One way or another, I guess I’ve spent the past two years of my life trying to figure out what Cloud Cult is.
On the face of it, this appears to be a simple question with fairly predictable answers: Cloud Cult is an experimental rock group from Minneapolis, the brainchild of front man Craig Minowa, with ten studio albums and somewhere in the range of eight musicians. With Light Chasers – their latest polished effort – having been made available for Internet download in late June and set to hit stores in mid September, one might reasonably expect the focus of this review to be on that particular work. The truth, however, is that even though I have listened to the album in its entirety close to 40 times by now, I do not consider myself to have digested it sufficiently to give any other reaction aside from, “Wow”. More importantly, for me this band really cannot be reviewed simply in terms of individual albums, and deserves to be considered for the unprecedented and truly unique experience that it brings to the table – beyond most people’s ordinary interpretations of what music is.
[Perhaps I should mention that the first time I ever listened to Cloud Cult, I was balls-deep in five hits of some rather magnificent LSD.]
It’s hardly a secret that waves of innovation in pop music are often drug-fueled, and more recently perhaps even entirely directed by the quest to make colored lights flash behind the eyes of the hipster multitudes freed from the concerns of any coherent world view save blasé nihilism, rolling their asses off in sweaty clubs and open-air festivals. Anyone with an open mind and the will to do a little research (whether academic or experiential) will have noticed that the human brain reacts subtly to different auditory tones and frequencies, and that skillful composition of such may result in the manipulation or even onset of altered states of consciousness.
It goes without saying that the heavy-handed stutterbeat of a contemporary club-banger is a piss-poor substitute for the shamanic rattle, but we can at least kind of see how they’re connected. Freed from any cultural imperative to understand the full spiritual implications of messing around with the worlds on the other side of the pineal gland, pop and psychedelic musicians have for some time now been stumbling around in the dark, experimenting with any sound that seemed like it might lead somewhere (John C. Reilly’s character screaming, “an army of didgeridoos!” in the film Walk Hard comes to mind). It’s really something quite like watching two-year-olds finger paint; the process itself might be joyous, and almost certainly there will be pretty colors splashed around, but it will surely never achieve the depth of narrative provided by the measured strokes of a master painter.
Minowa himself has noted that the power of psychedelic substances is actually insignificant when compared to the perennial quasi-religious quest to unlock those channels in our consciousness without those substances, and as far as I can tell it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that the man has accomplished just that. The precision of Cloud Cult’s music, the consistency of their message, and the refreshing nature of the overall experience cannot reasonably be put up to the fruits of experimentation… and really, we lack any standard by which to measure whether any of us can even truly be considered to understand the significance of this qualitative achievement. The proof is simply in the fact that Cloud Cult – even if pigeonholed as “psychedelic music” – isn’t here to provide you with a kaleidoscopic rumbling hullabaloo that exists outside of time, but an actual cathartic wisdom of sorts. They have no need for the clumsy flickering of random images because they have mastered the deliberate and steady presentation of a stable panorama.
If I were a professional reviewer or even knew anything about music to begin with, I might try to explain the pan-dimensionality of Cloud Cult’s sound through the use of technical terms I don’t really understand, such as “subsonic”, “binaural beats”, or “counterpoint melodies” (those who have been classically trained may recognize the latter and gain a respectful insight into just how precise and deliberate these compositions truly are, particularly as compared to other modern music). Alas, I am burdened with the clunky vocabulary of someone who used the metaphysical equivalent of a sledgehammer to burst into God’s presence and was left grasping at straws while still desperately trying to make it sound like I comprehended any of it at all.
I’ve listened to my fair share of music while curled up in a little ball with my teeth and eyes clenched shut, muscles firing in joyful paroxysms; I’ve melted under the pounding bass of dubstep, clung to the edges of trip-hop, marveled at the expansive architecture of ambient black metal, indulged in the frivolity of electro-pop and yes, even yawned my way through some indie walls of garbled sound. But Cloud Cult? I need a mouth guard for this shit. This is something different. So different, in fact, that we must return to my original question: what is Cloud Cult? Because it’s almost certainly not just “music”.
How does one describe the indescribable? The difference between Cloud Cult and other acts is quite as noticeable as the divergence between a hand-held sparkler and a multimillion dollar fireworks display. Though I no longer use entheogens to augment my enjoyment of the experience, every hair on the back of my neck is still tuned to the subtleties of vibration; the shudders down my spine are involuntary. To make a statement that perhaps reaches far beyond even your suspended disbelief at my presuppositions so far, I’d like to tell you that Cloud Cult has achieved nothing less than the pan-dimensional holographic projection of narrative into the human consciousness.
Under Minowa’s spell, you are simply along for the ride and forced to accept what is administered, so frozen and awed are you by the sheer magnitude of its presentation. It’s like trying to stop and focus on a single point while watching something on an IMAX screen – eventually you will just dilate and sink back from it. Perhaps he has figured out a way to climb into our brains and hit all the little levers and switches at precisely the right time? He materializes right next to your ear, whispering timeless secrets that jolt you with homophones and double entendres through vocalizations that ebb seamlessly in and out of instrumental harmonies that from any other musician would have been considered wholly separate aspects of the song. Not everything you will see is pleasant; beautiful courtesans will wave to you from the doorway of a bordello behind the façade of which decompose the countless bodies of those who too embraced the admonition that it was “better to burn out than to fade away” (My My, Hey Hey). And yet… nothing is quite as it seems, for are not aging, death, and putrefaction simply part of the natural order?
The song “When Water Comes To Life” from their 2008 album Feel-Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes) suggests to us that “all you need to know is you are made of water”,
and when they burn your body
all thats left is sand crystals
two tiny handfuls
all the rest is water, water, water
Just as you begin to recognize the truth of these words, the implication that through water we have all been and will all be the same as every other living being, a guitar riff comes in that cannot but have been designed to effervesce every drop of moisture your being, paralyzing you with the full sensory implication of the song’s message and removing any lingering doubt as to the actual depth of what has just been presented.
The journey undertaken by Cloud Cult, and in turn offered to each of us through this music, is one full of love and redemption. It is a powerful tool capable of awakening anyone to the objective reality that there is more going on in the universe than we could possibly be aware of, and that the gnosis of this mystery might just be what sustains us.