Sula Bassana, Dark Days: Arriving to Find the Journey

A glimpse at the enviable discography of prolific German psychedelonaut Dave “Sula Bassana” Schmidt will result in a lifetime’s worth of albums, live releases and jamming lysergic sprawl. Both on his own under the Sula Bassana moniker and with bands like Liquid Visions, Südstern 44, Zone Six and most recently Electric Moon, Schmidt has overseen the creation of an entire scene’s worth of output, sustaining leads carving out a niche almost entirely his own within European heavy psych rock. His latest solo outing to be released through his own Sulatron Records is called Dark Days, and on it, Schmidt plays guitar, bass, drums, synth, organ, performs what little vocals there are and, on all but two of the tracks which feature live drumming (by Pablo Carneval, also formerly of Electric Moon), he programs the drum machine. Thus Dark Days is a solo record in the truest sense of being the realization of one person’s vision, but as one expects from Schmidt by now, the material is richly textured and a wash of melodic light is crafted from a swirl of effects and synth. As on Sula Bassana’s past works, elements of electronica work their way into some of the material here, even apart from the drum machine, so that 16:47 closer “Arriving Nowhere” borders at times on some blend of psychedelia and trip-hop (I’d call it “dub,” but wouldn’t want to use the term incorrectly). The six tracks of Dark Days were recorded between 2007-2012, and are noted in the liner notes as having been inspired by the artwork from Electric Moon bassist Komet Lulu, which in turn was inspired by Sula Bassana’s music. The painting that adorns the cover, inside liner, and back of the CD is gorgeous, intricate and naturally toned, but there isn’t much dark about the music of the record itself. With some parts obviously improvised (the layers of guitar in the midsection of “Surrealistic Journey” come to mind), Schmidt works comfortably in psychedelic expanse both familiar to him and exciting for its spontaneity.

I have nothing to support this claim save for my best interpretation of the music and Dark Days’ overall flow, but the tracks seem to be following a narrative course. Perhaps less surprisingly, it’s a trip. We begin “Underground,” and then comes the shorter burst of “Departure,” followed by the ranging 20 minutes of “Surrealistic Journey,” the delving movements of “Dark Days” and “Bright Nights,” and then, at the end, we’re finally “Arriving Nowhere.” It’s hard to imagine Sula Bassana set out in 2007 to begin recording a narrative concept record, but maybe as Dark Days began to take shape, he saw how well the songs worked to express these ideas. In that, he wasn’t wrong. “Surrealistic Journey” does nothing if it doesn’t live up to its name. As someone who’s gleefully followed Electric Moon’s progression so far into the upper reaches of space rock improvisation, the jazzy synth ascendency that comes 15 minutes into “Surrealistic Journey” is a magic touch out of some Doors outtake, and one almost immediately greeted by the guitar. Such subtle moments are sprinkled throughout Dark Days, and though it’s easy for the album – which tops 71 minutes and features only of its six tracks that’s under nine (that being “Departure” at 6:04) – to overwhelm the listener, with this kind of thing, that’s half the point. What you discover and rediscover along the way during subsequent listens is what makes a project like Sula Bassana so successful. As the swirls beginning “Departure” suddenly become topped by one of the record’s most straightforward guitar progressions, it’s easy to hear what it was in Hawkwind that so turned on Monster Magnet. Schmidt is operating in that kind of ultra-exploratory realm, and that he’s able to put something so cohesive together on his own (it’s pretty obvious from the outset this isn’t his first time doing so) while still maintaining the hypnotic looseness the more jam-minded corner of the genre demands is a testament both to his experience and the potency of his output. But for the skill and thought put into the craft, I’d be tempted to call it a miracle.


There are moments where Schmidt feels held back by the lack of a live drummer. His programmed “fills” at the beginning of the title-track are inventive enough to get the point across, but the riff of “Underground” is more dynamic than its simple ride/hi-hat drum progression warrants, and I’d love to hear a human being there changing the approach up, still honing in on some of the late-‘60s ride work, but also maximizing the song’s overall build in a way the machine, by its very nature, can’t. By the time “Arriving Nowhere” comes on to wind down the excursion, it’s less of an issue – those are beats, not drums – but early into “Surrealistic Journey” as well, I think there’s more that could be done percussion-wise than Schmidt is really developing. That said, there’s no shortage of other elements at work to ensure that each track holds its own, whether it’s the organ on “Surrealistic Journey” or the feedback barrage on “Bright Nights.” As regards drum sounds, though, “Dark Days” gets it closest to right, and on that level I’d be interested to know if that song is newer or older as compared to “Underground.” Either way, “Dark Days” also has some of the most satisfying fuzz riffing on the album that shares its name, and it’s not until later into “Bright Nights” that an answer is provided beyond spaced-out ambience, though the lack of cohesion there – again, clearly on purpose – plays up the contrast in the two song titles. Likewise, when “Bright Nights” moves its surprisingly lurching riffy part in the second half, the mood is still markedly different from the song prior, and that remains so for the noisy conclusion. Turning the mood away from such organic sounds as amplifier hum, what “Arriving Nowhere” nonetheless does really well in closing the album is play out an instrumental a build around its electronic rhythm line. Again, this isn’t really new territory for Sula Bassana, but if Schmidt is going to round out Dark Days with a glimpse at this peculiar expertise, the song itself more than justifies it. There are drum sounds – they begin in earnest at 6:34 – but even then, the context is different enough from the material preceding to stave off redundancy. Whether it’s on his own as Sula Bassana or in the context of the trio Electric Moon, Schmidt’s deceptively individual brand of psychedelia continues to thrill. Dark Days will be too long for some, too indulgent for others, but from where I sit, it’s another step in the ongoing evolution of one of the most exciting (and busy!) figures in European heavy psych today.

Sula Bassana’s website

Sulatron Records

 

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