Six years on from their turbulent, sometimes sinister debut Out There, London collective The Heliocentrics, led by drummer Malcolm Catto and bassist Jake Ferguson, return with another set of mind-melting psychedelic funk. The band have boosted their profile considerably in the intervening time, not least through collaborating with Ethiopian legend Mulatu Astatke. However, 13 Degrees Of Reality makes little concession either to convention or commercial imperative.
The music here largely eschews melody and theme in favour of mood, texture and atmosphere. There is a creeping menace threaded throughout these 21 tracks that lends the album a strong sense of cohesion and structure, even though much of the music feels loose and spontaneous. At various points, the band summon the murky, claustrophobic and lithe grooves of Can or the aspirations for transcendence of Sun Ra.
Whilst the band are often pigeon-holed as a funk act, this music has neither the physical imperative of Parliament and lacks the sexual urgency of The Ohio Players. The Heliocentrics seem to be aiming for a sound that is at once contemporary and fueled by the bold, unashamedly otherworldly music of the recent past. Much of 13 Degrees Of Reality offers warped or refracted perspectives on groove music, with some often uneasy harmony (particularly on the magnificent Calabash) and some unrestrained, abrasive sound worlds (Ade Owusu’s guitars are frequently distorted, disturbed or disguised).
Although the bond between Catto and Ferguson remains notably strong, 13 Degrees Of Reality seems a little less indebted to James Brown and finds the band reaching more into elements of music from around the world. Although murky and imposing, Descarga Electronica introduces some vibrant Afro-Cuban rhythmic features, and it has a strong sense of forward motion. The pick ‘n’ mix approach leads to some creative and absorbing moments but it sometimes feels as if the band have simply added too many elements to their murky psychedelic soup. There is also a lingering sense that a greater sense of form and development at certain points might have added some contrast.
At their best, The Heliocentrics sculpt claustrophobic and tense sound worlds that both seduce and unnerve. The group’s unsettling side can best be heard in the lustrous, mesmerising but disturbing strings of Collateral Damage, or in the disruptive tensions of Wrecking Ball.
The occasional introductions and interludes niftily splice together some sampled voices that add to the sense of abstract threat and unease, even if their impact feels a little hubristic at times. Yet beneath the tempestuous tensions in this music there are also occasional hints of reflection and consideration, not least during the delicate Eastern Begena, a haunting piece that feels as if it could be punctuated by violence at any minute, but which benefits from remaining steadfastly contemplative and restrained. On Freeness Part 2, whilst the percussion seems to gradually intensify, creating a sense of thickened texture and more extreme possibilities, there are also some subtle, Oscar Peterson-esque piano lines that drift in and out of the ether. It’s in these moments of greatest surprise that The Heliocentrics really excel.