Improvisation in music is much more often heard from the stage than the studio. It seems like most records that capture improvisation are live albums from the likes of jazz ensembles and jam bands. This is perhaps because stage performances have a unique energy that is impossible to recreate in the hushed confines of a studio.
However, there are a number of studio artists that hold virtue in the spontaneous, the spur of the moment, and with the right mojo, a truly inspiring studio performance can come from that state of mind.
Based in Paul’s Valley, OK, newly-formed instrumental rock band Lost Cosmos is the latest to indulge in this philosophy, and it’s a modestly successful effort. Wholly improvised without even so much as a discussion beforehand, the group’s inspired self-titled debut LP is a 12-track exploration of musical worlds with the GPS turned off.
Lost Cosmos doesn’t improvise in real time for the entire 37 minutes. Rather, the band smartly jams out for extended periods and selects the best bits for the album. The shining moments are then brushed together with audio fades and static-filled segues that resemble the turning of an old radio knob in search of a clear station.
That’s a pretty brilliant metaphor for what Lost Cosmos does well. Improvisation only works when everyone is tuned into the same frequency, and sometimes it takes the right tweak to land on a channel of inspiration.
There’s another framing device at work, too, one that is tipped off by the astrophysical track titles and the band’s name. The album plays like a ride through a musical cosmos in a spacecraft, manned by the group’s four instrumentalists on their respective guitar, drums, bass, and keys. In this sense, Lost Cosmos is a highlighted travelogue of their findings.
From the jammy guitar of “Retrograde” to the restless cymbal work of “Singularity” to the skyward synth strings and piano of “Heliopause”, the crew flexes a necessary variance in a sound that probably best fits under the progressive rock umbrella. Though it lacks the longwindedness and creative time signatures of that genre, it does share its spacey and experimental taste in rock movements.
Taken as a whole, Lost Cosmos is quite cohesive and makes for a comfortable trip, especially for fans of instrumental rock. The band stumbles into some nice melodies and grooves along the way, and while few ever stand out as potential singles, every track feels at home in the space the album creates.
The question remains, however. Is this album really better off as an improvised work? Plenty of artists improvise behind closed doors in their own sort of cosmic search for album material. Those artists then finesse the material they find and prepare it for a studio recording.
It’s not a stretch to say that much of Lost Cosmos sounds like a good band having a good jam session and not much else. Sometimes that works remarkably well, as in the atmospheric “Orbit” bookends or the cut “Antimatter”, the latter of which surrounds an excellent build of a moody synth line with guitar chucks, thick bass, and simmering snare rolls until it crests into a delicious, spontaneous guitar solo.
Other times, though, it leaves the music feeling unfulfilled. The ending of “Zenith” is probably the most obvious example. Despite its title and its placement as an album closer of sorts, it doesn’t hit a climax so much as it peters out into nothingness by its final minute. There is an undeniable drive to the first half of the track, but rather than become a zenith by the second half, it strips everything out until a lone keyboard part remains, and not in the poignant, intimate way one would presume. The keys just keep playing the same basic chord progression until it flounders into a makeshift ending.
Perhaps if the band had worked to develop “Zenith” beyond an improvisation, a better ending might have been written. A better keyboard sound might have been selected to convey the feeling the band felt in that time, though honestly, the keys frequently sound dated and thin on much of the album. “Zenith” is just one example, too. “Chroma” also feels undercooked. “Quasar” is cut off so early that it barely has time to leave an impression.
As the album was crafted more on immediate feel than deliberated thought, however, perhaps it is best enjoyed in the same way.
One could argue that some of its predictable rhythms and chord structures offer little in the way of adventure, but that’s not where the record’s sense of adventure lies. Lost Cosmos isn’t a technical band. It builds on moods rather than concepts. It prefers to tour through places rather than stay and investigate them.
The sit-back-and-enjoy-the-ride framing devices of Lost Cosmos go a long way to inform the album experience, but what ultimately sells the album is its band chemistry. Every good improvised record needs its own mojo, and Lost Cosmos definitely has one. The album is a smooth listen from start to finish, and while it doesn’t tread much in the way of new territory, it’s nice to hear the familiar from a new, improvised perspective.
This article was originally written for Cellar Door Music Group (cellardoormusicgroup.com). It is archived here with the publisher’s permission.
aka Jarvix, the Chief Executive Weirdo of Make Oklahoma Weirder. His out-of-the-box music coverage has been published by the Oklahoma Gazette, KOSU, and The Oklahoman among others. He also makes DIY music as a solo multi-instrumentalist live looper in his spare time.