One Track Mind: Tangerine Dream with Brian May, "Star Sounds" (2011)

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Maybe you suspected, just from listening to his wildly inventive work with Queen, that there was little guitarist Brian May couldn’t do. I wasn’t so sure. But I’ll be damned if this live collaboration with space-music pioneer Edgar Froese’s Tangerine Dream doesn’t wildly succeed — despite my initial reservations.

Sure, May has a well-known interest in the cosmos and its exploration, having earned a doctorate degree in astrophysics. But, for all of the many styles that May has excelled at over the years, for all of the times he’s played completely in service of the song — showing such great flamboyance, then such sharp-edged restraint — I still didn’t know what to expect once that famously bushy mane was dropped in amidst this kind of long-form, open-ended improvisational music.

We will, we will … space you?

May nicely framed my initial reaction, during the news conference preceding this show — held last June at Tenerife on the Canary Islands in Spain as part of the Starmus Festival, an event celebrating 50 years of astronomy and related sciences. It came in the form of a particularly salient question, both philosophical and very appropriate for those still scratching their heads over this collaboration: “What are we doing in space?”

What, indeed? Why, fitting right in, of course. The deeply underrated May began this thrilling and unexpected guest turn as part of a new Froese piece called “Star Sounds.” And it, quite literally, includes sounds from stars — recorded celestial vibrations collected by Garik Israelian, the astrophysicist whose team broke new ground in our understanding of how supernova explosions create black holes.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Though it can’t be called definitive, a newly released 1992 concert from Tangerine Dream does include intriguing new versions of “Lagos” and “Love on a Real Train.”]

That’s not all, of course. Froese and Co. add these rumbling jungle rhythms, and suitably atmospheric keyboards — setting the stage for an explorative moment from May. Except rather than working within the structure of a solo, he begins scraping and sawing his guitar, riffing but in a dissonant way, working completely outside his expected framework. The sense of discovery, mirroring the song’s theme, is expansive, at times almost overwhelming.

Actually, he did space me. Big time.

The Starmus Festival performance also included an update of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” among other collaborative tracks, plus an entire set of Tangerine Dream tunes. But none was more conceptually intriguing, and brain-bendingly offbeat than “Space Sounds” — something that drew out a series of new, often deeply compelling thoughts. A concert souvenir from Tangerine Dream, called Live in Tenerife 2011 Featuring Brian May, is set for release on Nov. 15 by Eastgate Music & Art.

[SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: Digging into a few old favorites from Queen, including tracks from ‘Night at the Opera,’ ‘Queen II,’ ‘Innuendo’ — and yes, “Flash!”]

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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