Consider this: there's 'far out' and there's 'too far out'. To the former category I would assign most things Beefheartian, John Coltrane's later works, some of Miles Davis' electric albums - the kind of music that, despite sounding like chaos enshrined in vinyl, has some kind of surface tension or guiding logic holding it together. In the 'too far out' corner, all semblance of tension or logic has evaporated, the structures that ultimately encase even the least structured forms of music have broken down. Here lives Tricky's "Angels With Dirty Faces", Frank Zappa's "200 Motels" soundtrack and, surprise, surprise, "The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra Volume 2".
Sun Ra was born Herman Sonny Blount in Birmingham, Alabama at some time between 1910 and 1916, although he was wont to claim to have been born on Saturn and despatched to Earth as the creator of the omniverse. Listening to the music collected here, you could believe it. Despite demonstrating on earlier and later recordings that he had at least a passing acquaintance with the concept of melody, "The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra Volume 2" dumps all pretences to the interconnectedness of successive notes in favour of the sounds of instruments being plucked, scraped, blown, shaken and blown in an apparently random fashion. A tune almost creeps in during "A House Of Beauty" but the track ends before it can do any serious damage. Credit is undoubtedly due for the way the album rejects conventional forms, but as a listening experience it veers more frequently towards punishment than enlightenment for me. Still, M C Strong gives it 8 out of 10 in "The Great Rock Discography", which I wouldn't hesitate to suggest it deserves.
As far as this reissue is concerned it's another sterling effort from whoever's behind the Italian company Get Back, hewn from 180 gram virgin vinyl and wrapped in artwork 'as keen as possible to the original ESP edition', as the sleevenotes put it. Slightly garbled but entertaining essays on Sun Ra and ESP-Disk, the label that originally bravely released these outpourings, complete a lovingly assembled package.
SUN RA Strange Celestial Road (Celestial)
Another surprise in one of my regular boxes of sustenance from Diverse, "Strange Celestial Road" finds the frighteningly prolific bandleader and interplanetary traveller Sun Ra suspended almost equidistantly between the whacked-out amelodic grunting and blowing of something like "The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra Volume 2" and the immaculately played but stultifyingly boring near-Radio 2 schmooze of "Blue Delight". With its outbreaks of conventional (if not for a jazz audience) singing, recognisable melodies and rash of electric keyboards "Strange Celestial Roads" reminds me of nothing less than a rootsier, more 'authentic' and less ironic remake of Zappa's "The Grand Wazoo", which is a good thing to these ears. There are many more famous Sun Ra recordings available, but for the interested observer considering taking a first dip, "Strange Celestial Road" has much to recommend it: its waters are warm and balmy, with no unpleasant surprises lurking just beneath the surface.
SUN RA AND HIS MYTH SCIENCE ORCHESTRA Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy (Solar Fidelity)
Originally released in 1964, Sun Ra followed up the apparently uncharacteristically mellow "We Travel The Spaceways" album with something entirely other. "Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy" opens and closes with scenes of such musical chaos and carnage that they make the roughly contemporaneous, frequently thrilling output of John Coltrane's later period look like bubblegum pop in comparison. Three of the tracks here, "And Otherness", "Thither And Yon" and "Voice Of Space", float merrily along entirely untroubled by concepts such as melody, harmony and rhythm, whirling, stumbling vortices of clarinet, oboe, primitive percussion and organ. Credit must be given to any record company sufficiently brave to issue material of such disconnected strangeness, then as now - compare this with Captain Beefheart at his farthest out and Van Vliet's work emerges as strictly regimented and linear - and any music that has retained its polarising power nearly 40 years after its recording undoubtedly has something about it, even if it's not anything that might necessarily make you want to listen to it.
Between these bookends, however, lies some slightly more conventional work. "Adventure-Equation" contains the album's first tune. Arriving at a time when most listeners will have long abandoned any hope of deriving any entertainment value from the record, John Gilmore's rolling bass clarinet line snakes almost imperceptibly into your consciousness, sounding as if it has just ridden in on the stagecoach from a long-forgotten western film soundtrack. (And, as a testament to the primitive conditions under which this album must have been recorded, you can hear the studio telephone ring in the background on a couple of occasions during this track.) "Moon Dance" is even better: Ronnie Boykins' constantly repeated bass figure powers the track, the delicious moment when it kicks in sounding like something out of the Motown or Phil Spector vaults in the context of the remainder of the album, whilst Sun Ra fires off cosmic flights of melodic fancy around and about it. At one point one of the assembled musicians can be heard wailing his approval, and you'd have to be reasonably hard of heart not to agree.
Snatching coherence from the jaws of confusion, it's moments like those that make "Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy" interesting to the casual Sun Ra bin browser, although purists would probably point to the arrhythmic, atonal, amelodic material as his reason for being. Either way, you can explore both sides here and decide at your leisure. Incidentally, this vinyl reissue magically appeared in Diverse's catalogue looking as if it had been vacuum sealed in the late 1960s - no barcode, letraset-chic sleeve and a somewhat muddy, foggy production that can't entirely disguise the fire that lurks within.
SUN RA Nothing Is (Get Back)
Also released at various times as The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra, Volume 3 (apparently a completely different beast to the recently issued Heliocentric Worlds Vol. 3 The Lost Tapes) and Dancing Shadows, this album documents the Arkestras May 1966 tour of New York state colleges, doing crazy things to jazz round about the same time that Bob Dylan was giving folk music a rather more celebrated kicking.
Opener Dancing Shadows proffers a gleeful cacophony, clustered around Ras kaleidoscopic yet locomotive piano work. The band take ostensibly familiar themes and warp them into exciting new shapes, with wanton disregard for square constraints like harmony and melody. Following the cacophonous performance poetry interlude Imagination, Exotic Forest foregrounds Ronnie Boykins steady, Bolero-like bassline, over which piano, oboe and all manner of exotic percussion skitter mischievously.
The helpful explanatory chant Sun Ra And His Band From Outer Space becomes subsumed by the rolling breakers and swells of Ras piano. Shadow World journeys through honking, blaring saxophone, scraping bass and ticking clockwork and the Stylophonesque sounds of the clavolin before arriving in a landscape peopled by the kind of chattering percussion later found in The Jimi Hendrix Experiences 1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be). The album closes with a few brief, cheery singalongs more interplanetary nursery rhymes, really in Theme Of The Stargazers, Outer Spaceways Incorporated and Next Stop Mars.
If The Beatles near-contemporary Tomorrow Never Knows was a three minute peek into a parallel universe, Sun Ras music is the whole of that universe. Nothing Is is as painless a way as any to explore it.