Neptunian Maximalism deliver a funeral rite for the human species | The Listener | Chicago Reader

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Neptunian Maximalism deliver a funeral rite for the human species

This Belgian collective’s recent triple album, Éons, imagines a future Earth dominated by hyperintelligent elephants.

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The cover of Éons is a 2014 piece by Japanese artist Kaneko Tomiyuki titled Vajrabhairava, after a Buddhist deity personifying the triumph of wisdom over death.
  • The cover of Éons is a 2014 piece by Japanese artist Kaneko Tomiyuki titled Vajrabhairava, after a Buddhist deity personifying the triumph of wisdom over death.

As I lurch deeper into the overgrown woods of middle age, I'm grateful I still have friends who can surprise me with bonkers records I've never heard of. This isn't because bonkers records I've never heard of are in short supply—it's a big world out there—but rather because most folks give up on seeking out unfamiliar music well before they turn 50.

On one level, I sympathize with this: I could roam around in my existing collection for the rest of my life without exhausting it. But I also know that I'd desperately miss the feeling of a new album dropping into my life like a phosphorescent meteorite sizzling on the lawn.

That's where my old buddy Doug Dillaman comes in. We went to college together in Houston in the early 90s (we even ended up on the same compilation record), and he's now a filmmaker and writer in Auckland, New Zealand. (If you're having difficulty managing your rage and grief about Trump's catastrophic anti-response to the pandemic, approach the Instagram feeds of New Zealanders with caution—Doug's been posting from movie theaters and brewpubs for months already.)

Last month, in a Twitter thread about his favorite albums of the year, Doug mentioned something or someone called Neptunian Maximalism. I thought, "What?" Then I pulled up the Bandcamp page. Nothing against discovering a record by reading a review or even submitting to the whims of an algorithm, but I love having no idea what I'm about to hear when I hit "play."

Formed in 2018 by Belgian multi-instrumentalist Guillaume Cazalet, Neptunian Maximalism is a confounding collective with an unstable lineup. They'd already put out three live records and an EP by June of this year, when they released a gloriously excessive 123-minute triple studio album called Éons. That's what Doug was talking about.

Éons opens with a sinister pulsing throb on amplified, pitch-shifted baritone saxophone, haloed with howling noise and propelled by dense polyrhythmic percussion from a pair of drummers—and it gets stranger from there.

It feels a little silly to talk about genre when describing music that clearly cares so little for it, but I hear doom metal, cosmic psychedelia, spiritual jazz, heavy drone, occult rock, and what's unfortunately called "fourth world"—or, more accurately here, a future-primitive aesthetic that guesses at what sorts of "traditional" music might arise in hypothetical post-technological societies. Éons uses lyrics in imaginary human proto-languages developed by Pierre Lanchantin, a Los Angeles-based scholar of speech technology and speech synthesis.

Eschatology (or at the very least the fate of civilization) is baked into Éons. Even though it's largely instrumental, Cazalet and the band have helpfully noted that the album asks us to accept the inevitability that the Anthropocene epoch will give way to the Probocene—that is, the time of humans will end, and we'll be replaced as the planet's dominant species by (brace yourself) hyperintelligent elephants. Certain scientists, Cazalet explains, believe that if we hadn't overrun the joint, "Elephants were supposed to be at the top of the pyramid of terrestrial life."

I suppose if your goal is to create a vast, overwhelming, incomprehensible funerary ritual for your entire species, you're gonna need at least a triple album.

Neptunian Maximalism recorded Éons way back in March 2018, not long after the collective came together, and since then their lineup has changed and grown: they've replaced both drummers and added six new members (if you count the one handling live visuals). Their instrumentation now includes not just guitar, bass, drums, percussion, gongs, saxophone, sitar, flute, and trumpet but also synths, saz, and setar (as well as another bass and two more guitars).

This suggests that the next Neptunian Maximalism record—which could take a while to arrive, given that Belgium had the worst COVID infection rate in Europe last month—might somehow surpass Éons in scale. I don't know what further statement you can make once you've proposed ceding the planet to the elephants, but all that means is that I'm bound to be surprised again.  v


The Listener is a weekly sampling of music Reader staffers love. Absolutely anything goes, and you can reach us at thelistener@chicagoreader.com.

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