If it’s quintessential sci-fi art you’re after, it doesn’t get much better than the illustrations of Richard M Powers. The American’s work, a knowing blend of futurist schlock and pulpy surrealism, graced the covers of countless publications in the 50s, a time when the notion of space travel was freighted with the paranoia wrought by the Cold War.
At home in deepest Swindon, the young Andy Partridge became enamoured of these cosmic vistas, studying borrowed books from the library and imagining himself exploring the alien terrain that Powers had created.
First issued in 2010 in a limited run of 500 (all of which sold out immediately, so good luck tracking one down), Powers is Partridge’s attempt to translate this experience into musical form. You won’t find any trademark melodic turns here. Much less any baroque pop or, while we’re about it, any vocals. He has instead concocted a series of sound pieces whose antecedents lie in the musique concrète of Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Pierre Henry. Avant-garde, experimental and strangely alluring, Powers is “a child’s logic spun of star spit and robot dreams”, as Partridge puts it.
The absence of guitars means that most of these sonic sculptures are built around either synthetic noodles or clever use of orchestral samples. Sounds are distorted beyond easy recognition, bent and stretched onto new horizons via ring modulators and echo. Partridge has form in this kind of area, through his collaborations with Harold Budd and Peter Blegvad, but there’s little in his back catalogue that feels quite as dissonant or sparse.
In fact, Powers is as much to do with stripping back as it is building up. Weird planetary bleeps push through the choral ambience of Third Power, aka Outpost. Sinister distress calls punctuate Fifth Power (Transmitter) like moaning Martians made flesh. And it’s fascinating to follow the trajectory of Sixth Power (Hothouse) as it shifts from busy to becalmed, floating into the darkness like particles in zero-gravity. An odd, rewarding trip.