Miles Davis + Tortoise + drugs = Sector 9

By Sarah Yatzeck

Coming to Hutchinson Commons this Thursday evening, the music of Sound Tribe Sector 9 unites the farthest reaches of outer space with the rhythm of the earth. Sector 9 evokes another galaxy with weird synth effects, spacey bleeps and whooshes, and trancey drumming, but the mellow, gently grooving core of each song is as solid and organic as the earth’s crust. On their latest album, Offered Schematics Suggesting Peace, this incredible band blends natural and futuristic elements to make a joyful noise unlike anything you’ve ever heard.

Although Sector 9’s influences are hard to place, their song forms recall Miles Davis’s fusion compositions. Like Miles, Sector 9 has dismissed the sometimes-restrictive formal conventions of popular music. Reminiscent of Miles’s “Shh/Peaceful” or “What I Say,” the tunes are built around simple repeated patterns. Their overall sound doesn’t change much throughout, but new sonic layers are added, removed, and subtly altered to create a fascinating, ever-changing work of art. Sector 9’s music also echoes that of Chicago post-rock heroes Tortoise, another contemporary group who breaks the boundaries of traditional song forms by reorganizing familiar musical elements in completely new ways. If Tortoise decided to make a dance album, it might well sound like Offered Schematics Suggesting Peace. Like Tortoise’s recent Standards album, Offered Schematics transforms simple guitar riffs, bass lines, drum beats and synth licks into fascinating new patterns through juxtaposition, repetition and the addition of digital noises and spacey effects. Because the music of both bands is descended from the Miles fusion aesthetic of innovative compositional frameworks and collective improvisation, a verse-chorus-verse form would only interfere with the magical continuity.

Sector 9 compositions may lack traditional structure, but they are not aimless. Although Sector 9 is considered a part of the techno-infused branch of the “jamband” tree, they show more discipline in their compositional and playing styles than any jamband. Although Phish has used and refined complex compositional forms throughout their career, they tend to wander far from their prearranged song structures into 15-minute guitar solos or half-hour jams with more or often less interesting results. Sector 9 is always in control of the music; their collective explorations are directed by recurrent musical themes and resemble gradual, purposeful metamorphoses rather than blind leaps into uncharted waters.

It is very difficult to accurately describe the sound of a Sector 9 song. Each tune creates a different environment, and the atmospheric changes are even more pronounced in concert, where the band combines trippy lighting effects with their music to create an enchanted new world. “…And Some Are Angels” takes the listener on a gentle flight through deep space, surfing a Milky Way of swirling guitar and keyboard as long tremolo comets casually zoom past. Possibly the most beautiful song on the album, “Angels” features an unusual contrast between Zach Velmer’s hyperspeed jungle beats and the sedate pace of the rest of the band. Sustained keyboard, guitar and bass figures keep the tune from feeling frantic or disjointed, instead maintaining the mellow mood established by the first several tunes. The mathematically precise beats could sound sterile, but the mechanical rhythm is balanced by shimmering washes of fuzzy electric piano and a refined yet resonant chime accompaniment. A rush of flute flutters into the tune like a brightly colored bird, adding a natural touch to the spacey atmosphere.

Sector 9 shows extraordinary patience in their playing. It is difficult to maintain a perfectly relaxed groove, to alter patterns gradually and resist the temptation to make dramatic, climactic musical gestures. The individual band members obviously possess technical skills but rarely show them off, crafting a shared pattern instead of allowing one musician to dominate the sound. The perfect serenity of “Water Song” reflects the band’s incredible composure in its deliberate repetition and slow but sure transformation. Like many Sector 9 tunes, the exotic “Water Song” sounds warmly familiar almost immediately, as a cyclic bass pattern picks us up and carefully drops us at the beginning of each subsequent measure. At the start of the track, the band melds natural and digital with sounds of rushing water and noodling keyboard bleeps. David Murphy’s fat humming bass supports the hypnotic rhythmic pulse established by calm kit drumming and graceful shaker undercurrents. Guest musician Kofi Burbridge’s offbeat flute accents dance over the crystalline precision of interlocked melodic fragments, imitating Hunter Brown’s echo-like guitar patterns to create a delicate interplay between the two instruments.

Despite their otherworldly serenity, Sector 9 tunes maintain a high level of intensity. The exciting “Kamuy” somehow retains the inner calm manifested in all Sector 9 compositions in its energetic combination of sproingy keyboard sounds, washes of twinkling pointillistic effects, and insistent jazzy guitar patterns. The tune achieves a propulsive techno feel without heavy kick drum house beats, and we see why when the other musicians pull back to reveal a complex flow of hand drumming from percussionist Jeffree Lerner. Spacey rhythmic noises throughout the hand drumming section exemplify the constant balance and interaction between organic and mechanical sounds in the music of Sector 9.

Sound Tribe Sector 9’s latest album is the gateway to a blissful alternate universe. A deep joy and warm spirituality shines through the exquisite symmetry of these 11 tunes, conveying tranquility rare among jambands. Sound Tribe Sector 9 lands in Hutch on Thursday, May 24. Stop doing your homework and come see this show. It will open your mind, make your body dance, linger in your soul forever, and quite possibly change your life.