The Comet is Coming: Jazz Meets Afrofuturism
It’s rough out there. The world feels like it’s on the brink of environmental and political collapse — and sometimes it seems like there’s very little hope in sight. Luckily, art has always provided catharsis for people under pressure and, this week, that catharsis comes in the form of a new record from London-based band The Comet is Coming titled Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery.
The band — which incorporates elements of jazz, electronic and psych rock — is a collaboration between saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, keyboardist Dan Leavers and drummer Max Hallett. With their innovative sound and vision, they fit squarely into the realm of Afrofuturism, a movement that looks toward an alternative future replete with art, technology and music — from a black POV. A movement that imagines a future far different from the world of chaos we currently inhabit.
An umbrella term that covers everything from the music of Sun Ra to the novels of N.K. Jemisin to the movie Black Panther, Afrofuturism is more than just science fiction by and/or featuring black people: it’s about using the tropes of science fiction and fantasy to illuminate paths toward liberation from oppression.
Sun Ra argued on tracks like “Space is the Place” and “Outer Space Employment Agency” that, since the Earth has already been corrupted by racism, his followers should just escape. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy describes a world in which the moon has burst free of its orbit and must be rescued to restore the planet to equilibrium. Black Panther depicts an oasis of flourishing, high-tech blackness and asks whether such a place should engage with the corrupt wider society at all. And The Comet is Coming is part of an explosive London jazz scene in which much of the best music is made by immigrants — that pulls in influences from across the black diaspora. Within that scene, they are one of the groups most committed to showing a way through and forward for music and identity.
For proof, just look to the band’s name, which carries notes of both sci-fi-esque destruction and subsequent salvation. “We spoke quite a lot about the concept, imagining after a comet has come and there’s been the devastation,” Dan Leavers tells TIDAL. “We had a vague narrative of this kind of calm, peaceful new beginning. We wanted to explore that texture…of positivity or wellness or growth.”
The name is also meant to inspire a feeling of urgency in the audience that’s mirrored by the music. Shabaka Hutchings says he was told by legendary British saxophonist Evan Parker to leave it all on the stage, to give his all every time out — and he does.
“When I’m playing, I’ll get into this space of almost playing as if it’s the last notes that we are going to play,” he says. “Part of the ethos of The Comet is Coming is: you have to live as if the comet is coming — and environmentally, I guess, that is particularly pertinent at the moment.”
So how did The Comet is Coming come to be? The group, who think of themselves as a leaderless collective, started out as a Leavers/Hallett duo project called Soccer96, formed in 2012 and still active. Hutchings, a lanky saxophonist born in London to immigrants from Barbados, was building a reputation of his own with his saxophone/tuba/double drums quartet Sons of Kemet. He began showing up to Soccer96 gigs, intoxicated by the infectious vibe — and he wanted in. “[I wanted to see] how far I could push that energy before it breaks — and it hasn’t broken yet,” he says.
According to Leavers, multiple people had tried to muscle in on their territory, especially singers. But he and Hallett were resistant. “I was quite fiercely protective of it, and both of us were quite skeptical — we loved keeping it a duo, like the White Stripes or something,” Leavers says. “We loved the idea of just two instruments, but really loud. So Shabs was really the first inquiry that we took seriously, because he’s a fantastic instrumentalist and we’d seen him play already. And as Soccer96, we always played with a fierce intensity live, and he could match that and raise it even. There was a real confluence of energy levels.”
The three headed into the studio almost immediately, recording marathon pieces that were later edited down for the 2016 Channel the Spirits full-length and the Prophecy and Death to the Planet EPs. They tracked to tape, giving their music an analog, organic feel. Even the occasional programmed beats were done by hand, on a small portable drum machine, according to Hallett.
Hutchings has spoken in other interviews about rejecting the flying-fingers, 1,000-notes-per-second mode of jazz expression, but says that The Comet is Coming actually allows him to play more than with Sons of Kemet. “Because the groove and the melodic structure of the tunes are so tangible, so visceral, I can play more abstractly — I can play more saxophone,” he says. “But I think the principle is still the same: don’t be a musical wanker.”
The new album reflects the two years of hard touring the trio’s done since Channel the Spirits, which was shortlisted for Britain’s Mercury prize. For this release, the band signed to Impulse! — former home of both John and Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler.
As such, the music has evolved, becoming more complex and thoughtful while retaining the raw intensity of their early work. “The band [has] developed as a kind of organism, and we developed our relationships and also the way we played got a bit heavier and a bit deeper, compositionally,” Leavers says. “I think we bottled a bit of that on the new record; you can sense that we’ve been together as a group that much longer.
The shimmering opener, “Because the End is Really the Beginning,” has a prog-rock feel that recalls Tangerine Dream leader Edgar Froese’s solo work — with Hallett’s dancing cymbals underpinning Leavers’ blissed-out synths and long, meditative horn calls from Hutchings. On “Birth of Creation,” he switches to bass clarinet, playing over a dubbed-out woodblock rhythm and deep synth bass bleats.
While each TCIC album has featured one special guest, they prefer poets to instrumentalists. Joshua Idehen, who Hutchings calls a kindred spirit, appeared on “Lightyears” from Channel the Spirits, and Kate Tempest, a Mercury Prize nominee, is on “Blood of the Past” from the new album. “What ignorance is cannot be argued over anymore,” she says, over a keening horn-and-synth backing. “It is too late for pleading…the world is shrinking.”
Leavers has been producing and mixing for other artists lately, including Ibibio Sound Machine and Flamingods, and as a result, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery is a more deft and assured record than any previous TCIC release. Hallett says: “When we go to the studio, we don’t really bring any compositions with us. Recording this latest album was just about listening to the sound and working out where it wanted to go…I think we’re a bit more focused this time, and a little more aware of moving it forward.”
Leavers adds, “It’s almost like we’re on a voyage, an adventure, and kind of looking around and sightseeing — you’re on a trip where you’re discovering things, and then you want to collect them and bring them back, to show people where you’ve been and what you’ve been finding.”
Circling back to their Afrofuturistic tendencies, the group isn’t just borrowing sci-fi imagery for track titles; they’re genuine fans of the genre and draw upon it for inspiration. Hutchings says he’s currently reading Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, Hallett shouts out Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, while Leavers is a big fan of Philip K. Dick.
“Through the crumbling of reality, Dick opens up into different dimensions and rooms of consciousness,” the keyboardist says. “He’s definitely been an influence on me — when I’m thinking of an album, I’m thinking of chapters and going into different dream states and states of consciousness.”
“I see science fiction as actually about the present,” Hallett adds, “because it gives you a space in which you can analyze the human condition or the physical realm with imagination. You can add imagination to the status quo, and things can become obvious that weren’t obvious before. I always think of science fiction as being quite political, because it gives you the freedom to reimagine society and reimagine systems.”
Through their forward-looking music and the sharp social critique of their guest poets, The Comet is Coming are issuing calls to arms and pointing toward a better future, just as their Impulse! labelmates Sun Ra (“It’s After the End of the World”), Albert Ayler (“Music is the Healing Force of the Universe”) and Pharoah Sanders (“Astral Traveling”) did before them. The message may be more urgent now than ever, so listen up.
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