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.
Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax Avenue
9 p.m. Saturday, November 24
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."
Muha, Inman and Weaver all see the visuals as integral to the band, something that became clear to them recently, when Bird returned to Denver after a short stint in Madison, Wisconsin. "Having Bird back is a huge jump start," says Inman. "It really gave me a huge kick of energy."
"We're not good dancers," jokes Weaver, explaining why the visuals are an important piece of Otion's stage act. "When I see Bird's interpretation of the music, it looks like what I think our music looks like. Overall, we just want to create an overwhelming audio and visual experience."
Otion's origins date back to 1999, when Muha returned to Denver from New York and bumped into high school pal Weaver at the 15th Street Tavern. The pair began collaborating and enticed Inman, who grew up with Weaver and Muha in Littleton, to join the fray. Inman, who was studying animation in Savannah, Georgia, at the time, came back to Colorado to man the bass for the group. Otion started practicing at Soulciety, a north Denver warehouse/art collective that Bird then called home, and soon saw the potential of a visual component rounding out its presentation.
The band has also utilized vocals in the past. Amy Fisher (no relation to the same-named tabloid denizen) lent her potent pipes to the project for a spell earlier this year, before "creative differences" became apparent. But trying to integrate lyrical content into abstract instrumental forays is a difficult business anyway, as the inherently concrete nature of words and melodies tends to defy the band's sonic aspirations. In the context of Otion's music, vocals should function as "just another instrument," says Inman.
In fact, echoes Weaver, "at times, the vocals can take away from it. There's so much going on that [lyrics] would just be a distraction."
Otion has worked with other musicians in the past and hopes to keep tinkering with arrangements on certain songs, using guests to spice up the mix. But finding the right people isn't easy. "We've had a couple of guitar players who have come down and played," says Muha. "They tend to get frustrated because of the tonality that fills so much space. The guitar player either has to be right on or just lose his mind."
"Between Matt and I, we really don't have that much room," adds Inman. 'To come try and jam with me, it's like, 'What the fuck are you doing?'" (To the imaginary guitar player in this scenario, Inman laughs and retorts, "I play guitar on my bass! What the hell are you doing? I've made your instrument obsolete.")
Otion's songwriting process is collaborative, says Muha. "We all come from very different musical backgrounds. Now I think we're just conjoining those ideas and making something happen. Any presented idea always gets changed. We're all pretty open to taking suggestions from each other. We never butt heads or anything like that."
Everyone in the band agrees that different moods contribute to the eclecticism of the Otion playlist. Bird's visual accompaniment heightens the sense of emotion that is a significant part of the songwriting. But rather than impose their emotions on listeners, the bandmembers hope to spark something "that's already inside them," as Bird puts it. Adds Muha, "I'd like to amplify whatever they're already feeling."
Otion seems uniquely equipped to tap into the more nebulous aspects of its audience's psyche. Beyond Bird's excursions into experimental film, Otion has a prodigious well of artistic talent that extends beyond the aural: Inman and Muha both dabble in visual arts. "I think it's really exhilarating to watch a lot of the underground art that thrives in Denver," says Weaver. "I don't think it gets much attention, and I think that's pretty sad." To this end, Otion has integrated gallery openings and interpretive dance with its performances.
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The band is currently putting the finishing touches on an enhanced four-song CD (in this case, enhanced means that it includes Bird's video work) and hopes to embark on a West Coast tour at some point in the future. "We've been talking to a few friends in San Francisco," says Weaver. "I'm trying to hit that scene with a vengeance."
Not that Otion has grand aspirations of broad commercial success. The players view the brand of music they unleash as an acquired taste, knowing all too well that it's hard to please the masses when you're diverting from the beaten path.
"If I'm not playing the national anthem at an Avalanche game, I'm not going to be upset about it," says Muha. "We do what we do, and that's the most important thing."