Review by Douglas Heselgrave
This one has been a long time coming. Since the last Dead tour in 2009, Mickey Hart has been maintaining a fairly low profile, which isn’t to say that he’s been kicking back on a beach or drifting away at home doing nothing. Like a true mad scientist, he has been exploring new vistas, conversing with NASA about sonic vibrations in space, looking at the stars and listening to the sounds that the images in his telescope draw him towards. When he’s not been tilting towards the future, he’s been unearthing the past, tinkering with old tapes and acetates at the Smithsonian Institute where he’s been engaged in a race with time to see if the vintage recordings gathering dust in their vaults can be preserved before they disintegrate.
The world has kept spinning while Hart’s been hunkered down in the lab. Bob Weir and Phil Lesh reconvened as ‘Furthur’ to continue spreading the Grateful Dead gospel in an elaborate, less percussive heavy version of their former selves. His brother of the drum, Bill Kreutzman has gone off in another direction with the ‘better than you would have expected’ sonic gumbo outfit, 7 Walkers whose debut is truly one of the finest side projects ever conceived by a former member of the Grateful Dead. In the midst of all this hullabaloo of activity, Mickey and his drums have seemed eerily silent. But, all of that changed in the summer of 2011 when the percussionist announced that he’d reformed ‘The Mickey Hart Band’ with a new lineup and the outfit began to tour in preparation for a promised upcoming album. Initial reviews of the new band’s shows were positive and contrary to expectations, ‘Mysterium Tremendum’, the newly released CD may one day be regarded as the finest recording Hart has ever been involved with.
Those who have followed Hart’s creative output know that his solo works fall roughly into two categories. Records like ‘Diga Rhythm Band’, ‘Planet Drum’ and ‘Supralingua’ are beat heavy excursions that joyfully dive right into experimenting with percussion lineages and trance traditions from all over the world while other albums like ‘Mystery Box’ are more structured and song oriented. ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ falls somewhere in between with its mixture of heavily rhythmic instrumental tracks and a selection of more conventional songs with new lyrics by Robert Hunter.
The music itself is fabulous, compelling and complex. It was during the Dead’s 2009 tour, that Hart first became fascinated with sounds and images of the cosmos he’d accessed from NASA, and he began to incorporate some of them into the ‘drums’ segment of the show. This album is an extension of that interest with Hart using ‘the billion year old orchestra of planetary motion’ as a kind of reference or backbeat that grounds each of the songs on ‘Mysterium Tremendum.’ If that sounds too far out, don’t worry. Every composition on the album flows together to form a seamless journey that never loses its groove or momentum. The combination of cosmic sounds, electronic and hand percussions, and conventional rock instruments are interwoven to create a sonic ambience that is completely contemporary and enveloping. But, those hoping for a New Age soundtrack will be sorely disappointed; this is hard and driving music blessed with a melodic sensibility that is far more front and centre than we’ve heard from Mickey in some time. Songs like ‘Cut the Deck’ wouldn’t sound out of place on a Peter Gabriel album with its blend of booming beats and complex melody. ‘Slow Joe Rain’ the Hunter penned tune that’s been making the rounds online is typical of the new material with its crunching, propulsive beat driving the vocal narrative forward. And, while it will never be said that Hart has the most mellifluous singing voice on the planet, he’s never sounded better than he does here with his old sandpaper bluesy growl complementing the lyrics perfectly.
As every Deadhead knows, studio recordings by the band and its members have often been hit and miss affairs. Songs that sound great in a live setting have been rendered flat when committed to tape in a recording booth, and conversely, studio efforts that sounded wretched on vinyl or disc have often come to life when re-interpreted on stage. That’s not the case with ‘Mysterium Tremendum’, which is consistently good and engaging from start to finish. With contributions from long time band mate, Sikiru Adepoju and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, this band has the chops to play anything it wants.
Time and culture never stand still, but after so many decades of great music, the last few years have been tough for old fans of the Grateful Dead. Not to knock Furthur. They play with passion and are great in so many ways, but until they start to write and perform some new material, they are in danger of becoming viewed as little more than a nostalgia act. So, who would have thought that it would be the drummers from the Grateful Dead would be the visionaries to carry the spirit of the band forward? 7 Walkers offered the first sign of hope, and now with ‘Mysterium Tremendum’, it’s clear who’s back in the saddle, looking forward and riding the cutting edge. Thanks Mickey!
You can hear selections from ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ on www.mickeyhart.net
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com