Arc of Ascent, The Higher Key: Movement into, through, and Beyond

The second album from New Zealand heavy rock trio Arc of Ascent, dubbed The Higher Key, could easily be considered the third in a progression. Okay, maybe not easily, since it’s their sophomore outing and there’s no immediate third record to consider, but The Higher Key fits into a line of development that also includes the last album from bassist/vocalist Craig Williamson’s prior outfit, the one-man operation Lamp of the Universe. The final (to date) Lamp of the Universe record, 2009’s Acid Mantra (review here), was beginning to push away from some of that band’s most indulgent psychedelia. It had drums, for one, and the atmosphere of the album overall was more active than the prior few Lamp installments, perhaps harkening back to Williamson’s days playing with underappreciated psych heavies Datura, but not quite there yet. Going from Acid Mantra to Arc of Ascent’s 2010 Circle of the Sun debut (review here) in the space of one year was a big jump for Williamson – who was the only member of one band and remains the lone songwriter in the other – but just as Acid Mantra had some more rock-based ideas present in its songs, so too did Circle of the Sun also find Williamson incorporating sitar and Indian-derived scales into the more straightforward, heavy rocking material. It was a naturalizing and easing effect for anyone who’d followed Williamson’s progression with Lamp of the Universe and welcome flourish to those who perhaps hadn’t encountered him before Arc of Ascent. While The Higher Key still bleeds heavy psychedelia from its very core – one finds Williamson’s vocals on the two side-ending tracks “Search for Liberation” and “Through the Rays of Infinity” to be particularly reminiscent of past ethereal chanting, however different the surrounding context might be – it’s still one more step further along the shifting line of progression that began with Acid Mantra (actually, it probably began well before that, but it began to palpably manifest itself there, anyway). There isn’t a sitar anywhere on it.

And I’ve looked!

Moreover, the whole of The Higher Key, despite being just three minutes shorter than its predecessor at 43, feels more straightforward and stripped down in terms of arrangement. Williamson is more confident vocally than he’s ever sounded, and so is less presented less drenched in echo and more forward in the mix, and there’s a heady crunch in the guitars of Sandy Schaare – come in as replacement for Matt Cole-Baker while drummer John Strange returns to round out the trio. All this, again, is put into a heavy psychedelic context. I’ve no desire to give the impression that Williamson, who also helms the release on Astral Projection and produced these cuts (they were recorded across a few different studios with a few different engineers, but Kenny MacDonald also mixed and mastered) as well as singing on them, playing bass and adding percussion, keys, tanpura and singing bowl, is suddenly writing songs about motorcycle rallies or anything like that, unless he’s cloaking those ideas in lines like, “Solstice of ageless rising, regains delight,” from opener “Celestial Altar.” A fun idea, but not likely. The lyrics seem to be where Williamson has most continued his cosmic-spiritualistic exploration on The Higher Key, and the cadence with which he delivers his lines backs up that idea. He pushes his vocal range some backing himself on side B’s “Redemption” and “Elemental Kingdom,” which is probably the heaviest cut here, tonally speaking, and on in the verse of “Search for Liberation,” he manages to work in a layer on top where he’s almost singing along with himself – I wouldn’t be surprised if the parts were recorded using exactly that method – all the while maintaining a consistency in his rhythmic delivery that feels naturally born out of what he was doing on Circle of the Sun. Fans and followers of Al Cisneros’ work in Om will find Williamson familiar, if less purposefully monotone.

That’s not to downplay the contributions of Schaare or Strange, who both prove essential. The apex that comes at the end of “Search for Liberation” wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the stomp and crash Strange puts into the performance there, and likewise, it’s the lighter-toned fuzz in Schaare’s guitar that not only allows Williamson to work in some of the best bass fills on The Higher Key, but also sets up a killer, wailing solo that adds bluesy flavor (some tambourine in there helps play up the classic rock atmosphere) and shows an expanded dynamic range from that which played out on Circle of the Sun. True, it’s still the same person doing the actual writing, but there is inevitably a showing of personality in how the song is presented and how Schaare tears through that lead. “Redemption” exemplifies the album’s vinyl structuring, working in a similar vein to “Celestial Altar” in balancing a catchy chorus with more lyrical mysticism and heavy rocking rhythms. For what it’s worth, Strange’s performance throughout is stellar and immaculately captured in the recording – the chemistry with Williamson in the rhythm section is paramount to a lot of what the album is able to accomplish – but here too Schaare’s guitar proves essential to the trio. “Elemental Kingdom” and “Through the Rays of Infinity,” however much their chugging may seem to fall into Om patterning, are given breadth and distinction through the guitar work beyond even what Williamson can bring to songwriting shifts or structural changes, particularly on the closer. It really seems to be the guitar driving the movement from one part to the next while the bassline stays more constant leading up to the track’s relatively raucous climax, and if it is, all the better, because as Arc of Ascent continues to develop as its own entity separate from Williamson’s past in either Lamp of the Universe or Datura, the manner in which his characteristic songwriting and performance elements are offset by the other players involved – presumably Schaare and Strange, or perhaps I should say “hopefully” given the work they do here – is going to continue to be what makes Arc of Ascent it’s own band. The Higher Key is a step in that natural and ongoing process, and a clear growth is shown from the first album, but most importantly, it is forward-thinking psychedelia that is enhanced by its structures even as it seems to be working in defiance of them. Anyone who’s followed Williamson through his creative path might miss that sitar in the beginning, but by the end, The Higher Key stands tall as a triumph of heavy rock songwriting, imbued with a persona all its own no matter which of its pieces may be recognizable. Recommended.

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Astral Projection

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