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numün: outer space, but Asian

Last updated on August 20, 2020

I love space with a hobbyist’s passion. I saw Apollo 11 in theaters and was just fully in awe of the grandeur and majesty of the whole endeavor that is “humans entering space.” (And leaving space, for that matter–one of the enduring images of the film for me was the astronauts entering the mobile quarantine unit after returning to Earth; I had forgotten that we had no idea what would happen to people if they went to the moon. Everything was new! Amazing.)

It’s clear that numün share that same sense of wonder. Their band name mentions the moon, each of these songs is titled after space concepts, the album is a space narrative, two songs were written specifically in memorial of the Apollo 11 50th anniversary, and the sonic landscapes evoke the wideness of space. Yet they also love Asian music and mysticism; the name numün evokes the mystical respect for nature (the new moon being an important concept in astrology), the instrumentation is distinctly Asian-flavored, and the spaciousness of the work points (mostly) toward calming, zen-like meditations.

I say mostly because the narrative of the wordless album runs thus: a spaceship takes off from Earth (“tranceport,” a pun further evoking the space/mysticism duality via trances and transport), the astronauts land on the moon (“first steps”), establish a base (“tranquility base”), then try to go home when something goes wrong (“mission loss”) that sends them careening out into space (“expanse”) past earth and into the sun (“voyage au soleil”) where presumably they all die. So, that back half is a little less relaxing (but, I suppose, no less meditative; it’s worth considering these things) conceptually than it might have otherwise been. The trio may have watched Sunshine too many times.

But! If you ignore the titles (which, honestly, is pretty easy to do, given the wordless musical context), this is a celebration of space. “Tranquility Base” uses actual spoken clips of Apollo 11 transmissions to celebrate the crew’s amazing work; these lovely vintage spoken clips sit lightly over a backdrop of tablas, wiry synths, delicate keys, drone, and evocative violin from Trina Basu (Brooklyn Raga Massive). The piece is directly intended to reflect the journey of Apollo 11, and it does an admirable job.

The other tracks are less concrete and more open to interpretation. Opener “tranceport” is a statement of intent that meshes a new age-y sonic palette (cümbüş–a fretless turkish banjo, a mellotron, Balinese gongs, tablas) with guitar and violin to develop and hold a neat tension between earthy and spacey. “first steps” fully abandons earth, leaning into traditionally spacey sounds like clanking synth modulations, deep low-end, and very long tones. Despite the clanky synth and vaguely Spaghetti-western guitar, this tune competes with “voyage au soleil” for most meditative piece in the collection.

“mission loss” is definitely not a candidate for that title, as the opening is eerie and discomforting. They use electronic transformations and staccato instrumentation to mimic the sound of failure alarms, and they do a (perhaps too) good job in evoking the uncertainty and nervousness that would come from a multitude of alarms going off at once. They manage to make it not overly sonically abrasive, but it is certainly discomforting in a ostinato way, sort of like The Necks’ latest work. Eventually the alarms subside into acoustic guitar, redeeming the song a bit, but it’s certainly a dramatic turning point that would fit neatly in a soundtrack or sonic novel.

“expanse” and “voyage au soleil” are not quite as gloomy as I positioned them to be in the narrative of the record, but they are certainly not major key blasters in the Ezra Feinberg frame. They are spacious, wide-angle-lens work that draw on the musicians’ previous work in minimalist / instrumental bands. Both are rewarding listens due to the subtle composition tactics employed throughout–“expanse” is a careful meting of instruments to create the trick of sonic density without feeling heavy, while “voyage au soleil” is a humongously long crescendo that yet doesn’t feel as if the good part is only at the end.

Overall, voyage au soleil is an ambitious, complex record. It sounds like an imagined soundtrack to a documentary about the Indian Space Research Organization. It is a slow-moving, densely moody record that yet holds a story line. It goes for a lot and hits most of it, even if some of its ends are at odds (“mission failure” is intended to be discomforting, but that makes it hard to do deep listening / relaxation with it, another goal of the record). But overall, it’s a strong record that fits nicely in the category of cerebral, evocative celebrations of space, sitting next to Public Service Broadcasting’s under-appreciated The Race for Space, Sufjan et al.’s Planetarium, and The Lovely Few’s The Geminids.