REVIEW: HIGH CASTLE TELEOKESTRA – “The Egg That Never Opened (Radio Free Albemuthpart 1)”
I don’t believe there is any genre in metal with the potential for excitement and unpredictability more than avant-garde metal. Of course, the name itself is essentially meaningless as a genre because it contains so many different styles and sounds, so it is more of a mindset and concept than a style. Not many people make this type of music, let alone do so for any length of time, so those that do very often have been a part of many different bands. I was therefore very excited to learn a year or so ago that Tim Smolens (alumnus of Estradasphere, Secret Chiefs 3, and many more) was forming a new international project under the moniker of High Castle Teleokestra who will soon be releasing their debut album ‘The Egg That Never Opened (Radio Free Albemuthpart 1).’ His fellow co-creator is Chris Bogen (Doc Booger) who I am not familiar with, and they are joined by an ensemble of men with a history of playing with some of the most important bands in the genre. It’s not an easy album to describe, but it’s one that avant-garde metal fans are going to want to hear as soon as possible.
The 10-track album is mostly instrumental although there are a few tracks with vocals. The album subtitle is taken from an abandoned short novel by noted science fiction author Philip K. Dick and is a tale of a dystopian future. Each song is based on one of the first ten chapters of the book. I was unable to find much detail about the plot, but it’s not necessary to know it in order to get enjoyment out of the album, and as I said, it’s mostly instrumental anyway. The songs are a smorgasbord of styles, from driving metal to Romanian folk to Beach Boyesque southern California surf music, and everything in between. If you don’t like the music at the moment, simply wait 30 seconds, and it will change and go into an entirely new direction, and then back again, it’s a rush, but certainly makes demands upon the listener, which is just what fans of this type of music are looking for.
The album kicks off with the title track, and we’re immediately greeted by strings and the lazy sounds and vibes of surf music. Briefly, before the listener can begin to become comfortable we’re hit by sharp slashes of metal distortion. And so the fitting introduction to the album begins, as the rest of the runtime will keep you guessing from one moment to the next. The strings are done by Smollen’s former bandmate and all-around music madman Timba Harris (Estradasphere, Secret Chiefs 3, Probosci, John Zorn) who also arranged the strings as well. What really jumps out though both in this song, and the following “Ich Bin’s” is the aggressive use of accordion. No, not the polka style of accordion, but the type that you think of while walking down a street in Paris. It is provided by Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Stian Carstensen (Farmers Market, Mike Patton), who is also referred to as the band’s Bulgarian musical specialist. The frantic mix of accordion, and aggressive metal makes me feel like I’m taking a nighttime walk to a nightmarish carnival, through a maelstrom alongside the Seine while enjoying a glass of exceptionally good Bordeaux. All of which is to say that it takes you to a far away place that is both invigorating, and a trifle disconcerting at the same time.
This disorienting feeling stays with “The Aramchek Accusation” and “At Last He Will” the first of which includes the first vocals on the album. The vocal style used is a bit unusual, but the harmonies are tightly controlled, and they eventually move into a style that would make Brian Wilson stand up and cheer. The accordion is the most striking instrument, but there is also a punchy use of horns courtesy of Bär McKinnon (Umlaut, Mr. Bungle) which is invaluable for the overall sound. An early favorite of mine is easy “Valisystem” which effortlessly combines the spaghetti western sounds of Ennio Morricone with the California coast Beach Boys-style vocals, all while somehow making it heavy. None of it should work, it really shouldn’t. But it does beautifully.
I’ll jump ahead to the longest song on the album “Diagnosing Johnny.” This piece harkens back to Tim’s I.S.S. project and its ‘She’s A Girl’ album which is a loving doo-wop homage to the ‘Smile’ era of the Beach Boys. There are a lot of horns, and surf guitar used throughout, and the western vibe is brought back in as well through the use of strings. It’s a strange marriage, not dissimilar from two people from wildly different cultures that meet and join together, but like the best marriages the oddities, and occasional frictions are what make it work so wonderfully. It’s a song that will probably throw some people off, especially if they’re more interested in the more aggressive music, but after repeated listens I couldn’t imagine the album without it.
The last song on the album is also my favorite, and one of the most frantic “Mutual Hazard.” This song is also the most recent music video that the band has produced, an interesting collage of the band playing, and the two chief members portraying characters from the book the album is based on. It seems to deal with corrupt government conspiracies and spying on the band, communicated through handwritten notes over a Zoom call. Both musically and the video remind me a lot of Estradasphere’s ‘Palace of Mirrors’ album and concert video. As that’s also my favorite of their albums, this is not a bad thing. Timba shines and drives the song with his violin, and Bär’s accordion is as sharp as ever. But what really drives this song, and really all the many heavy moments throughout is the tech-metal drumming of Dave Murray (Estradasphere, Traun). He’s simply brilliant through the whole album and is the rock that everything else is built upon.
High Castle Teleokestra have with a furious barrage of styles managed to put out one of the most challenging, interesting, and fun albums of the year. ‘The Egg That Never Opened (Radio Free Albemuthpart 1)’ is not a work that can be taken in with only a few listens, rather it requires a bit of work and an open mind that is willing to be led down a path that few bands are willing to go down. As I said in the beginning, this is not an easy album to describe, it is an incredibly complex and varied work, rarely settling down on one thing for more than a minute at a time. But the sophisticated arrangements and vision of Tim Smolens have made something that truly holds together, and is a breathtaking rollercoaster of a ride as well. For fans of brave, avant-garde metal I couldn’t recommend it enough.