Echoes April CD of the Month: Dave Bessell

Dave Bessell's Electronic Hallucination, Chromatic Lightning Cage is Echoes April CD of the Month

by John Diliberto 3/31/2024

Dave BessellWhen it comes to sequencer-driven music, there usually isn’t a lot of composition involved. Get the sequencers going, play a melody on top and toss in some spacey sounds and you’re done. Dave Bessell has done that at times over the course of his 14- year recording career, but not on Chromatic Lightning Cage, a masterpiece of electronic orchestration. And that makes sense because the clear influence on this album is Vangelis, himself a master of electronic orchestration.

Bessell has been around a long time. He’s recorded with Killing Joke, Suede, U2 and Coldplay. He also has an electronic trio called Node with the producer known as Flood. On Chromatic Lightning Cage he taps inspiration from Vangelis and Tangerine Dream to sculpt this intricate, but deeply atmospheric recording. This is music that’s not cinematic per se, but it will instantly conjure images in your mind.

The opening “After Hours” is a title that tells you when you should be listening to this. A piano-like arpeggio leads the way into a world of elongated, fuzzed-out synth melodies and alien noise. That’s followed by the immersive “Forest Under the Sea.” Electronic chimes and small percussion chatter and clatter like a music box searching for its melody, alongside a synthesized sound that reminds me of Tonto’s Expanding Headband’s electronic voice on “Riversong”.

Dave Bessell - Chromatic Lightning CageBessell isn’t creating a light-hearted or even soothing landscape here. It’s part dystopian, blasted landscapes and hellacious  rides to the edge. That’s why “Darkening Air” lives up to its title. Phased string synths open the track in a majestic fashion before the sequencers kick in with stereo delays orchestrating their arpeggios atop more string synths and an effect that sounds like a monster. The track subtly builds as drums toss increasingly heavy percussive accents and synth strings soar over the top. I haven’t heard this much filter-sweeping and flanging in a while. It’s like the skies have parted, only to end in a decayed synth gurgle, like the last utterance of Hal, the 2001: A Space Odyssey computer.

“Dream of the Red Chamber” is a descent into clockwork hell. Bell-like cycles rotate in dark space before heavy synth chords, redolent of Vangelis, signal something wicked this way coming. Vangelis is also echoed in “Ariel” with those powerful Blade Runner chords that usually signaled something dangerous.

Bessell can get lost in his sound design at times. “Unheimlich” is a long, completely abstract piece that throws you into a slowly floating world of sound. The Vangelis reference here would be Beauborg, Vangelis’s 1978 journey into abstraction. “Unheimlich” is a little trippier, but unlike Vangelis, Bessell brings it back to consonance, albeit edgy consonance, with a frail melody and music box rhythm. Listening to it is truly like being as stoned as you can be.

Most of Bessell’s tracks build to their orchestrated landscape, but “Nightshade” throws you right into it with growling sawtooth synth sounds, depth charge underwater percussion explosions, and off-center sequencers. But after this snarling, long prelude, a majestic melody appears, like tearing open the veil to another world. It leaves, then returns, this time underpinned by piano arpeggios. Drums emerge two-thirds through as Bessell takes the song into a more heroic direction.

“Moths” is the longest and most complex track. It starts out abstract and atmospheric before a rhythm track kicks in, puncturing a delicate melodic cycle on an electronically-created metallophone. It’s like gamelans in space until it moves into a heavier groove and lead sequencers that sound like Steve Reich improvising. The bottom drops out, a flute-like melody emerges along with a sweeping rhythm that took me back to an old Steve Roach track, “Mysteries Continue.”

After all the darkness, the album ends on a lighter note, with “Elegy,” a track that calls to mind Tangerine Dream’s “Love on a Real Train” but goes in another direction as the arpeggio sequencer line shifts timbres and heavy chords drop in. As it crescendos, it drops into a new segment of interlaced sequencer patterns and heroic chords to send you out into the world, girded for battle.

Dave Bessell  is a sound shifter. Among his many synths, there’s also a lot of guitar on the although you’ll never tell from listening. He doesn’t just create music on Chromatic Lightning Cage, he creates worlds. There are so many layers to each track that it’s difficult to describe completely. It’s an album that will call you back to its orbit again and again.
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