With Activated Clown, spaced cowboy Cameron Stallones levels up from the realm of the jealous gods to full enlightenment
But the quality of his cosmos has changed: or rather expanded.
Early on, if you were on the Sun Araw tip during his excellent swamp-tropical run of Heavy Deeds through Ancient Romans, you could conjure up between the psych freak-outs some accessible jams that sat well with just about anyone’s summer grill mix. I can count no fewer than a dozen times I’ve thrown on “Deep Cover” at as a back porch jam and got heads nodding.
Those early albums came to prominence when four-piece styled ‘bands’ were still more or less a thing—Sun Araw could pass on a mix with late-period indie when the guitar was still a mainstay, where his post-Magic Lantern wah wah loops fit right in.
Fast-forward ten years: none of these facets still hold. Guitar rock, and indie's breezy sense of complacency in the post-W/Obama era, is as dead as British skiffle.
Which, as it happens.
Activated Clown, like the releases leading up to it, are akin to a Philip K Dick reimagining of the project—its constituent parts boiled down and rebuilt to replicant specifications.
A scatter plot growing more diffuse with time.
Activated Clown is comprised of two sidelong improvised electronic jams, Sun Araw’s erstwhile psych-pop approach now fully absorbed into the digital realm—not digital in just an ‘in the box’ sorta way, but like the entire project has been transported to a Tron-like universe.
NNA describes the pair of tracks as “a set of future-minded MIDI jazz suites.” Pretty close to my scrawled notes from first listen: ‘Activated Clown’ finds MIDI-everything in full psycho-jazz, train-whistle swing, mid-to-late period Herman Blount as soundtracked by Squaresoft.
Side one’s “Hermeto Tume,” representing daytime, keeps the momentum decidedly up: couple Bitches Brew-era Chick Corea with Beefheart’s rhythm section, tie the package together with some vibrato-induced bong rips and and you have an approximation. Its free-form MIDI guitars and digitized Beefheart marimbas stay tethered by the steady pulse of a shaker. There are the occasional retro flares of Sega powerups, but otherwise stays outside from the 90s video game musicology en vogue as of late and stays the extended improv course.
The second half of the track keeps on choogling with the digital strum of the simultaneously chill-and-dissonant MIDI guitar (one of many liner note descriptors making me want to experience this live) blending with RPG-chirps and shamanistic whistles.
In fact, “Hermeto Tume” has more than a remnant of that tropical, heat-sick Sun Araw of yesteryear, stripped of reverb and re-imagined as a Sim City 2000 desert mix. Its final closes with textures wistful and reminiscent of a day’s energy spent—caffeine headaches and sugar crashes in the mind’s eye of the mainframe.
An exhilarating start, and halfway there.
As Stallones has taken to long-form electronic improv, ‘Activated Clown’ benefits greatly from the limitations of the two-track Day/Night theme, and this S. Araw Trio outing may be the easiest one to digest.
2015’s similarly textured “Gazebo Effect” by the trio (version XI) is a close relative with its AI jam-outs with clinical sterility, though its double-LP sprawl made the digitized approach—the first of his I’d nabbed in this framework—a lot to take in. “Gazebo Effect” makes more sense having absorbed “Activated Clown” as an introduction to the style—having been initiated, I’m now retroactively revisiting and better appreciating that computer simulated palette.
In the end, best summed up by NNA’s wistful futurizing: “Perhaps on some distant, interplanetary nightclub, ‘Activated Clown’ would be heard as an old standard."
May we colonize outward and our descendants be so fortunate.