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Quick CD Review: The Space Age Rock of National Steam and Quarkspace (Eternity’s Jest Records, 1997-99)
By Benson Knickerbocker

In this age, when techno is enjoying an increasing popularity with DJs /bands like Fatboy Slim, Chemical Brothers, and the Proppellarheads enjoying widespread acceptance, why is that the bands who actually create trippier grooves by actually playing real instruments get left in the shadows? National Steam and Quarkspace are two Ohio bands have being enjoying a cult like status by playing crazy space techno rock. Both bands play primarily instrumental albums that touch on the techno era of Hawkwind (as versus the acid rock era), the keyboard onslaughts of Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream and the astral cacophony of early Floyd. For National Steam, songs like the opening "Pennsylvania Special" are well composed grooves while the seven minute "I’m Sorry, Earth’s Not In the Itinerary", "The Third Wheel" and "In the Caverns of Spacezilla" are complete space aged free for all improvisations (Think Syd Barrett meeting Phillip Glass and being chaperoned by Brian Eno). For "Orion", the first vocals are employed but expect nothing more than a subtle vocals similar to those found on "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun". For "The Sutler", the combination of eerie vocals and haunting keyboard effects, one feels like they have stepped into Hellraiser.

Two members from National Steam, Dave Wexler (Guitars) and Paul Williams (Drums, Keyboards, Loops, Samples, Percussion), came from the band Quarkspace. Like their primary influences, Hawkwind/Pink Floyd, Quarkspace has a vast array of sounds. Formed in 1984, Quarkspace has been spacing people out for the last sixteen years. They can produce hard thrashing guitar riffs and celestial keyboard vamps and like what is on their latest release, total tripped out space investigations. There is over 70 minutes of loose improvisation on Spacefolds 5 in which every tune has its humble beginnings but eventually give away to the world of intense rave like grooves. On double CD Hidden Moon, the two first tracks, "Prince" and "Starbridge Freaks" one can find the same grooves that are heard from the French twosome, Air. These two songs have a steady bass/rhythm line with sonic soaring synthesizers layered on top. On the live DC, Live Orion, which was recorded at the Orion Space Rock Festival in 1997, it becomes immediately evident why Quarkspace surpasses anything available in trip-hop circles - the music is live, unedited and jamming. Right from the beginning, with "Close to the Whipping Post", Paul William’s tribal drumming leads the way for soloists to stretch it out. With the live recording, there are less comparison to urban dance halls and more with today’s jam bands/progressive bands like Sector 9 or New Deal. The same mystical tribalism is conveyed through the tune "Air" which has bassist Chet Santia providing celestial haiku. "Siren Space" is the most inspirational tracks with Jay Swanson’s beautiful piano work and the song’s Floydian escalation. "In My Lost Mind" and "Don’t Stop the Levee" are Quarkspace’s stab at a vocal numbers in which Wexler’s guitar work takes a harder edge. This is when the band leaves the ambient and heads over to Robert Calvert-era Hawkwind.

Both bands provide the logical connection to the 1970s techno progressive bands and the music of 1990s dance club scenes and both of the recordings from Quarkspace and National Steam are great cerebral recordings to play for those late nights. For more info, go here.

If you like like to read more about progressive rock, try here.  or here.