Secret Saucer was formed following the demise of the seminal US Strange Daze festival, a melting pot of US and European spacerock acts and a corner stone of the American spacerock fraternity in the late 90s and the early years of this decade. As the band’s Steve Hayes notes, “most of us were involved with Strange Daze in one form or another, so the idea was to bring together friends I had made from various bands involved with the festival, do an improvised spacerock jam and record it in my studio.” Hayes, along with Steve Taylor had played with Jerry Richards and Richard Chadwick as ‘Strangewind’ at the 1998 festival when Dave Brock and Ron Tree had been refused entry into the United States for Hawkwind’s planned headline appearance that year. That led to them both playing in the Chadwick/Richards Star Nation project (Richard once told me the story of how they recorded in his spare bedroom at home, with the various musicians all put-up by local villagers), whilst Taylor also deputised on bass for Hawkwind’s tour of New Zealand and Australia in 2000.
Secret Saucer brought together a number of leading lights from the US scene. The line-up included Greg Kozlowsi from Architectural Metaphor, Paul Williams and Jay Swanson from Quarkspace (watch for a review feature on Quarkspace coming soon to this blog), Dave Hess of Blah, and band mates of the two Steve’s from Hawkwind covers outfit Sun Machine. They released two albums through the Dead Earnest label, Element 115 (noted on the in-lay as being recorded in July 2001, but released in 2005) and the 2007 follow-up, Second Sighting. At the time of writing, a third, as yet untitled, album is at mixing stage and planned for release in June.
Given the pedigree behind this project then, it’s fair to approach their releases with a suitably high level of expectation. And it’s equally fair to note that such expectations most certainly don’t result in disappointment, because these albums are high quality, well performed and extremely engaging works. Both albums are instrumental recordings, I assume stemming from their desire to simply play live in the studio and see what materialises. The music itself though is extremely tightly put together and played, despite the presence of the assembled musicians being rotated around the tracks. Krautrock like, they play around a specific theme, whether it be a repeated bass line or a synthesiser shimmy, with a leading instrument expressing itself across the top. In this respect, Steve Taylor’s lead guitar is particularly effective, having that winding, ethereal quality that made much of Huw Lloyd-Langton’s early 80s Hawkwind lead lines so effective – listen to him on ‘Sword of Conneaut’ from Element 115 as a great example. But there’s a compelling variety to the use of instrumentation in their compositions, Swanson’s piano on ‘STS-107’ for instance, and some highly expressive riffing going on in general.
Second Sighting follows the template laid down in their first release, opening with the muscular, driving, ‘Lift Off’ which merges a grinding guitar with some nicely Eastern toned lead juxtaposed against unearthly synthesiser and some rigorous bass playing from Billy Spear. ‘D-Walker’ (despite, from its title, sounding like a reference to Nik Turner’s classic ‘D-Rider’) is a gentle, thoughtful homage to the late Doug Walker, bastion of the spacerock scene and best known through his band Alien Planetscapes, a keyboard and synth dominated piece that winds its way through nine minutes of bright, easy-going and sparkly atmosphere. Throughout, there’s the inevitable comparisons with Hawkwind to be made (‘Disintegrator’ would have sat happily on Levitation, some of the more synthesiser focused stuff is worthy of association with Church of Hawkwind). But it’s right and proper to say that although there’s a straight-line influence to be heard, these guys, by just setting up and playing, following their passion and playing to that passion’s strengths, have already carved out a significant place for themselves in the genre and I, for one, am very much looking forward to hearing what they’ve improvised for us on their third album.