Sonic sculptors

Neptune’s metal machine music
By SUSANNA BOLLE  |  February 12, 2008

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Neptune

For more than a decade, local noise-rockers Neptune have cultivated a loyal fan base on the fringes of the Boston rock scene, in large part through live performances that unleash thunderous bursts of noise and thrash, combining hyperkinetic rock with the metallic clatter and buzz-saw roar of the factory floor. Incorporating infernal-looking, demonic-sounding instruments, the trio practise a strange sort of alchemy, transforming scrap metal, machine parts, sundry electronics, and cast-off junk into unwieldy metal guitars, homemade drums, and more exotic inventions with names like the Electric Slinky and the Spring Harp. In keeping with their DIY ethos, the band’s past recordings have all been limited-edition releases almost impossible to find outside of a merch booth at one of their shows. But this month, Neptune will take a step up out of the underground with Gong Lake (Table of the Elements), their most fully realized album yet, on an indie label with national distribution. They play Great Scott this Saturday.

Neptune began in 1994 as an art project of sculptor and musician Jason Sanford, who designs and builds the band’s core instruments. The line-up expanded and contracted until 2004, when it settled into the current three-piece with Sanford, drummer Dan Boucher, and guitarist Mark Pearson, who’s also an instrument builder. If Sanford is the group’s resident metallurgist, then Pearson is the scientist who specializes in weird custom electronic devices, synthesizers, and elaborate effects boxes.

Rather than aging gracefully, Neptune have become more adventurous over the past decade. Early on, they were relatively straightforward, if abrasive, garage-rockers with odd instruments. They’ve since moved into noisier, more abstract territory. As Sanford explains via e-mail, “Neptune began by using traditional instruments built from non-traditional materials, and hinting at a new range of sonic possibilities. Today Neptune is really exploring those possibilities with entirely new and invented instruments and different and unique interfaces.”

Besides pursuing genuine national distribution for Gong Lake (Atlanta’s Table of the Elements has also put out albums by John Cale, Rhys Chatham, Thurston Moore, and Jim O’Rourke), the band resorted to a different recording process. The album retains Neptune’s ragged, frenetic energy, but it’s also more structured and focused. “This is the first album that we wrote as an album,” says Pearson. “Often we produce a body of songs as we’re actively playing shows, adding newer pieces as we write them at no particular pace. In this instance, we took time out from performing and created an album-length set of songs that are likely more cohesive in concept, texture, and composition.”

The addition of new instrumentation is integral to the songwriting. As Neptune started work on Gong Lake, their new instruments included foot-controlled oscillators for Boucher and an electric xylophone made out of steel gas pipe. “Often the unexpected quirks of an instrument can write a song for us,” Pearson points out. “A fret can clank instead of producing a note or an oscillator can squelch out something horrible and inspire us to write a song around it.” Both Sanford and Boucher cite what they’ve dubbed a “bass lamellophone” — imagine something along the lines of an oversized, electrified African thumb piano — as a favorite among the new toys.

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