HIGH CASTLE TELEORKESTRA: A Genre-Defying Supergroup Unlike Anything You’ve Ever Heard (Or Imagined)

For those who fancy bands and musicians such as Mr. Bungle, Estradasphere, Secret Chiefs 3, Fantômas, Traun, Umlaut, Farmers Market, Atomic Ape/Red Fiction, John Zorn, among other musical specimens as exotic as they are sublime, High Castle Teleorkestra is a sure tip.

If you’re not familiar with any of these names, allow us to introduce this supergroup another way. HCT is an avant-garde, genre-defying band that blends a wide variety of music styles from different cultures and epochs, some of which might seem utterly incompatible—or are they?

HCT are a transnational group, with members based in different countries, featuring 3 musicians of Estradasphere (USA), namely Tim Smolens (bass), Timba Harris (violin), and Dave Murray (drums), in addition to Bär McKinnon (saxophone), former Mr. Bungle and currently in Umlaut (based in Australia), Stian Carstensen (accordion), from Norwegian band Farmers Market, and Chris Bogen (a newcoming guitarist who “conjures up bittersweet nostalgia of decades past with his classic guitar sound”). They are all extremely gifted musicians, true prodigies in their respective instruments (often more than one). By the way, it’s called a Tele-orkestra because their debut album (2022) was all remotely recorded and produced over the last two years or so, each of the musicians located in different parts of the globe (USA, Europe, Australia), thanks to the Internet.

HCT’s music (much like Estradasphere’s and Mr. Bungle’s) is marked by the fusion of and crossover between different genres and styles, by skillfully shifting from one rhythm to another, without being attached or identified to any of them. An eclectic, cosmopolitan mindset with regards to music and musicianship. From death metal to 1950s surf, from Bulgarian or Greek folk to Romanian gypsy, from progressive to jazz and doo-wop, from experimental dissonance to waltz, tango, or Italian soundtrack from the 60s and 70s, and back to death metal: unusual intersections, atypical combinations whose outcome is musically mesmerizing. HCT is a creative vortex that engenders, amid the varied forms of music with which they experiment, certain exotic specimens such as Romanian folk metal, one of HCT’s specialties.

Radio Free HCT: Sci-fi music inspired by Philip K. Dick

The artistic concept, themes, and song titles of HCT’s debut album are largely inspired by the literary universe of Philip K. Dick, known for books that would become successful films and TV series (Blade Runner, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, The Man in the High Castle). The album title is The Egg That Never Opened: Radio Free Albemuth part 1, in which the second part is the title of a posthumous book by Philip K. Dick—Radio Free Albemuth—and the first part—The Egg That Never Opened—is a quote from the same book. The song titles are explicitly or implicitly inspired by Radio Free Albemuth. Part 1? We hope there is many a sequel coming up (parts 2, 3, 4…).

The music video for “Mutual Hazard” (below), the closing track in The Egg That Never Opened (and one of the most emblematic when it comes to HCT’s Estradaspherean DNA), visually explores the references and symbols from Philip K. Dick’s fiction writing, such as the subversive organization named Aramchek, espionage plots, not to mention the motif of the Radio free: an appropriate metaphor for the atypical (subversive) nature of HCT’s music, averse to the strictly commercial appeal of mainstream music (not free, but slave to profit and success).

Understandably, HCT may not have an appeal to the masses, who tend to “consume” music like fast food, rejecting everything that requires the “art of ruminating” (Nietzsche), or more broadly speaking the slow and hard labor of artistic creation, craftsmanship, musicianship. People eat at McDonald’s because they know they will always find the exact same product (artificially flavored by the way). The aesthetic experience of listening to HCT is quite the opposite of eating junk food: after repeating it, one gets the impression of listening to something entirely new, radically different from the previous (listening) experience. And it’s truly nourishing for the soul (musical inspiration that transcends the domain of music, turning into cinema, poetry, philosophy and literature, graphic novel, contemporary dance and performance).

“I is another” (Rimbaud)

Nothing illustrates better the strange singularity of High Castle Teleorkestra than this famous line by Rimbaud: Je est un autre. It’s hard to talk about HCT without bringing up Estradasphere and Mr. Bungle, which seem to be the main foundations of (part of) its musical DNA. None of them has a defined, unequivocal musical identity. Or rather, their musical identity consists precisely in not having a defined musical identity. Like an Odysseus polymekanos of Music, HCT is a living being marked by constant metamorphosis (rhythm-shifting, genre-blending), versatility, unpredictability (always coming up with a surprise, like a musical plot twist or Jack-in-the-box), by permanently becoming something else, an other. All in all, it resembles nothing, resists all comparison, and yet echoes many things that might as well seem vaguely familiar (cultures, epochs, places, atmospheres, moods).

The definition of man proposed by Nietzsche applies to HCT: Das noch nicht festgestellte Tier, “the animal whose type has not yet been determined, fixed”. Like this animal ever-becoming, creative and colossal, HCT is the band whose type has not yet been determined, fixed.

A musical Matryoshka

The listener of HCT (and Estradasphere) could justifiably imagine that its members are humanoids being controlled by a legion of small musicians who try, without success, to impose their style of preference over the others’.

This image is especially suitable in the case of Estradasphere’s “Hunger Strike”, the first song in their debut album (It’s Understood, 2000), an almost 20-minute-long track whose length is only surpassed by the variety of styles and rhythms blended. It’s as though a gypsy taraf came out of a death metal band, and from the fanfare a jazz ensemble, and then a progressive rock group, and then a 1950s surf music act, and then an orchestra playing film scores, and so on, like a musical Matryoshka…

A music critic, who wrote a fine review of Estradasphere’s first album (Estradasphere being to a large extent HCT’s alma mater), made a meaningful analogy between the Californian band and the film Being John Malkovich (1999), released a year before Estradasphere’s debut album. Let us quote him in length:

In Being John Malkovich, the famous actor’s soul gets routinely occupied by average schmoes who pay $200 a pop for the thrill of experiencing Malkovich’s daily business. That is, until Craig Schwartz (John Cusak) learns how to manipulate the actor’s body, installing his own consciousness in Malkovich’s body and touching off the larger conspiracy of a group of “elderlies” who want to do the same thing. Given time, the net effect is hundreds of thousands of souls compiled into a single being.
Suppose this were possible in real life–but according to a slightly simpler scenario. Imagine hundreds of years’ worth of composers, rock stars and the occasional avant-garde performance artist all residing inside the heads of a group of musicians. A band of players who all have multiple personality disorder? Not really. It’s just Santa Cruz’s Estradasphere.

David Espinoza, “Spheres of influence”, Metroactive.com, 8th March, 2000

It’s a significant paradox that whenever we wonder and idealize how pure grace and human freedom would be like, unscathed by the calculations of reason, we end up returning to Kleist’s Theater of Marionettes (that’s also a central motif in Being John Malkovich). Refleting upon the philosophical message of Kleist’s play, John Gray writes: “Aren’t marionettes – controlled from above by puppeteers – often extremely graceful in their movements as they dance? No human being can match the marionette in effortless grace.” (The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom). If we risk such an analogy, it is not supposed to imply some kind of reification of the artists, as though they were mechanic automatons instead of creative human beings. It’s quite the opposite: when the whole (music) culture seems reified, turned into commodities and products for easy comsumption, the puppet becomes an ironic (and cynical) metaphor for human creativity and freedom (the same asymetry as in Gulliver’s Travels). HCT is fascinating because one cannot abstain while listening to it from thinking of musicians as skillful titans or graceful marionettes (without a puppeteer).

Music heterotopias and other uncanny soundscapes

Regardless of its affinities with bands such as Estradasphere and Mr. Bungle (given a common DNA), among others on the same genre-defying spectrum, HCT is an altogether different creature, one of a kind (there’s Stian Carstensen and Chris Bogen, whose creative work adds up to HCT’s unique sound, unlike any other previous band).

HCT experiments at the intersection of multiple genres, crossing the borders between cultures, “tribes”, languages, and their respective music styles and rhythms. As in the case of Mr. Bungle and Estradasphere, one must resist the initial strangeness so as to fully appreciate these bands in all their richness and singularity. More than that: it requires a taste for the exotic and the astonishing in music, a taste for the unsettling, the bewildering, for that which makes us speechless, defying our habitual aesthetic judgements.

Heraclitus’s well-known metaphor, that of the river that one cannot step in twice, which applies to all sorts of experience, can be applied with all the more reason to the extraordinary experience of listening to HCT (and Estradasphere just as well). In certain rivers, we could hardly step once, let alone twice (as the only thing permanent amounts to absolute change, the simultaneous becoming of the river/music and the listener all at once).

Even though it ultimately comes down to a matter of taste (always subjective, always relative), The Egg That Never Opened may seem at first (to most listeners) “difficult”, “complicated”, not quite conventional (an ironic understatement), hard to crack. Why should it be otherwise? With the exception of some of the 10 tracks, perhaps it’s not the best choice for a social gathering if the guests are not so musically open-minded. HCT’s music (pretty much like Estradasphere’s) isn’t anything in particular that would be likely to appeal to ears which only go for this or that genre of music in particular (whether it’s metal, jazz, progressive, classic, or any other big genre), thus rejecting everything else (everything that doesn’t fit into the big boxes). HCT is not recommended to those with an orthodox taste in music.

The Egg That Never Opened: Radio Free Albemuth part 1 (2022) is an album of poetic, dramaturgical and/or cinematographic virtues, as though it were the soundtrack for a film containing many other (fragments of) films, thus transporting the listener to fictional universes and thrilling plots. Atmospheres, ambiences, moods, soundscapes and short narratives (sci-fi, cinema noir, vintage, futuristic, dystopian, epic), often produced in a purely instrumental fashion, without the lyrical resource of voice and singing (which is also explored by HCT, even more than Estradasphere). In this sense, it resembles much of Estradasphere’s music and other projects developed by some of its members, such as Dave Murray’s Träun. The result is an eerily fascinating, musically bewildering work.

The Egg That Never Opened (album review)

Next, a brief analysis of the 10 tracks of The Egg That Never Opened (2022), taking into account some aesthetic criteria (variables based on HCT’s musical DNA, past or present related projects): eeriness or weirdness (experimentalism), polyrhythm and musical hybridism/intersectionality, lyricism, arrangements, also referring to past recordings by Estradasphere, Mr. Bungle and other related bands—for those who are familiar with their discography—whenever one of the songs in The Egg That Never Opened echoes one way or another one of these bands.

1. “The Egg That Never Opened” (5m16s). The opening and the closing tracks are some of the most representative of HCT’s DNA (pretty much like “Hunger Strike” stands out as the debut song on Estradasphere’s debut album, or “The Return” as the closing track on Palace of Mirrors, their last album). Let us be taken on a radiophonic journey through genres such as early 20th century jazz, surf music, Romanian and Bulgarian folk, cartoon soundtrack, Italian film sountrack, all seasoned with heavy doses of metal. A mind-blowing way to start off, polyrhythmically, shifting genres, from slow tempo, soft arrangements, to brutally fast, death metal sections. Saxophone and accordion stand out on the opening track, giving it a very special palette of colors (see below a HCT video chat in which they discuss Romanian vs Bulgarian ornamentations).

2. “Ich Bin’s” (3m39s). Music video available (below). As explained in the advertisement video released in April 2021, this tango-ish tune was composed by an Argentinian immigrant to France named José María Lucchesi. The accordion gives it a charming air of chanson, in a waltz-like rhythm (3×3), as if it were the soundtrack to an old French film whose protagonist—a foreign Don Juan of sorts—went berserk with the metal insertions in the middle of the tango, disrupting the romantic mood of the song.

3. “The Aramchek Accusation” (3m25s). One of the most bizarre, genre-defying tracks, in addition to being largely sung (in fact, HCT stands out from Estradasphere for a considerably greater use of the voice). A 70s-ish psychedelic theme which stands out for the duo of synthesizer and voice and, at a different moment, for the piano, flute and saxophone arrangements. Retro and futuristic all at once. Mention be made to the melodic, lyrical section (sung) which comes across as beatle-esque or pink-floydian in a sense (vague resemblances). Absolutely mind-blowing, eerie and beautiful, simply sublime, unlike anything you’ve ever heard.

4. “Valisystem” (5m08s). The percussive, atonal introduction is remarkable for its weirdness, culminating in a beautiful (lyrical) vocal theme accompanied by keyboards with a kind of new age, progressive, reverberating pitch. The song soon morphs into something that sounds like the soundtrack to an animated fantasy film (Dave Murray’s Träun comes to mind), followed by short sections with different rhythm and atmospheres. Great vocals. Wonderful saxophone and flute arrangements as well. Another composition with significant sung parts. A strangely melodic, absolutely genre-defying theme, unlike anything you’ve ever heard. An epic soundtrack to the history of Valisystem.

5. “At Last He Will” (5m40s). Like the opening one, “The Egg That Never Opened”, this is one of the most emblematic tracks when it comes to the musical DNA inherited by HCT from Estradasphere (especially their last album, Palace of Mirrors). Stian Carstensen’s accordion stands out, giving it an epic death metal tango kind of atmosphere. Quite a polyrhythmic composition, full of transitions, twists, and rhythm shifting, as if someone kept changing the radio dial into different stations, even mixing them together. There’s a Romanian or Bulgarian folk metal section in the middle that is suited to metalheads.

6. “The Days of Blue Jeans Were Gone” (4m04s). One of the most “normal”, conventional songs on the album (which is not a criticism at all!), without much variation, major surprises or “plot twists”. A lovely jazz theme with doo-wop backing vocals, with a 50’s vintage touch. The perfect soundtrack for elevators, cafes, lounges, parks, subways, car trips, museums, reading and having wine on the balcony, and picnics on the beach.

7. “Diagnosing Johnny” (7m54s). Like the previous track, this is one of the most “normal” and least “bizarre” compositions by HCT, without much rhythm-shifting. It’s the second track in a row that features doo-wop singing (even more so here than in the previous track). There’s a dramatic climax from the middle to the end, concluding with a beautiful orchestral arrangement that accompanies the doo-wop vocals. As always, the arrangements and ornaments, provided by different instruments (string, percussive, wind instruments, as well as synthesizers), is absolutely mesmerizing.

8. “Placentia” (3m55s). The third track in a row with a simple compositional structure (4×4), compared to the polyrhythmic virtues of HCT (like Estradasphere), no heavy metal assaults (as in the first tracks), no musical “Jacks in the Box” (as in the 3rd and 4th tracks). With mellow guitar chords that resemble rockabilly tunes, it’s an instrumental jazz theme, in a kind of beachy surf music atmosphere. Great creative work on the guitar by Chris Bogen. “Placentia” is one of HCT’s compositions with greater poetic, dramaturgical and/or cinematographic virtues, visually stimulating the listener to imagine a variety of archetypal situations, places and characters, from the liquid ocean in the mother’s womb (“Placentia”) to a paradisical beach at sunset, from strolling through the empty city streets on a Sunday afternoon to the stealthy footsteps of a detective who investigates a beautiful woman suspected of being a serial killer and whose mysterious ways cause him to become attracted to her. It could be the soundtrack to an animated film by David Lynch in which Pink Panther meets Laura Palmer.

9. “Klawpeels (Mission Checkup)” (3m33s). The penultimate track stands out, like the previous three, for its conventional structure with no polyrhythmic variation. There are two kinds of compositions by HCT (and Estradasphere): the genre-defying ones and more conventional, “normal”, melodic and lyrical songs. “Klawpeels” belongs to the second category. It’s bittersweet, nostalgic, soulful, arranged with a poignant, weeping saxophone, and with beachy, dreamlike, melancholic guitar chords, producing a deeply engaging, poetically significant atmosphere, something in between surf, soul and blues. Just as it has become a thing to say “That is so Black Mirror”, whenever someone experiences or witnesses something that seems to have some thematic connection whatsoever with the British series, it could also be a thing to say “That is so Estradasphere”, or “That’s so High Castle Teleorkestra”, as a clever catchphrase when it comes to alternative music. Amid the sameness, the mediocrity of much of contemporary pop music, it is not difficult to recognize a rara avis [rare bird] like one of these bands: not by a certain esthetic pattern, not by the purist fidelity to a single style or genre of music, not by an artistic identity that is as definite as it is easily labelled, but instead by the “schizophrenia” of the absence of a determined, easily definable nature, music-wise.
Judging by each of the tracks on The Egg That Never Opened, the first 4 readily reveal, for the listener who has some familiarity with Estradasphere and Mr. Bungle, that this probably has to do with those groups. The same cannot be said of tracks 8 and 9, for example, in which homogeneity and simplicity prevail over and polyrhythmic variation and other forms of experimentation whatsoever. Thus, “Klawpeels (Mission Checkup)” is a song (like some of Estradasphere’s songs) in which HCT disguise themselves, so to speak, underneath the cloak of “normality” (in a positive sense, just like its opposite, “bizarreness” or “eeriness”), therefore sounding like anything but HCT (!). If an Estradasphere fan heard it for the first time in a different context, outside of The Egg That Never Opened (say, randomly on the radio), it is likely that they wouldn’t come close to suspecting that it’s the creation of those genre-defying musicians whose music they know so well. This paradox is an expression of their great virtuosity: not all artists have the talent and skills to disguise themselves as… themselves.

10. “Mutual Hazard” (5m40s). Following the principle according to which it takes finishing in great style (which reminds us of the last tracks on some of Estradasphere’s albums, such as “The Return”, on Palace of Mirrors, and Mr. Bungle’s, such as “Merry Go Bye-Bye” on Disco Volante, or “Goodbye Sober Day” on California), The Egg That Never Opened concludes in the best Romanian folk metal style. “Mutual Hazard” is one of the most exciting, insane, and heavy tracks on the album, with an impressively polyrhythmic structure, incorporating the traditional sounds of violin and accordion to the Romanian folk metal that is a trademark of these bands. The climax, nearing the end, is beautifully chaotic—and breath-taking. A striking way to end a striking musical odyssey—just as it had begun.


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