through languorously shifting waveforms or gently buzzing and swaying clouds of echoing accumulated loops.

This is exactly the kind of compilation that I dearly wish there were more of in the world, as some artists are just far too prolific for me to be able to keep up with the volume of their output (Wright, Kevin Drumm, Jim O'Rourke, etc.).Consequently, it is quite nice to have record labels around who are keen to sift through it all and illuminate great work that might have otherwise fallen into obscurity.At best, I can keep up with Wright's major LPs, so I definitely would have missed all of the comparatively minor and considerably more limited releases assembled here ("Ostara" is from a CDr on Small Doses, incidentally).Obviously, some of these six pieces are better than others, but they cumulatively provide a condensed overview of quite a year-long hot streak that most fans either only got a small taste of or missed altogether.As such, Mother Universe makes a fine and varied entry point into Wright's work.It is a body of work well worth getting acquainted with too, as Justin Wright at his best is kind of a Zen master of all things psychedelic, absorbing a wide spectrum of Eastern drone, krautrock, and heavy psych influences and distilling them into a wonderfully unhurried and understated psychotropic reverie.Mother Universe provides a strong argument that the golden age of bands like Popul Vuh and Ash Ra Tempel never fully ended–it just took a bit of a nap before unexpectedly reawakening in Missouri.

(Samples can be found here.)