If Kid Millions has one overriding feeling about Man Forever’s Pansophical Cataract, it’s that the general public might not find the songs entirely suitable for dinner parties, high-school dances, or Top 40 radio. Even if that’s oversimplifying things, it gets the point across that the release deserves to be filed under Art rather than Commerce.
“It’s not very digestible,” says the drummer formally known as John Colpitts, reached while record shopping in New York. “It’s pretty avant-garde. Actually, I shouldn’t say that, so I’ll just say it’s not an easily digested piece of music.”
So what’s stopping Pansophical Cataract from hitting the mainstream? Well, you can start with the fact that it’s two songs long, with “Surface Patterns” clocking in at 18 minutes and 10 seconds, and “Ur Eternity” managing to eclipse that at 18 minutes 46 seconds. Neither track is going to usurp “Gangnam Style” as a first-listen smash, with Colpitts and his small army of Man Forever collaborators taking a slow-build approach to the compositions. Cleverly, it’s a treated single drum that’s at the heart of the tribal songs. Colpitts recorded friends and acquaintances beating on snares, layered them, and then added subterranean synths and bass to the monolithic final product.
The end result is fascinatingly transporting, in the same way as the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”, the druggy Congolese compilation Congotronics 2, or Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No.3. Cue up Pansophical Cataract and then prepare to get lost in the polyrhythmic majesty of it all.
Quite accurately, Colpitts has suggested that the record can “be likened to watching Niagara Falls. You can’t expect to see every drop of water that crests over the ridge, but you are overwhelmed with the sheer scale of the thing.”
The genesis of the release can be traced back to a monthlong residency the drummer did at the Millay Colony for the Arts in Upstate New York. “I was a composer, so I wrote the pieces there,” he says. “But after that, there was so much that went into the record, so many steps. Basically, a short version is that I’d been doing Man Forever with drum sets for a while. That required me tuning drums and then taking them to each show, and I got sick of that. It was a huge ordeal.
“I was asked to do this radio show,” Colpitts continues, “and they wanted me to do something small. So I worked something up with [Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer] Brian Chase, where we would play a single drum set together. We were doing that, but it wasn’t really sounding cool, even though we were moving all sorts of pieces around. Finally, we just ended up playing on the same snare. That’s when we realized, ‘Oh, shit, this is it.’ We did it live, and from that foundation, I built the pieces on the record.”
As cool as Pansophical Cataract is, the sonic experiment hasn’t been without its drawbacks. Live, the songs can stretch up to 40 minutes, with Colpitts scheduled to get help for his upcoming Vancouver appearance from Black Mountain’s Jeremy Schmidt on keyboards and Joshua Wells lending a hand on the snare. “Ur Eternity” and “Surface Patterns” might cause those in the audience to bliss out, but it’s an entirely different experience for those playing the pieces. That explains why this might be the one and only time you’ll get to experience Pansophical Cataract live, which Man Forever’s main man plans to stop performing in concert sooner rather than later.
Asked how he makes it through a show, Colpitts laughs wryly, and then responds: “I don’t really. It’s not hard—it’s just bad for your body. I mean, I just do it, but it’s not sustainable.”
Or, for that matter, easily digestible.
Man Forever plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Tuesday (December 18).