Motorpsycho aren’t accustomed to sitting still. When they’re not releasing albums at an alarming rate of knots, the Norwegian trio are invariably out on the road. So when the pandemic hit, they suddenly found themselves in forced limbo alongside many other artists. That’s when the creative juices started pumping. The latest fruit of their labour is Ancient Astronauts, initially a multimedia fancy that eventually morphed, almost by accident rather than design, into a remarkable new album.
“The whole ‘corona’ thing kind of stopped the usual way of doing things,” explains singer/multi-instrumentalist Bent Sæther. “So one of the things that we agreed to do was provide music for this solo dance performance by Hooman Sharifi, who used to be the artistic head of Carte Blanche, the national modern dance ensemble of Norway. We said yes because it was something new, a different challenge.”
Sharifi’s idea was to perform a piece based on Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring. Motorpsycho suggested he use N.O.X., a similarly-rooted suite from their 2019 album The All Is One. Sharifi loved it, but wanted to know if they had more. Motorpsycho duly expanded on a couple of ideas they felt might sit well with Mona Lisa/Azrael and the epic Chariot Of The Sun.
“At the same time,” adds Sæther, “there was a big fad of people doing streaming shows. But they all looked the same – purple lights and high-resolution camerawork up the nostril. No magic, no nothing. It just felt very sad. So we thought about other ways of doing it: how could we use film media to illustrate or represent the magic that music can create? The only people that we knew with experience in that field was a free theatre group called De Utvalgte, ‘The Chosen Ones’. So we started talking to them about doing something that might turn into a movie. The working title for the film was Ancient Astronauts, because as a rock band you sometimes feel like you’re picking up traces from all these other ancient astronauts that have travelled the same musical highways as you have. And sometimes you feel like you might be the ones leaving traces for future generations.”
Filming began last August, when Motorpsycho played across two days at the Ringnes Festival in Skotbu, Norway. Shortly afterwards, another live set – this time, a theatre performance in a forest, accompanied by local dancers – was also filmed. “I think we need a few more decent locations and a bit of a plot before we can actually do anything with it, though,” Sæther says. “We’re after a kind of [Andrei] Tarkovsky feel. Not a lot needs to happen, you just want it to be an atmosphere. We haven’t given up, but it’s sort of on the backburner for now.”
In the meantime, a still from the site of the Skotbu festival, featuring Sæther and fellow bandmates Hans Magnus Ryan and Tomas Järmyr looming from the early morning mist, graces the enigmatic cover of Ancient Astronauts. “That was basically us mucking about in the forest at six o’clock in the morning, just to get the sunrise,” Sæther explains.
“We went for the full-on Keef-from-Vertigo [photographer Keith MacMillan] look for this one. Not quite as intriguing as the Black Sabbath witch, but it’s in the same vicinity. It just looks perfect.”
A week after the shoot, Motorpsycho entered the studio to record the accompanying album. Ancient Astronauts consists of four tracks of varying length: The Flower Of Awareness lasts just over two minutes; by contrast, Chariot Of The Sun – To Phaeton On The Occasion Of Sunrise (Theme From An Imaginary Movie), to give its full, ever-so-prog title, takes its leave after some 22 minutes.
Both serve to highlight the extreme poles of the band. While the former is a subdued ambient piece, the latter changes mood with the frequency of volatile weather. Pastoral calm is superseded by gnarly avant-rock that grows ever more urgent and intense. There’s brief respite after the ensuing storm, only for the music to build into something ominously thunderous.
The same goes for Mona Lisa/Azrael, a bucolic folk song that explodes into punishing prog metal, complete with strings. Opener The Ladder is just as exhilarating, spearing through the clouds in its quest for nirvana, with Sæther singing of travellers on the astral plane. Ancient Astronauts is what Motorpsycho do best: following their noses, improvising into fresh territory. It’s something that’s sustained them over the past 30-odd years.
“Whenever we’re making music together, sections are left open,” says Sæther. “We have signposts and some bits are really tightly composed, but if somebody gets inspired, he’s free to take off and the others are obliged to follow. Every time we play something, it tends to be different. On stage, we swap out the music a lot – it makes us stay on our toes. You force yourself to be in the moment. The worst thing that can happen to a musician is to become self-aware when you’re on stage. You want the music to be so demanding and so intense that you totally forget where you are. You should be in the zone, in the bubble.”
For Motorpsycho, the whole idea of following the model of verse-chorus-verse lost its appeal a long time ago. “After a certain point, you realise that nobody will ever do it better than The Beatles,” Sæther expounds. “They defined the shape and form, and you can’t argue with genius. So is there another way to express yourself that feels truer to you? You have to play to your strengths as a band and we’re absolutely at our best when we’re almost panicking, not really knowing where we’re going.
“We all share this notion of letting the music happen in the moment,” he continues, “to see where you can take it. Sometimes you fall flat on your face and it really sucks. And sometimes you see God. You start something, then come back after half an hour and you’ve seen the cosmos together. That’s the highest high for a musician.”
When Sæther and Ryan first met as teenagers in 1986, they rehearsed in the local squat, armed with a “hardcore punk, vegan, Fugazi kind of mindset”. Nothing was off limits. Hawkwind and Sonic Youth were equally vital; Black Sabbath were as relevant as Pink Floyd. This inclusive attitude to music has only grown keener over time, assimilating free jazz, electronica and more into their ever-widening pool of influences.
So does Sæther see Motorpsycho as progressive in the classic sense? “We decided early on that we’re at our best when we’re not trying to repeat ourselves or defend whoever we used to be,” he states. “There’s no point, we have to try to find new ways of making this interesting. That’s sort of the progressive notion in a nutshell. And obviously, whatever was in the water or in the air from 1966 to 1974 made for some amazing music. It was great there for a while, but once it got codified it became stale, like anything else. So yeah, I’d say we’re pre-progressive. I really enjoy the spirit of a lot of those albums and artists. I can really get into that mindset.”
When Sæther spoke to Prog in 2017, on the eve of The Tower (their 20th album, roughly), he declared that Motorpsycho had yet to make their definitive masterwork. Five years on, he approaches the subject from a different angle.
“I don’t think we’ll ever find that one, because whatever that is changes at a daily rate,” says Sæther. “We haven’t given up on it, it’s just that it’s all about the search. It’s not getting there, it’s the process of trying to get there that’s interesting. That’s the whole point about Motorpsycho.”
This article originally appeared in issue 133 of Prog Magazine.