Martin Tillman's Superhuman Symphonic Electronic Rock
Written by John Diliberto on October 2, 2016
From the opening notes of Martin Tillman’s Superhuman, it’s obvious that this isn’t going to be your typical contemporary cello album. There’s no looping and no romantic chamber arrangements. In fact, “Notes Towards the Universe” might sound like a mid-period Tangerine Dream track, full of sequencer patterns, dramatic synth leads and electric guitar accents.
The Swiss-born cellist has been a fixture on Hollywood film scores for the last two decades. His work includes Total Recall, the Batman Dark Knight Trilogy, The Da Vinci Code, Pirates of The Caribbean, Black Hawk Down, Mission: Impossible, and more. If you hear a lead cello in those films, or something that sounds like a mutated cello, it’s Martin Tillman.
Tillman brings that cinematic experience to Superhuman, with themes that could be scores to movies, most of them action films. “Wonder” merges a pumping EDM sequence with strings from the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra for a soaring work. “Cracked Diamonds” is pure Hollywood, a soundtrack for a pensive moment as the hero girds himself for the final encounter. This is one of the few tracks where the cello comes to the fore. The swampy “Translated to Beauty” sounds like an homage to both “The X-File Theme” and Angelo Badalamenti’s scores for David Lynch.
Tillman has a lot of guests artists on the album including Elton John guitarist Davey Johnstone, session veteran bassist Leland Sklar, ex-Frank Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and Toto keyboardist David Paich, but this is Tillman’s show all the way.
There’s a deep Progressive Rock influence on this album. “Future Dawns” might have fit on an early Emerson, Lake and Palmer album, with a mix of acoustic guitar, swooping synth lines and a heavy rhythm from Colaiuta. On “Celluloid Spaces” he gets as close as possible to covering Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them” without actually covering it. It has those same mid-tempo drums, similar chord sequence, swirling Hammond organ, female chorus and siren guitar. But half-way through, he takes it into an electronic groove, firing on all sequencers. Tillman cites EDM as an influence, and you can hear that on the title track, complete with a bass drop, but he sounds more like Trance music tripper to me.
The back story of Superhuman is that its creation was his way of coping the degenerative multiple sclerosis of his wife, Eva. It was both written for her and as a way of grappling emotionally with her illness. Anyone listening to the album would know that “Zero Gravity” was a love song for Eva with its ruminative piano and tremulous electronics merging with strings. It’s a heartbreaking song.
However, given the tragic undertow, it’s remarkable how jubilant Superhuman is. It’s not an album for wallowing in grief, it’s an album for getting out on the dance floor, if the dance music had complex arrangements, unusual time signatures and virtuoso playing. And also, if it had deep human emotions.
[Hear an interview with Martin Tillman in the Echoes Podcast]