Efforts to tag the many dimensions of San Francisco’s Trance Mission have churned up amalgams of words like ethnic, ambient, techno, tribal, post-industrial and trance, but even tacking on the obvious “world music” designation wouldn’t cover the half of it. At a time when the gaps between East and West, old world and new world, are closing in, Trance Mission stitches together instruments and atmospheres from the four corners of the Earth to create a blanket of sounds that seems to exist beyond the stratosphere.
At the center of this mélange is the drone of Stephen Kent’s didgeridoo. The Briton is credited with bringing the ancient Australian aboriginal horn — traditionally made from a termite-hollowed eucalyptus branch — to the fore in Western culture with Lights in a Fat City, a band that released two albums (Somewhere, since reissued by City of Tribes, and Sound Column) in the late ’80s. In Trance Mission, Kent’s sinuous rhythms are paired with the clarinets and trumpet of another virtuoso, Beth Custer, who also tours with Club Foot Orchestra, a band that primarily accompanies silent films in movie theaters. Percussionist John Loose and multi-instrumentalist Kenneth Newby — who plays everything from a suling (Indonesian bamboo flute) to electronic samples — add to the group’s intricate mesh of sounds.
Trance Mission’s debut strikes a perfect balance between grounded grooves and ethereal effects, rife as it is with explosive dance beats and moments of anarchy when, as with improvisational jazz, the players enter their own realms only to meet again later in each piece. The collage of sounds on “Bo Didgeley,” “VeeDeeVu” and “Tjilpi II” exude immediacy. The didgeridoo and percussion set a tribal cadence behind primal barks, grunts and howls. Kent’s playing is devoid of the constraints of time and space — especially on such tranquil pieces as “Tunnels” and the amorphous “Icaro.” On “Folk Song” and the playful “Rig,” the didg and percussion provide a backdrop to Custer’s soulful clarinet.
Meanwhile… adds more layers of percussion and smooths out the compositions, pulling the band’s hypnotic swirl further into Western territory. Producer Simon Tassano, co-founder of Lights in a Fat City, focuses a sleeker, more textured sound for the group. “Go Play Outside!” could pass for a nature program soundtrack — a constant stalking rhythm embellished with the spiritual wails of Kent’s wife Eda Maxym and the oddly detached spoken word of Robert Anthony. The songs are subtle and haunting; on “Zozobra” and “Bindi,” Custer’s playing takes on a bluesy, lonesome feel. “No They There,” with Custer switching to trumpet, is a tribute of sorts to Miles Davis. Though the album’s tone is sweeping and consistent, it does lack the debut’s funk and levity.
Between Trance Mission albums and stints with other local ensembles (Beasts of Paradise and Rocking Horse People), Kent released the solo Landing, a spotlight for his didgeridoo talents on which the power and intensity of this ancient ceremonial tool really penetrates. Again, the earthy drones contrast with Maxym’s celestial cries; Loose and Newby join on a couple of tracks, but Kent handles most of the percussion, samples and drums himself. Landing is important not only for its presentation of the didgeridoo to Western ears, but in its tribute to the aborigines. Didg solos like “Anthem for the People” and social statements like “Mabo,” which celebrates a historic land rights victory for indigenous Australians, reflect Kent’s respect for the instrument and culture he’s helping popularize.