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  • Jonathan Widran

BEN COX, Consciousness, and other tricks of the light

In a true sign of this strange and challenging pandemic filled era known as 2020, recorded and livestreamed music has played an important role in helping us collectively mourn the old world, cope with the day to day “new normal” and find emotional and spiritual joy in the midst whenever possible.

Most of the recordings that have been released for our enjoyment and enrichment during COVI-19 were conceived and created before the universe shifted – but there’s a thought I’ve been writing over and over every time I feel an artist and album meet the moment in beautiful unanticipated ways.

As I wrap my conscious and subconscious minds around the inventive, sonically expansive astral journey composer and synth master Ben Cox takes us on with provocatively titled new collection Consciousness, and other tricks of the light, these words bear repeating because they apply: “There is something wondrous and inspiring about artists whose insight into the human condition, world affairs and our spiritual needs allows them to create works that serve to meet the moment.”

Up till now, I have mostly applied that sentiment to gentle, meditative new age works that were clearly designed to calm the nerves and soothe the spirit – a most helpful notion during a time of fear and uncertainty. But chilling out is only one way to venture beyond our present and all too problematic concerns. No offense to those artists and their excellent much appreciated projects, but the other option, and a much more fascinating and engaging one, is to create something that’s like an audio version of “Star Wars,” taking us to a far-off galaxy of unlimited sonic detail and creativity.

Cox’s rich and insightful understanding of Consciousness is one that allows our imaginations to run wild and create our own reality far away from the present world. That would be a powerful gift in any place and time, but it’s even more meaningful and necessary during a global pandemic.

As you listen, you’ll realize that the collection is best enjoyed as a full on 40 minute through-line, but the fact that each of the six tracks is crafted (or channeled, since these sonic concepts are truly otherworldly) via a blend of analog and digital synthesis helps us regress into a more innocent past even as we progress forward into uncharted territory fueled by our own needs and desires.

Perhaps because the ultimate spiritual result of Cox’s expedition is up to each individual listener, it’s best not to lead the witness. Yet a few humble comments might help guide your own path through this. “Einstein’s Cross” is organic synth funk with live sounding high hat and mind-bending echoing harmonics. It’s a fanciful adventure using soaring (and sometimes brassy) synth sounds grounded in the groove. It’s also notable for its spoken word vocal (something about gravity and symmetry) that may remind those of a certain age of Paul Hardcastle’s hypnotic mid-80’s hit “19.” The eight and a half minute “Delta Waves” is relaxing, spacey and atmospheric, but deeply core-vibrational and infused with sonic sparkles that rattle the heart and mind to make sure we’re not drifting too far off and can pay attention to the next stop on the astral journey.

Full disclaimer before commenting on the trippy and hypnotic six-minute gem “Just Begin Again” at the center of the excursion: I’m a big classic rock fan. So the minute I heard the spacey, “out there” riff patterns ping ponging in each ear – a foundational undertone throughout the piece – I’m thinking this is the kind of stuff Pete Townshend did to animate all our favorite classics from The Who. The tune picks up energy, speed and subtle bass tones, but the “Who without Roger Daltrey” effect endures mystically throughout.

“Now” plays similar aural tricks with the echoing effect of its hypno-chimes bouncing from ear to ear, and those keep going – artfully modulated for colorful variety - as Cox creates a dark bass driven counterpoint with moody, mysterious immersive energies. If that’s truly our “Now,” it’s a place we can exhale before we return to the stranger reality of present-day life on earth. As we try to figure out what the title “Chirality” means, we can let our mind’s eye soar along the ambient rock highway, where atmospheres provide intense backdrops for crisp, edgy electric guitar sounds.

At two and a half minutes, this is a nice respite leading up to the massive crescendo of the Consciousness experience, a 13-minute deep dive into a world of airy, breathtaking ambience, contrasting shards of darkness and light and curious and slowly crawling, synth generated creatures that tickle our ears as they wait for more shards of dawn to emerge. The press materials call these “tiny metallic tinkling echoes, perhaps in a huge dark cave well after midnight.” If you believe in such things, spending extended time in this arena of peculiar characters and textures may be your ticket to a past life regression or future life projection.

Wherever you go, it’s still the trip of a lifetime, limited only by the parameters of your own spirit and imagination and driven by an artist whose faith in the power of sonics knows no bounds.

As a bonus for the tech-heads, Mix magazine crowd and synthesizer nerds, in an interview about his methodology by music writer Robin James, Cox revealed his preferences for the My Eurorack modular, Moog Voyager (Anniversary Edition), Dave Smith Instruments Pro 2, Nord Modular G2, DSI/Oberheim OB-6, a pair of Moog Mother-32, Novation UltraNova, Moog Little Phatty, and a Roland JV-2080. Instrument used: Line6 Variax JTV-59, Helix Rack Software used: Avid Pro Tools, Plugins from u-he, Native Instruments, Eventide, McDSP, Waves, Lexicon, Arturia, iZotope, FabFilter, Csound Hardware used: Focusrite Red8Pre and Red16Line audio interfaces (DigiLink, Dante), Avid Pro Tools HDX, Artist Mix, Focal Trio6BE+Sub6, and a TC Electronic M3000.

Listen to Consciousness, and other tricks of the light here:


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