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Pulsing out of an invisible electro-chemical reaction, a thought originates deep inside the skull and flutters through a seemingly chaotic labyrinth of synapses. Then there is the innate tendency to impose structure on this boiling, gurgling randomness -- to refine a thought and cast it into the tangible constructs put forth by the long-gone originators of accepted wisdom.
Musically speaking, it is difficult to use the various implements of rhythm and tone without standing on the shoulders of others. Even if the musician ignores tradition and ventures into experimentalism, the art in question is often viewed as a commentary on established formulas, not an act of creativity in itself. It's a tricky balancing act trying to link both sides of the chaos/order fence into a single organic whole.
Otion, a Denver-based instrumental trio that fuses rock, jazz and ambient, manages to tread the line between established structure and experimental chaos, embracing both while not getting too cozy with either. Composed of drummer Nate Weaver, keyboardist Mat Muha and bassist Sean Inman, the band obviously doesn't operate in a musical vacuum, but it's hard to divine a label that fits. The players mate the raw pulse of rock with the icier fractals of electronic and progressive. The music sounds at once familiar and alien, following a route that mirrors electrochemical reactions inside the brain.
Weaver, who studies percussion performance at Metro State, provides a solid rhythmic foundation that's inventive and precise. Muha's keyboards then layer on structures and progressions that have a very visual, geometric feel to them, riffing out shapes of varying symmetry. Finally, Inman punctuates these dense tiers of synthesized sound with frenetic experimental jabs and crowns of fuzz, his methods messier but strangely appropriate.
"We keep it in some realm of standard musical structure, but in other ways, we're not following that," explains Weaver. "Some of the notes don't always add up...and some songs are just verse-chorus, verse-chorus." As far as genre goes, he adds, "Heavy metal to jazz to country to hip-hop, anything -- it all has its good points." It follows that Weaver is not afraid to incorporate any sort of beat he picks up at school -- or anywhere else.
"I've always thought our very, very basic core was very jazz-oriented," says Inman, adding that Otion's philosophy embraces bits and pieces of other styles, a mentality that would probably alarm a jazz purist. ("Rules are for suckers," he adds, summing up Otion's experimental tendencies.) On stage, notes Inman, the degree of improvisation employed varies from performance to performance.
Mixing and matching each member's inclinations without committing to a specific genre translates to "jazz in theory," according to Weaver. "It's the idea of experimentation and a lot of exploration. We tune to scale degrees that don't even exist at times and rarely hit major chords. Musically, there's just a lot out there that I don't think people have hit on."
A typical Otion tune is something of a journey -- constantly twisting and turning, shifting gears, then reversing, expanding and contracting. Although there are only three players involved, the sound is surprisingly dense and textured, and some of the smaller clubs at which the band has performed -- such as the Lion's Lair -- seem overwhelmed by the sheer size of Otion's music. The song "Red Moon" is a good example of what Weaver describes as Otion's "big sound." After a snarl of distortion, a driving series of tones emerges, and progressions are underpinned by his rocket-fuel beat. Inman scribbles with feedback throughout the song, which is halted by a few distorted stutter-stops before the structure evaporates into a swirl of hums and synthetic squeals.
As the band's moniker implies, there's often an ebb-and-flow feeling to Otion's songs. In "Free Stuff," a dark, unsettling opening gives way to an anthem laced with a sense of discovery. The song builds, then recedes into a more delicate transition before devolving back into the murk. Like a tide, it cascades once more into anthem territory before coming to an end.
While Otion often elicits comparisons to prog-rock bands such as Rush (maybe it's the power-trio thing), the band sees such analogies as an easy answer to a difficult question. "A lot of people are trying to associate us with something they're fairly familiar with," says Weaver. "Overall, we get pretty decent reactions, although people don't always respond so well to no guitar player and no singer."
Sound emanates from Otion's three instrumentalists, but the band actually has a silent fourth member: Bird, who produces its eye-grabbing visual backdrops. After experimenting with a slide projector and Super 8 film, Bird moved toward digital technology and computer animation. Today, armed with a laptop and a projector, he casts fitting scenery onto Otion's live performances: Abstract and surreal imagery intercut with stylized shots of time-lapse traffic, obscure found footage, car crashes, circuitry and eyeballs.
"It's just a multimedia clusterfuck," says Bird. "I've always been attracted to the whole audio-visual aspect of it, especially because Otion was an instrumental band. They didn't have the frontman that most bands have to help lead the way."