by Martin OsborneBailter Space were a New Zealand independent rock band who's recording career spanned 1987 to 1998, during which they released eight original albums and assorted EP's, the majority of which were released by Flying Nun.
If the Flying Nun connection conjures images of revivalist jangle pop, Bailter Space's final line up reunited the original members of The Gordons (1980 to 1984) whose musical notoriety hinged on a toxic blast of post punk and metal energy that was merciless musical simulation of the sickness that is life lived under dehumanising economic and social conditions.
Bailter Spaces first three years of existence (1987 to 1990) as measured by one E.P and two albums was an especially creative period, where the band extended The Gordons' legacy into a post Krautrock sci-fi rock.
In interviews, the band members were silent about their intentions, motivations and ambitions, what we would now be called boring interviewees, but the band name is a clue to their aesthetic. None of my dictionaries have an entry for the word 'Bailter,' so let's play a game and risk getting it all wrong by splitting 'Bailter' into two syllables and tweaking 'ter' into 'to' and running it together with 'space' to create 'bail to space.'
Bail to space, or informally, 'let's get the fuck out of this neo conservative shithole,' is part of a long tradition of musicians appropriating sci-fi terminology to express alienation and protest, but the metaphorical potency of space dissolves when you consider the lack of a breathable atmosphere, the effects of solar radiation, space being almost as cold as physically possible and interstellar distances rendering the universe as functionally lifeless – you can run, but there is nowhere to go.
Perhaps 'bail to space' is a far more imaginative call to build a space outside the oppressive weight of existence with the creative musician as an alien on his own planet unrepresented by mainstream banality or its mirror image in indie orthodoxy?
Bailter Space countered The Gordons diagnosis of terminal illness with a second opinion that believed an antidote existed. Musically, the band ditched the overwhelming weight of The Gordons for a constantly shifting post-Krautrock machine that swapped frictionless pulse for an electrically overdriven rock that blew open musical lines to reveal hidden spaces where despair and enervation have no place and exiles could rest, recuperate and regather their strength.
For some the 'bail to space' line may be desperately speculative but album titles such as Tanker and Thermos conjure images of voyaging vessels, sustenance, distance, time and shelter from the cold. Is it too late in the day to talk about a healing music?
The first crucial release is their debut EP Nelsh put together by ex-Gordon Alastair Parker on guitar and vocals in partnership with ex-Clean drummer Hamish Kilgour supported by Ross Humphries on bass (Pin Group, The Terminals) and Glenda Bills on keyboard.
Refusing to trade on their respective past's, Parker and Kilgour created a seductive hybrid of abstract Krautpop and pleasingly plastic synth gloop which took advantage of Parker's off kilter song writing and oddly affecting voice dashing between vocal chants and made up language. As good as Nelsh is, it does feel like a first statement as definitive statement with nowhere left to move.
For reasons unknown, Humphries and Bills left the band and were replaced by The Gordons bassist John Halverson with a third Gordon member, drummer Brent McLachlan, brought in to engineer their 1988 debut album Tanker which also became the blueprint for the Bailter Space sound.
The obvious musical change is that Tanker is rock music, with the clear edges of Nelsh traded for musical lines that blur notes and distortion. Parker's guitar is now an eruptive electrical sound, reminiscent of Neil Young, and Halverson's bass has a rhythmic and textural rhythmic and textural weight supported by Kilgour's deep and stable beat.
The songs don't seem to start or end but cut in and out at selected points, the musicians creating tumbling counterpoints of distorted drones, riffs and arcs of noise whose tempo shifts, drop outs and tonal shifts unexpectedly open up the music.
The most exciting and most overlooked element of the bands music is Parker's lyricism. His voice is another instrument reciting mantras of such ambiguity you can't help but suspect that in his imagination the emotional, physical, mechanical and digital are interchangeable raising the suspicion that his every utterance is underpinned by a 'cosmic consciousness' that views the natural and technological are essentially the same.
As good as Tanker is, the perfect form is 1990's Thermos where Kilgour has been replaced on drums by Brent McLachlan, reuniting the original Gordon's line-up. Whereas Tanker used reverb to accentuate a sense of depth in the recording and felt hemmed in and slightly distant, Thermos is the band in total control of the studio and recording process, producing a recording of astonishing delicacy and depth to the recording.
The songs are stripped down. as Parker's guitar trades some of its explicitly character for flicker and hum, Halverson's flares dirty electricity and shifting tones and McLachlan emerges from the depths, creating a music of broad sweeps and minute gestures that walk an elegant line between rock momentum and sound design.
It is to be the bands high-water mark with the bands third album Robot World marking a retreat into Tanker as played by a post Isn't Anything band. Parker had talked about becoming more interested in melody, but didn't seem able to integrate this interest in the band's sound and pulls his guitar back into indie classicism and the cheap effects of shoegazing while Halverson becomes a presence rather than a sound and the drums flop about in a loose and flabby way. The space imagery is still in play but a title like 'Robot World' feels like kitschy bedroom sci-fi fantasy rather than critique.
And that is where I cut out, whilst the band carried on releasing music up until their last original album in 1998, followed later by the 2004 Flying Nun compilation Bailter Space and a 2008 gig at New York's Bowery Ballroom with a new bass player in tow after John Halverson returned to New Zealand. Since then, their official website has disappeared and their MySpace page is become largely inactive, suggesting that the band may have called it a day.
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