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The ZodiacThe Zodiac
Album: Cosmic Sounds
Label: El Records/Cherry Red
Tracks: 12
Website: http://www.elrecords.co.uk

Hey man, it's back to the weirdness now with this bizarre, spaced-out classic from 1967, which is given a complete CD reissue at long last. It was one of the strangest releases on Jac Holzman's iconic Elektra label, which was home to a host of folkish, esoteric and left-field progressive acts in the mid-to-late 60s - by even the standards of which it was almost too far-out for the record-buying public. It lays claim to being one of the earliest of the spate of psychedelic/progressive concept albums that became the vogue at that time, and occupies its own peculiar and unique sound-world. The Zodiac was not a band as such, but an umbrella term for the entire sequence of twelve pieces, each of which was based on one of the signs of the Chaldean astronomical zodiac. So it conveys the outer-space of the astrological (as opposed to astronomical) cosmos, then…

The music was composed by electronics pioneer Mort Garson and the words by Jacques Wilson. Cosmic Sounds is the first rock album to feature the sound of the moog synthesiser (here played by Paul Beaver), which is complemented by rock textures played by members of The Wrecking Crew, a loosely affiliated assembly of top-class west-coast musos who during that era worked extensively with the likes of Brian Wilson, Phil Spector and The Monkees. The words aren't sung as song lyrics, but instead they're declaimed by Cyrus Faryar in a rather thespian styling of slightly portentous, somewhat Morrison-esque character (perhaps this harks back to Holzman's alleged inspiration for the project, the success he'd achieved with The Doors a few months earlier). The elements of words and music are placed in celestial counterpoint…

All of which makes Cosmic Sounds sound like nothing better than an exploitation or novelty album. And yes, on first hearing it might appear wilfully arty, bitty, even slightly cheesy. But remember that its heady sounds were at that moment uncharted territory even for the more progressive end of the rock spectrum, and you need to turn your mind back to the context. We've since become accustomed to this kind of musical soundscape - so accustomed, in fact, that the shock of the new has been replaced by the "so what?" and the cheapness of abuse. With the benefit of hindsight, it's possible now to hear in this music retro snatches of anything from spacey sci-fi/TV/movie themes to jingles and commercials, but also some of the tricky little tunes that cropped up on early Zappa/Mothers albums and echoes of the experimental early prog bands and of course the idiosyncratic scoring and adventures of Brian Wilson. All of which emphasises Mort Garson's understanding of the innate playfulness of the mindset of the artist in psychedelia - not exactly hallucinogenic, maybe, but definitely far-out, spiritually and sonically if not in true planetary distance.

Cosmic Sounds is a period piece, sure - but although it exudes a certain late-60s toyshop playfulness and pothead trippery, an attentive listen will reveal countless textural subtleties that reach way beyond the superficially illustrative or glibly pictorial. There's touches of unusual instrumental colour, evocations of Indian sitar and Balinese gamelan, exotic percussion, each sliding in and out of the overall picture as images are conjured. You can have endless fun spotting pre-echoes too - for instance, it's possible to discern whence derived the Moody Blues' inspiration for In Search Of The Lost Chord and Days Of Future Passed, and I keep hearing The Nice's Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack album in some of the madcap keyboard scurryings and colourful effects; indeed, The Nice had even performed a version of Cosmic Sounds' opening track Aries (The Fire Fighter) on a John Peel radio session… For me, Cosmic Sounds rises above mere cult-curiosity status, as it provides some stimulating and fascinating listening; unlike so many ephemeral concept albums, it really does repay detailed scrutiny and repeated play. This reissue comes complete with contextual and biographical notes and a selection of photos, and is thoroughly recommended for the collector of prime psychedelic artefacts.

David Kidman