Circling the Drain
Randall Frazier calls the music of Orbit Service a "soundtrack for a dying world." But as the band's frontman and founding member, Frazier isn't your typical gloomy Gus. When he was a teenage goth, for example, bouncing between psych wards in Eastern Texas and Denver, suffering from auditory hallucinations and convincing his mother that he was a satanist, Frazier, diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, took every intelligence test the doctors threw his way. He passed several with flying colors -- and beyond.
"My memory actually tested in the top 1 percent of the nation," Frazier says. "And so did my scientific reasoning skills, which haven't helped me much. But I can recite every lyric to any Cure album. It's weird. I used to work at the Auraria library, and people would check out books and give me their student ID cards. And then I'd see 'em on the bus later, and I could remember their Social Security numbers."
But forgetting three unhappy years in two separate hospitals is another matter altogether.
"They could lock me up and make me take whatever medicine they thought I needed," recalls Frazier. "And if I refused, they'd restrain me and shoot me up with it. I was in isolation for like eight months, eating every meal with a spork, before they started reintegrating me into society. My doctor told me I was leaving against medical advice, but I knew my rights. I just checked myself out when I was an adult, which was right after breakfast on my eighteenth birthday.
"I was on haloperidol, the most potent anti-psychotic on the market," Frazier continues, "and I threw it away. Then I kind of went insane for six months. I was living in a furnace room for a while, basically being a street kid and self-medicating with lots of acid."
Fast-forward a decade. Frazier, now thirty years old and happily married, works from home as a contracted radio promoter, boosting new music to some 4,000 stations nationwide. He also operates the Helmet R00m, a digital 32-track home recording studio in west Denver staffed by longtime pal, bassist and mix veteran Matthew Mensch. But for all the personal freedom that such creativity affords, Frazier can't help but dwell on the more depressing aspects of life -- everything from war, starvation and kiddie porn to the scientific theory that humans start to physically decay by age 28, one minute at a time. During a lively late-night conversation in his studio's control room (packed to capacity with audio gear, bandmates and two rowdy dogs), Frazier smiles as he discusses life on a poisonous planet. But he's dead serious.
"If you think that everything is gonna be okay, you're lying to yourself and you took the bait," Frazier states. "'Cause there's some serious shit wrong with this world. You can't even address it as a single topic, other than 'We're fucked.' People are greedy and evil. We're all alone on this huge rock in space. We've set our rock on fire and poured chemicals all over it. I'm looking at an entire species wiping itself out. Let's all acknowledge the truth here: It's not a party anymore. We should all be crying and scared."
"Now we're tinkering with genetics, which is gonna unleash another nightmare," adds Mensch, a longhaired tech-head who fights hackers and identity theft during the day as a network security administrator. "We live in a time when cows consume their own dead: Kill a cow, grind up its parts, feed it to another cow or chicken or whatever..."
Don't even get the pair started on the Pentagon's secret infrasonic device. Designed to enforce crowd control, the non-lethal weapon apparently produces a debilitating tone that even the creators of South Park have jokingly dubbed "the brown note."
"It's between five and fifteen hertz," Mensch explains. "It causes spontaneous bowel release. You can make people crap themselves if you have a big enough subwoofer. We're talkin' free flow, where you wish you had a diaper. And if it doesn't make you crap your pants, you're gonna puke."
"You can't hear it," Frazier adds. "It just shakes your insides."
Preferring the more mind-expanding aspects of sound, Frazier and Mensch launched the first installment of Orbit Service in the late '90s with guitarist Aron Johnson (aka Ingvald Grunder) and drummer Robert Newman. "The original idea," Frazier notes, "was to do anything but punk rock."
Accomplishing that much and more, the four-piece found the sweet spot between druggy electronica and acoustic melancholy. By elongating notes to the breaking point and layering whisper-thin sheets of guitar and synthetic haze, the early OS created a kind of down-tempo analog trance music, like Meddle-era Pink Floyd on a liquid diet. On its aptly titled 2001 self-released debut, Space & Valium, the group drones and disorients, blending minor-chord passages, glockenspiels and weary vocals for a hyper-extended dirge.
"My whole idea was to make it one continuous piece and have these abstract interludes that go on for seven minutes or whatever," Frazier says. "That was kind of a learning CD for me. We ran out of cash and time. It was rushed and sounds immature; it doesn't have happy feelings for me."
Happy feelings? Wasn't sadness the whole point?
Valium aside, Orbit Service as a band gradually unraveled in a spectacle presented for public scrutiny by local filmmaker Davis G. Coombe in The Tornado Dream. An engagingly voyeuristic documentary screened at the 2003 Starz Denver International Film Festival, Tornado chronicles the good times and ultimate implosion of both Orbit Service and grrrl rappers Rainbow Sugar. It also captures a few unflattering pissing matches between members of the Czars, who, in the midst of financial strains, even contemplate giving their temperamental frontman a swirlie.
"Our band squabbles felt puny compared to theirs," Frazier admits. "We get mad at each other and two people leave the band. It's painful, because you see the old Orbit Service kind of go down in flames. But Davis was tasteful in the way that he presented it; so how uncomfortable it was to me was irrelevant, because it's art. But it's really outdated as far as who we are now and what we're doing."
Today's Service -- retooled and streamlined with brothers Michael and Jeff Morris, guitarist and trumpeter/drummer, respectively -- tumbles through even deeper galaxies of space. Splitting duties between OS and their own eclectic Talking Heads-influenced project, the Band in Heaven, the Morrises beef up Orbit's already ethereal sound with accordions, horns and a raft of mind-bending guitar effects. The resurrected outfit's sumptuous new release, Twilight, mastered by Grammy-award-winning engineer Matt Sandoski, explores dark, brooding territory with near-telepathic interplay.
"It really came together as a band," Frazier says. "It wasn't just me writing a bunch of songs and asking people to help me play them. A lot of it actually came out of unrehearsed experiments. We didn't record it with a concept in mind, but there's a theme of tragedy and loss and time running out."
Seamless from start to finish, the eleven-song cycle sustains an ominous, slow-loping ambience suitable for doomsday -- or at least a rainy-morning shag. Armed with copious electronics and a Tibetan singing bowl, Orbit serves up a squeezebox-driven lament that recalls 16 Horsepower ("Dark Orange Sunset"), plus a scathing lesson in emotional economics ("Minutes, Dollars, Days"). Standout track "Thought You Should Know" pits memory, love and insomnia in a three-way showdown that would make the Flaming Lips proud.
"I appreciate albums that are works," Frazier says. "A lot of King Crimson stuff was like that. And Brian Eno. You don't throw this on and hear one or two songs; we want you to sit down. It doesn't really do it justice to listen to one song. It may hurt us as far as radio play, but that's their loss."
No stranger to what college kids listen to nowadays, Frazier seems more concerned with the quality of his band's music than the quantity of people buying it. ("I'd just like the CDs to pay for themselves," he admits.) Otherwise Mr. Orbit is concentrating on an upcoming tour through the Southwest, planning a May showcase at the Aztlan and promoting a mid-summer performance by British cult act the Legendary Pink Dots.
"I don't get to work directly with a lot of bands that I respect, so I'm thrilled that I get to be doing something that really matters to me," Frazier enthuses. "They're one of my favorite bands since I was a teenager, and I'm finally in a position in my job to help them."
As for helping the rest of mankind, Frazier and company can offer only the sonic equivalent of big shoulder to weep on. In a world of depleted ozone layers, rising ocean levels and nukes that can fit in a suitcase, maybe that old cynical adage is true: If you're not depressed, you're not paying attention. Fortunately, good music is like therapy and has a way of mobilizing the walking wounded -- brown note be hanged.
"The greatest thing to come out of all this," Frazier says, "would be for someone else who has similar feelings to think, 'Oh, God, at least I'm not alone.'"
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