Lamp of the Universe, Transcendence: Beyond the Material

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Unsurprisingly, the time spent creating with Arc of Ascent seems to have fed into Williamson’s processes for the solo-project, and though Lamp of the Universe remains as expansive and intricately layered as ever on the newest release, Transcendence – Williamson handling acoustic and electric guitar, bass, drums, sitar, Rhoads, synth, djembe, mellotron, tanpura, recorder in addition to the vocals, recording, mixing and putting the 46-minute full-length out through his own Astral Projection imprint – there’s a sense of movement to the songs that’s continued both from Acid Mantra and from the work of the full-band. For example, with six tracks broken even between, Transcendence has a distinct vinyl feel, each of its two sides ending with a longer cut that serves to push into new territory for the project or at very least further develop the ideas that the two prior tracks present, whether it’s “Transcendence” at the end of the first half taking the headphone-ready textures of “Pantheist” and “Creation of Light” to gorgeous interplay of mellotron and sitar or the closing “Beyond the Material World” mounting a one-man space rock freakout that’s the only cut on Transcendence to top 10 minutes long. Throughout, Williamson’s vocal approach, soft and spiritually contemplative, serves as a uniting factor, and as ever for Lamp of the Universe, the flow is unmistakable and consuming.

Drum lines are simple, but serve immediately on “Pantheist” to position Transcendence somewhere between acid folk and heavy psych, Williamson’s basslines tapping into some of the Om influence that showed up as well in the patterning of Arc of Ascent’s The Higher Key, while themes of love and freedom and exploration remain consistent with Lamp of the Universe’s earliest works. The drumming isn’t really new either – one can hear it as far back as “Freedom in Your Mind” from The Cosmic Union – but it’s the way the drums are used in the progressions and grooves that gives Transcendence a more rocking vibe, “Pantheist” playing out in a way that probably would’ve worked just as well structurally for Arc of Ascent, though of course the arrangement would be different, sans mellotron, backwards guitars and the overall peaceful feel that pervades. “Creation of Light” boasts a comparatively still atmosphere, interweaving a central acoustic guitar line and sitar atop lush tanpura drones and gradually introducing recorder flourish and djembe percussion without ever taking on the kind of rock-minded push of the opener. In its second half, Williamson layers vocal ambience to coincide with the instrumental payoff and the effect is as engaging sonically as it is a triumph of arrangement, but the highlight of side A is still to come with “Transcendence,” which marries the two viewpoints, bringing drums, tanpura, sitar, mellotron and a traditional verse structure together to a singular development that’s warmly toned, rich in color and neither pretentious nor obtuse. After three minutes into the total 8:28, Williamson opens into a sort of jam with himself, holding down the central line on bass and drums while adding a deceptively bluesy electric guitar solo amid the tanpura and sitar before resuming the verse and saving a fuzzier lead for later in the track, gradually diminishing on a long fadeout to end the first half of the album. Listening, I can’t help but wonder how long that jam actually went on, though the CD version of Transcendence allows only a few seconds to process the fullness of sound Williamson is able to accomplish before the acoustics and prevalent mellotron of “The Sign of Love” opens side B as the first of two shorter pieces.

This is new ground for Lamp of the Universe. Not necessarily in track length or theme, but in the overarching feel of “The Sign of Love,” which is the most mellotron-based of the compositions on Transcendence and to which Williamson adds a chorus of effects-laden falsetto over mellotron and acoustic guitar, resulting in an intimacy still psychedelic, but coming from a different, less Eastern angle than much of Lamp of the Universe’s work, drums arriving deep in the mix to signal a march in the verses outward. A last chorus emphasizes the simplicity of the arrangement – hardly minimal, but comparatively less lush than some of the tracks here – and the sweet acoustics that begin “Samsara Born” with interlaced birdsong effects continue that feel, each shift on the strings audible in an echo for Transcendence’s most folk-ish moment. Perhaps the songs are arranged to that “The Sign of Love” leads to this relatively minimalist stretch in “Samsara Born,” but either way, the simple acoustic treatment is remarkably effective in conveying the personal spiritualism that has always permeated Lamp of the Universe but perhaps never more so than it does here. Williamson layers his vocals in a quiet chorus, but that’s about as indulgent as “Samsara Born” gets, keeping its sweet melody quiet and never giving into what must have been considerable temptation to start a build by adding drums, sitar, the mellotron or anything else. It’s a rarely seen emphasis on songwriting that proves even without all the other elements, Williamson is able to portray human emotion through memorable craft. The stillness of the ending is all the more a setup then for the drastic turn to the immediately-drummed space rock of “Beyond the Material World,” Williamson returning to the full-on tapestry of “Pantheist” for a 10:48 jam that makes room for a few verses but has an open sensibility and Lamp of the Universe’s most prevalent psychedelic swirl to date. Solos rise up and fade back in the wash of effects, and a chorus of “Aah”s emerges following each verse, answered back later as each line of a bridge section seems to melt into the swirl. Guitar, bass, drums, effects and mellotron continue on toward the ending, but ultimately it’s the mellotron, effects and tanpura drone that close the album, marking out Transcendence’s final departure into the ether. For those who’ve followed Williamson’s shroomy exploits over the course of Lamp of the Universe’s studio outings, Transcendence should prove a welcome return, as it both makes the most of familiar elements and adds new moods and atmospheres to the mix, but even for someone who’s never encountered the project before, some of the more straightforward songwriting methods should provide decent landmarks along the way through wholly justified repeat listens. Whether those landmarks are needed depends on who’s doing the hearing, but I find that with Transcendence as with the bulk of Williamson’s work in Lamp of the Universe, a big part of the appeal comes from being able to close the eyes and let consciousness drift where it will with the music. These songs make that easy.

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