Sonic Narcotic by Transient Waves – selected by James Chapman (Maps)

I first became aware of Transient Waves from the Rocket Girl compilations in the late-’90s/early-2000s. The first track was ‘Wavelength’ (from the Sounds From Psychedelphia compilation – still one of my favourite compilations of that period). They later released a track called ‘Green Acres’ on a similar compilation. I remember having those songs on MiniDisc and playing them on repeat everywhere I went. They had a soothing, trance-like feel to them – the distortion was a soft fuzz, rather than a huge roar – which I really liked.

They only released a few albums, and their early work was great but quite ‘out-there’ in the way it was arranged. Their self-titled album on Rocket Girl is also great, but it was 1999’s Sonic Narcotic – released on FatCat – that I fell in love with.

1999 was not a great year for me. I had dropped out of college and was in a real state of limbo. Dreams of making it as a musician were just that – only dreams. Other than tinkering with a four-track cassette recorder, I spent a lot of that time lying on my bed. Isolating. And this album was with me throughout that period. It was my escape. I could lie down, put my headphones on and be taken away to another dimension. So, unsurprisingly, Sonic Narcotic sprang to mind straight away when I was asked to write about an album that suited these times of solo listening. Escape is a key part of the experience for me.

When I was thinking about writing this piece I realised just how little I knew about the actual ban members themselves. The information I could find was that it consisted of Syd Tucker on bass, Eric Campbell on percussion and Loren Jackson on guitar. Campbell and Jackson also added clarinet, violin and cello into the mix, Tucker provided heavily-effected, whispered vocals. Other than those details I know fairly little about them. I do actually like having some mystique around an artist when listening to records. It kind of adds to the experience in a small way for me.

Into the album itself, there is undeniably a Spacemen 3 influence, but Transient Waves took the slow, ambient sound of the Spacemen and ran with it. Or rather walked with it, at an extremely slow pace. Everything on this record feels sedated. It’s a haze of feelings and emotions and half-forgotten memories. There is obviously a drug-induced influence as well (one of their early songs was called ‘Heroin Jam’ for God’s sake). Whether that was through the band’s experience or just sonically, only the band would know, but they created the kind of music you would hear as you drifted to another planet, rather than drifting off to sleep.

‘Bluehead’ is the perfect opening track. It immediately slows my heart down to their pace. The reverb-drenched vocal and sustained chords let the listener know that this is an album to tune in and drop out to. ‘Monsoon’ is essentially what sounds like a drum kit jamming with a free-form violin, but feels like it was recorded without the band knowing. A rehearsal room or studio somewhere in the forgotten past.

The second half of the album is where things get really interesting. ‘Blackjack’ has a dub-like groove. The middle section is almost like a Sabres Of Paradise track, the deep clarinet sound adds to this feeling (Andrew Weatherall/Two Lone Swordsmen actually remixed one of their earlier releases ‘Born With A Body And Fucked In The Head’). The final third of the song suddenly builds into a beautiful mix of effected guitars and percussion. ‘Paradise’ is a soothing mixture of soft, distorted guitar and barely audible, breathy vocal.

The final two minutes of ‘What I’m Shootin’ For’ is just a repeating loop of percussion. It’s almost as if the band are assuming that by that point in the album you will be locked into a trance. And it does have that effect on me. It’s a perfectly placed moment in the album.

‘Sketch On The Eastern Shore’ features a strange, manipulated vocal. In other hands the percussion sounds used could be seen as teetering dangerously close to new age/chill-out territory, but I forgive that completely because I think it totally fits with the druggy vibe of the music.

The final track, ‘8.8’, is escapism in its purest form. The ethereal, distorted guitar stabs are like a message sent into outer space, searching for fellow sonic travellers.

Some of the territory explored on this record is what people today might call ‘sound design’, reflecting an emotion rather than sticking to any recognised form of songwriting. Transient Waves were indeed ‘designers of sound’, a sound that reflected a time and a place, a pure escapism, and it still takes me there to this day whenever I put the CD on.