In my music folder, I have a subfolder titled ‘Eureka’, named after the hometown of Mr. Bungle, in California. In the ‘Eureka’ folder, I store everything directly or indirectly related to Mr. Bungle and Mike Patton: first and foremost, Faith No More, and also Fantomas, Peeping Tom and Patton’s various solo projects, Secret Chiefs 3, John Zorn, and so many others. And then there’s avant-garde progressive, multifaceted band Estradasphere.
I discovered Estradasphere back in the early 2000’s, while listening to Mr. Bungle’s last album, California (1999). Can’t remember how and where I found out that Trey Spruance, Bungle’s lead guitarrist, had produced the first album of this strangely-named band (named after Eric Estrada, an actor who played the role of a highway patrol officer in the 80’s TV series Chips). The album , It’s understood (2000), launched by Spruance’s record label, Web of Mimicry, is one of the most insane things I’ve ever come across when it comes to music.
Estradasphere is impossible to define: not dwelling on any particular genre, they range from jazz to death metal, and then to classical, Balkan gypsy, 70’s funk, Spanish folk guitar, film soundtrack, 8-bit videogame, New Age meditation music, and much more. Now imagine all that blended into a single 20-minute long track. Sounds all too pretensious, or far-fetched, right? But it’s not. Some might say it’s music made for musicians, but the truth is they can appeal as well to the regular listener and music lover (as long as they are open-minded and willing to embark on a highly unorthodox, all-encompassing music journey that is very likely to please one’s ears and amuse as well).
Estradasphere’s members are highly skilled, virtuous musicians in their respective instruments, some of which were music teachers at music school in Santa Cruz, California (their hometown). The original formation was: John Whooley (saxophone), Jason Schimmel (guitar, banjo, keyboards), Tim Smolens (stand-up bass, electric bass), Timb Harris (violin, trumpet), Adam Stacey (accordion, keyboards), and Dave Murray (drums). Kevin Kmetz, aka The God of Shamisen, was also a member.
When I mentioned a 20-minute-long instrumental song, I had the first track from their first album in mind: ‘Hungerstrike’ (a composition which is emblematic of their entire work). It takes off as a hallucinated, fast-paced Arabian swing, with regular breaks, in which the saxophone plays a major melodic role, then it turns into a beautiful violin solo, and then back to the fast-paced Eastern-like swing, and then into a smooth jazz section in which the stand-up bass, the guitar and the drums stand out, then to a death metal section, and then to a beautiful Flamenco swing part. That’s only 8 minutes since the beginning. Here is the entire composition (both the studio version and a live one).
Not all of Estradasphere compositions are as long as ‘Hungerstrike’. Neither do all of them blend such a wide variety of music genres into a single track. Also from their first album, It’s understood, I’m particularly drawn to the third (‘The Transformation’) and fourth tracks (‘Danse of Tosho & Slavi/Randy’s Desert Adventure’), the latter also containing a great deal of death metal (which I am particularly fond of) in between the swingy sections.
They performed at the Burning Man festival in the year 2000. Their live act included pyrotechnics, death metal cheerleaders from hell, and even a book-reader who sat on stage reciting passages of books.
Estradasphere released 5 albums: It’s understood (2000), Buck fever (2001), Quadropus (2003), Passion for life (2004, live), and Palace of Mirrors (2006). They also released 2 EPs: The Silent Elk of Yesterday (2001), and The Pegasus Vault (2008). My favorites are definetly the debut album, and also Buck fever and Quadropus. I would also add their last album, Palace of mirrors, which features a new drummer, Lee Smith (in my opinion, way better than Dave Murray).
Unfortunately, the band is no longer active (since about 2008), the members split and carried on with other projects. One of my greatest sorrows is not having ever seen them live. I did see one of its members live three times (in Sao Paulo, Brazil): violinist Timb Harris, twice with the Secret Chiefs 3 (Trey Spruance’s band), and one time with Probosci, a duo he has with guitarrist Gyan Riley. Below, some tracks from each of my favorite Estradasphere albums:
‘Meteorite showers’ (from Buck Fever)
‘Millenium Child’ (from Buck Fever)
‘Mekapses Yitonisa’ (from Quadropus)
‘Hardball’ (from Quadropus)
‘Jungle warfare’ (from Quadropus)
‘Body slam’ (a KidRock-like mock from Quadropus)
‘A Corporate Merger’ (from Palace of Mirrors)
‘The Return’ (from Palace of Mirrors)
Finally, an offbeat cover they used to play live: ‘Livin’ la vida loca’ (death metal version)