Karl Demata likes a gamble. His latest project, after last year’s somewhat acrimonious exit from British prog rockers Crippled Black Phoenix, involves a bunch of people from various corners of the US and Europe, most of whom had never worked together before. What’s more, Demata co-wrote the songs via the internet with someone he’d never even met face-to-face.
The upshot is I / (Time), the auspicious debut album from a new collective that trades as VLY. “It was almost like a blind bet,” says the Italian-born guitarist/composer. “I knew everybody in the band, but not to the extent that I’d played with them. And, most importantly, a lot of them didn’t know each other, so it was a different way of working. There are a lot of reasons to be thrilled with it.”
Full of rich, Floydian soundscapes and discernible imprints of Tangerine Dream and Beardfish, and plenty more besides, I / (Time) lays out a vast terrain that makes cohabitants of prog, post-rock, electronica and ambient music. It’s the product of five gifted individuals collaborating through the ether, grafting layers of skin onto the skeleton of each song in their own unique way, then firing the results back and forth to the others in the form of MP3s and the like.
My idea was rather than take somebody on from the canon of progressive rock, why not try something different? That’s the true meaning of progressive for me.
Demata is joined by his former CBP bassist Chris Heilmann, Italian keyboardist Elisa Montaldo (Il Tempio Delle Clessidre), Sweden-based drummer Mattias Olsson (ex-Änglagård, White Willow and Necromonkey) and New York singer Keith Gladysz, best known as the leader of electro-rock eccentrics Diet Kong. The quintet only met up for the first time this July, for a video shoot, with the album long completed.
“Karl and I were put in touch by a mutual friend,” explains Gladysz. “I was excited because it was unlike anything I’d done before, working on the internet with someone I didn’t know and had no connection to. Basically, an MP3 would show up from Karl in my Dropbox and I would respond to it. It was like this anonymous relationship. When I was writing, I found that with pretty much everything he said, I was able to continue the conversation. Everything kind of clicked that way.”
For Demata, the nature of the project represented one of prog’s key directives: “My idea was rather than take somebody on from the canon of progressive rock, why not try something different? That’s the true meaning of progressive for me. Yes, it’s a set of preferred sounds, but more importantly it’s also an attitude. It means that you’re encouraged to look in different directions, within the umbrella of progressive. So everything goes, it’s all cool. It’s about having the licence to do anything you want. Working with Keith was interesting, because he comes from a different perspective. He doesn’t know too much about prog and is more of a conceptual artist. He has exhibitions and is very experimental, with pop/electronica things going on. I’d send some material over to him and it would come back in a totally different way. He’d somehow shaped what I was doing so that all of a sudden I was hearing things in the music that I hadn’t before. I was very impressed.”
A more explicit prog-jazz element came courtesy of Montaldo, whose instinctive way with a melody carries traditional echoes of PFM, Le Orme and other great Italian bands of the 70s. And while Heilmann brought a distinctly rockist sensibility to things, Olsson added extra textures via a huge stash of vintage synths and analogue gear at his studio in Stockholm.
Demata, who calls him “a genius”, remembers a Skype conversation with Olsson: “Mattias said to me, ‘I’m really liking this music, but do you mind if I play around with my toys?’ He started sending stuff back and not only were they really good drums, but he did a lot of unusual, personal, unpredictable things. Then he started putting all this analogue stuff on top, which added another dimension. At some points it was almost like Tangerine Dream.”
I / (Time) is a highly immersive experience. Tranquil piano interludes slip into deep channels of noise-rock; floating ambient passages are caught in rip tides of foaming guitars. There are songs about silver beaches, messages in water, ghost ships and raging seas. At its emotional centre is a recurring theme of renewal, of discarding something from the past and starting over again.
“This record was purely personal,” says lyricist Gladysz. “Writing those songs came out of a time that was a lot about opening, a lot about discarding. This approach of embracing new things and making new connections with people required that, so I left the lyrics open that way. The only reference was to reveal the inner workings of myself at the time. I was having a spiritual crisis, getting older and dealing with that.
“I also have Lyme disease, which is pretty prevalent over here in the States. Ticks carry these spirochaetes and if you’re bitten, you get this bacteria that infects you and wreaks all sorts of havoc on your body. If you don’t catch it in time, you have these recurring chronic issues. That’s what I have and it can be really debilitating. But whatever comes up in your life is either a disaster or an invitation. And looking at it that way helped me put the brakes on how I’d been living up until that time. It made me re-evaluate things. A lot of things changed for me at that time. I’m a tai chi chuan practitioner and I’m into qigong and spiritual practices that are there to change you. I think the record is really a reflection of that kind of practice and mindset.”
The title of the album, meanwhile, is enigmatic. “The original idea,” says Demata, who also produced the record, “was to just call it ‘1’, using the Roman numeral, because I always liked the fact that it could be misinterpreted as an ‘I’. But once everything was done and we listened to the songs, there was this concept of the element of time running through the lyrics and the music. And I felt I should let it out. So I / (Time) is open to interpretation, just as the music is. It could even be seen as a mathematical equation.”
The creative process of VLY appears to have been a welcome distraction for Demata. Last December he and Crippled Black Phoenix founder Justin Greaves began a legal dispute over rights to his old band’s registered name. The CBP Twitter tweeted that Demata was a “coward scumbag thief”, prompting a lengthy Facebook riposte from Demata. The ugliness of the spat wasn’t helped by its public nature, with Greaves threatening to retire the CBP name completely at one juncture.
CBP is still very much a going concern, however, while Demata insists that the whole affair didn’t play much of a role in the formation of VLY. “I think I got over it very quickly,” he says. “Emotions do run high when it comes to the end of something – it’s the case with everything in life. I’d actually been thinking about doing something different for quite a long time and had been writing this stuff, or the basic germs of ideas, for some years. The only thing I can say is that it doesn’t make sense for me to form a band or release music that is somehow a continuation of Crippled Black Phoenix.”
At the time of writing, VLY have yet to rehearse together, though European dates are due next year. But having hung out and shot the breeze about all manner of things, including their favourite bands (Pink Floyd and King Crimson to Wire and The Cure), they’re sure they’re onto something special.
Whatever comes up in your life is either a disaster or an invitation. Looking at it that way helped me put the brakes on how I’d been living up until that time.
“I remember listening to the album for the first time in my car,” Gladysz says, “and a couple of the songs just really hit me. I realised we’d done something that was worthwhile. Does this band have legs? No doubt about it. And I can say that, having been in many projects that start and stop or almost go. Once we met and started clicking, I thought that this was exactly what I’d been looking for. It was a beautiful thing.”
Demata reveals he’s already started writing a second VLY album, with a similar process in mind. “It’s given me a little more momentum, because now I can write knowing what to expect. The most important accomplishment is that we’ve managed to infuse the album with emotional content and sincerity, even working from a distance.
“I know this flies against traditional music romance, where people always say that it’s great to be together and jam and all that, but I wouldn’t change anything about this project. Everybody feels this freedom to express themselves. There’s no kind of clutter, everything’s very streamlined. And in a very rational way, you can see how things evolve. I just feel there’s huge untapped potential with this band. It’s overwhelming, really.”
I / (Time) is out now on Laser’s Edge. For more information, see www.vlymusic.com.