Michael Stearns Planetary Unfolding (2022 Remaster)
Updated: Sep 20
“This is the cradle of great Space Music that will generate the best albums in the field”
1 In the Beginning... 8:00
2 Toto, I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore! 6:20
3 Wherever Two or More Are Gathered 9:19
4 Life in the Gravity Well 6:55
5 As the Earth Kissed the Moon 9:55
6 Something's Moving 5:19
(CD/DDL 47:37) (V.F.)
Originally released in 1981 on the Continuum Montage label, then Sonic Atmospheres in 1984-85 and the Bandcamp Earth Turtle Music site since 2015, it was with amazement that I discovered PLANETARY UNFOLDING! Let's start this review by highlighting the great initiative of the label Projekt Music which launches a series of reissues in manufactured CDs and digital downloads of some of the most influential works of Michael Stearns. The American label will offer 13 albums from the catalog of the Tucson, Arizona-born ambient sculptor. These titles are mostly discontinued and unavailable on CD, while some are available in a sound quality that meets the requirements of various online listening platforms and then on Stearns' Bandcamp. It is therefore an excellent initiative with new remasters that do justice to the music of this influential artist in the spheres of contemporary cosmic music. I wrote astonishment, since it is the first time that I listen to PLANETARY UNFOLDING thus discovering the essences and the colors which were diluted in what I always considered as classics of electronic music (EM) from the United States, that is to say his albums M'Ocean and Chronos which however appeared 3 years later. And if you liked these two albums, you'll find the main lines, as much in ambiences, as in melodies and rhythms in this 5th album of the American synth wizard.
A buzzing wind takes over our ears from the first seconds of In the Beginning.... Rising with intensity, this synth wave hooks multiple cosmic sound parcels to its graceful movement that undulates like the slow procession of a crawling reptile. The musicality of this ambient texture can be heard from its undulating loops in a dramatic accentuation that lets filter harmonies prisms that we will hear in a more elaborated way in Chronos. Except that PLANETARY UNFOLDING does not have the identity of Chronos, it is its cradle. And a track like Toto, I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore! proves it by 10. The whistling winds are born from the finale of In the Beginning.... And not even 10 seconds in, you can hear a slight mechanical flutter amplify as the moods take on a more austere, dramatic edge. The voices here are more solemn than on the previous track and combined with those buzzing winds that sound to our ears like the slow movements of a drifting space shuttle, they add a Dark Ambient Music dimension to this fascinating procession of cosmic winds. The metallic clicks also mutate into felts as discreet as two atoms caressing each other in a cosmic jelly as they transform into percussive elements with changing personalities. The first sounds of intergalactic exploration video games are probably originated from this fascinating tonal setting that Michael Stearns offers to our ears. The winds of Toto, I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore! are migrating to Wherever Two or More Are Gathered. There where the Modular Serge synth displays a sonic dimension of an extreme intensity and where a first rhythmic life beats in PLANETARY UNFOLDING. The melodious winds of Chronos are drawn from here and they shimmer over a bass layer that makes crawling its spells under a bed of prisms displaying its contrasts on a rainbow-colored cosmic river.
This short moment of noisy rhythm disappears into the darkness of a finale that flows into the muted vibrations of Life in the Gravity Well. The cosmic mermaids and their bewitching chants nestle to this address, just after an UFO falls into this well. We are close to the melodious oceanic ambiences of M'Ocean here and a dull pulse beats in this seraphic setting that recalls the turbulence of Angels, Bells and Pastorale in this Stearns' album that has served as the sound reference for Ron Fricke's film. The pulsations are more secret in As the Earth Kissed the Moon and these synth lines which dissociate to regroup at once in a melodious atmosphere where the waves sing as much as the birds chirp on a title which unites the two melodious poles of M'Ocean and Chronos. This seraphic opening leads to a second part where the intensity makes us raise the hairs on the arms, as on the soul, in a magnificent pastoral procession which progresses towards the rhythmic explosion of PLANETARY UNFOLDING. This first rhythmic phase is set on frenetic beats that are muffled by a cloud of synth layers whose bluish colors sway like a flag waved by violent winds. These layers undulate like a herd of waves trying to escape the oceans in an atmospheric tumult of an intensity as fierce as ephemeral. If the rhythm hasn't exploded, its imprint vibrates in our ears while the finale of As the Earth Kissed the Moon exploits its musical bipolarity to pours out its restrained fury in a dance of electronic hooves whose slams borrow the vertiginous intergalactic path of Something's Moving. The rhythm is without appeal with a swarm of various clapping in a random dance whereas the synth layers marry this flight of a space shuttle in the unknown of Cosmos that Stearns seems to have cleared with the accuracy and the nobility of his art. One cannot avoid the parallels with Chronos, even if it is its genesis
Michael Stearns is without doubt the pioneer of the Pacific School. His first albums, Ancient Leaves and Sustaining Cylinders, are clearly inspired by the initial albums of Tangerine Dream, pre-Virgin period, as well as the dark and ambient works of Klaus Schulze, like Irricht and Cyborg. PLANETARY UNFOLDING follows the curve undertaken by the influential Morning Jewel, to whom the New Age label was clumsily, and unfairly, attached. It's a beautiful album and the beginning of an impressive collection of works unique in both style and vision. It seems to be the beginning of a cosmic trilogy that would end with Encounter, an album I still haven't heard and which, according to the specialized critics, is a reference in the field. A very nice initiative from Sam Rosenthal and his precious label Projekt Music.
Sylvain Lupari (March 29th, 2022) *****
Available at Projekt Records Bandcamp