About 35 years ago, via a mutual friend, I became acquainted with Matthew, an aspiring poet and keen dabbler in psychedelic drugs. At that point in my life, I’d basically finished with psychedelics, as the transition from carefree student to aspiring systems programmer had siphoned much of the fun out of that form of recreation.
I’d begun to notice that responsibility, in the form of work and life commitments, made it difficult to confidently immerse myself in the type of self-discovery that is a possible benefit of psychedelics. As I would enter the experience, I’d start to think about all the things in my life that were outstanding and that I couldn’t attend to while I was high. Psychedelics incur a serious time commitment—normally, you need to set aside an entire day. But anxiety began to intrude, and that can flip the switch, transforming a fun trip into an ordeal.
This was a shame because I’d always enjoyed the act of exploring the base of my brainstem—taking a can opener to the barrier between my conscious and subconscious mind. Still, if it’s not working out, best to just desist, I told myself.
Matthew, being a clever and persuasive young man, suggested an option that would allow me to continue on this path of self-discovery without an extensive time commitment. He introduced me to DMT. At that time, I’d never heard of dimethyltryptamine, a fast-acting hallucinogen with a short half-life and a very good safety record. It’s also the main active compound in ayahuasca, a nasty-ass gumbo used by indigenous tribes in South America for spiritual ceremonies.
I’m not an idiot, and I wasn’t willing to randomly take a strange drug I’d never heard of. Matthew lent me several books so I could acquaint myself with DMT, and after reading up on the long history of the God Molecule, its use in indigenous Amazonian shamanic practices, and its method of synthesis, I decided to give it a try.
It was like being shot out of a cannon. Immediately upon ingestion, I was yanked by the scruff of the neck into a strange world populated by presences I couldn’t quite see or communicate with, but who shadowed me for my entire time in their world and seemed to be composed of mathematics, fractals, and Bach fugues. Compared to DMT, the other hallucinogens I’d experienced—LSD and psilocybin—were like drinking light beer.
Sure enough, the whole experience lasted only 15 minutes, with absolutely no negative after-effects. On the contrary, I was left in a calm, introspective mood and spent many, many days considering the experience in a peaceful, contemplative mindset.
Curiously, 15 minutes is not far off the average play time you can expect from a single side of an LP! And it was the recent arrival of a new record from Extreme, a small label based in Melbourne, Australia, that sent my mind rocketing back to that experience of a lifetime. Extreme releases “genre-defying experimental works that dip into and out of electronic, soundtrack, world/ethnic, ambient, free jazz, noise, and musique concrète, often mixing and matching combinations of all of these styles.”
After an email exchange with Roger Richards, director at Extreme, I received Chaomorphic (LP, Extreme XLP-002) by Robert Vincs. Richards said in his email that he’d been reading my column and thought their newest LP would fit in with my regular music choices. Upon receipt, and without giving it much thought, I tossed Chaomorphic onto the VPI and sat down for a listen.
Based in Australia, and ostensibly a saxophonist, Vincs has got some serious cred. He’s a retired associate professor of music and former head of the Sound Research Studio, Graduate Studies, and the Faculty of Jazz and Improvisation at the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne. Post-retirement, he still holds the position of principal fellow at the University of Melbourne.
Chaomorphic was laid down in a single four-hour session with Vincs improvising on saxello (essentially, a soprano saxophone with a curved mouthpiece and bell) and flute as he responded to a series of random feeds sent through his headphones by Pat Telfer, the recording engineer.
The album’s first track, “Chaomorphic,” created a sound field that resembled a huge, starry environment in my listening room. Dreamy, effects-driven saxophone blended with a gently plonking vibraphone in a lazy, free-form exploration, immediately evoking that exploring-another-world sensation of my ages-ago DMT experience. From here, the album progressed through variations on this theme, with each track unfolding and presenting a different take on another dimension.
The background effects shifted and shimmered. My system, which has been exceptionally resolving with the arrival of the YG Acoustics Ascent speakers (review just around the corner), presented them as a giant, expansive, wall-to-wall canvas.
As always, it’s essentially impossible to recreate a performance in a way that would genuinely fool you into believing it’s real. Some sort of suspension of disbelief is always required, and those who tell you otherwise haven’t listened to much live music. Some systems do better than others, and some recordings translate to the listening room with more realism than others.
Chaomorphic doesn’t in any way try to trick me into thinking it’s live music, and it doesn’t need to. Instead, the insistent, backing ambiance (I hesitate to call it music—it’s more of an aural landscape) fills the room and sorta-kinda takes over the environment. Without the saxophone, it’s ambient music on steroids. With the sax and flute woven in, it feels more like I’m sitting through a play performed in a foreign language I’ve mostly forgotten—I get hints of meanings, and the performance seems really profound, but it’s exceedingly hard to grasp.
Side 2 is a bit more frenetic, starting off with an injection of unsettled, repetitive, string-like jangling. And the saxophone is jumping all over the place, like it’s on the receiving end of a purple nurple. It’s an unsettling landscape and not as mystically peaceful as the first side. Things settle down after a short while, but it’s still more of a bad dream in a crowded subway station than a relaxing nap in an isolation tank.
It’s important to note that—to my ears anyway—the only natural instrument on this record is the saxophone, but the effects are so carefully produced that it sounds as though Chaomorphic was recorded in a reverb-laden rainforest.
Confirming my initial guess that there were some Jedi mind tricks happening on this album, I subsequently discovered that the recording session commenced after both Vincs and Telfer had participated in a mindfulness meditation. Apparently, they took this step so that both engineer and musician would be “totally present to and engaged with their respective listening processes without trying to compose or shape an outcome.”
The quality of the recording is excellent. There’s good depth, and instrument placement is superb. The sound washes are wavelike, both horizontally on the soundstage and in the way they’re layered front to back. Deep bass features throughout, but it’s organically woven into the fabric of the recording rather than photobombed in as an afterthought.
Extreme presses its records at Precision Record Pressing, in Burlington, Ontario, not far from where I live in Toronto. I’ve been meaning to head over there for a field trip, and my experience with one of their records has been just the kick in the ass I needed to get me going. Chaomorphic arrived flat and silent—a sign of a very high-quality pressing—which makes me especially happy given that PRP is local to me.
In summary, Chaomorphic is calm, peaceful music. It’s introspective and undemanding when viewed as ambient sonic furniture, as something to add texture to the room. But it rewards careful listening, as it presents a ton of musical subtext that’s trying to communicate with you from beyond the room, from within the original performance itself.
I took DMT just once, not because it was frightening or unpleasant in any way, but because it needed a ton of horizontal processing space around it, despite the experience having lasted only 15 minutes. That one experience was sufficient, and although I gained some insight into what’s lurking behind my consciousness, I never felt the need to repeat it. But I’ve had Chaomorphic on repeat play for the last few days, and this introspective, ethereal music reaches down inside me, evoking profound memories of that deep inner journey.
If you want to hear what I’ve been going on about, head on over to Bandcamp and check out a sample. If you’re already convinced and want to dive in, go straight to Extreme’s website and pick up a copy for yourself.
. . . Jason Thorpe