Arc of Ascent’s Circle of the Sun Attains Inner Enlightenment through Massive Riffage, Feels Like Sharing
It was clear from the last Lamp of the Universe record, Acid Mantra, that Kiwi psychedelicist Craig Williamson was looking to do something a little more structured. Williamson, who cut his riffing teeth playing in underrated head rockers Datura, emerges from the cosmic ether now as bassist/vocalist/etc. in the trio Arc of Ascent, which continues some of Lamp of the Universe’s psychedelic exploration, but puts said psychedelia — which comes on thanks to sitar, tanpura, synths, bells, chanting, and so forth; all of which are credited to Williamson — in a more outwardly heavy context. Make no mistake, we’re still reaching out to the farthest uncharted regions of spiritual innerspace, but now we’re doing it with thick guitar riffs! Never know what you’ve been missing until you find it.
These riffs come courtesy of Matt Cole-Baker, and while it’s clear Arc of Ascent’s full-length debut, Circle of the Sun (Astral Projection) still holds its protagonist in Williamson, each member of the trio proves essential to the band’s sound, whether it’s Cole-Baker starting off the space rock groove of “The Inner Sign” or drummer John Strange falling right into place with that groove and blissing out on a tom-heavy repetition until the song kicks in. For sheer heft, Cole-Baker’s guitar stays weighty even in its lead tone, offering notes that ring out behind themselves in comet trails. Circle of the Sun works out to about 46 minutes, but with the space-themed artwork, space-themed songs and wide ranging creative breadth, it feels big and open.
Unlike a lot of latter day psychedelic or spacey rock, however, Arc of Ascent’s production doesn’t hinder the music at all. If anything, Circle of the Sun is stronger for the crisp, professional mix it’s been given, which makes the arrangements sound full and the breaks like those that occur in opening duo “Universal Form” and “Cosmic Eye” mesh entirely with the more straightforward material around them, despite what “outside” instrumentation they may introduce and then remove again. After two records with Datura and at least six full-lengths with Lamp of the Universe, Williamson is well experienced in blending a rock sound with Eastern influences, and in Arc of Ascent, he does so expertly and tops it with a more confident vocal approach than Datura ever saw or Lamp of the Universe could withstand — fragility in the face of the infinite being so much of that project’s sound — and, you know, rocks out in the process. On just about every level, that’s a win.
Williamson has his lyrical tropes, and they’re all present and accounted for (the lotus even shows up), but it’s clear nonetheless that Arc of Ascent is a new step in the career of the New Zealand multi-instrumentalist. With Lamp of the Universe reportedly also having new material coming together, it will be interesting to see where Arc of Ascent goes from here, if it’s a one-time project so Williamson could get this out of his system and work with Cole-Baker and Strange or an ongoing band. If this trio does decide to make it a go, they’re off to a tremendous start, as even in its wanderings, Circle of the Sun is catchy without being tired or cliché and intriguing without being a wholly mental exercise. Williamson, it seems, has found the best of both worlds and made one of the best uses of the no-songs-under-six-minutes rule I’ve heard so far this year. Give me “Master of the Serpents” any day, man. Any day of the week. I’ll take it.
Tags: Arc of Ascent, Astral Projection, New Zealand