The same week Stephen Hawking suggests that maybe black holes don’t exist after all, Wax Fang releases a space rock-opera that sends a fictional astronaut into a black hole. This can’t be coincidence.
Wax Fang, the eccentric Louisville musical duo of Scott Carney and Jacob Heustis, released its first ever (and maybe last ever) conceptual album “The Astronaut” today. Pushing play for the first time, one isn’t sure what to expect. It’s been a long time since a space-opera was published that deserves attention.
The story is a journey into space — a tragedy — and an awareness of transcending from the human form. And that’s exactly what it sounds like musically.
A few years ago the band, which then included Kevin Ratterman, released “The Astronaut (Part 1).” At almost 16 minutes, the song was essentially half an album. “We thought it would be a good idea to finish it off and essentially write a B-side. That was in 2010, so it’s been a while,” Carney says.
Carney plays all the instruments heard except bass guitar, which is Heustis, strings by Scott Moore, and a brilliant saxophone appearance by Brian Schreck. In addition, Carney also did the engineering and mixing prep with the final mix done in Nashville by Craig Alvin.
“There’s no way to calculate the amount of hours it took to create this album,” Carney says. “I would venture to say a few thousand. Maybe not a few, but well over a thousand hours.”
The musical experience is an astounding journey, and one that would be monumental live. It would be the perfect 2 a.m. Bonnaroo set. Unfortunately, Wax Fang hasn’t figured out how to do this epic accomplishment live.
“If it was just an album of songs this would be a different story, but because of the nature of the record, we have the vision but haven’t figured out the way,” Carney says. “It would be an injustice to this album to give it less than it deserves.”
There were discussions with the planetarium to celebrate the CD release with a light and laser show, but the cost was as astronomical as the album concept. But, Carney says, “We want it to be an experience, like watching a movie. Not just played in the background of a noisy bar. Maybe someday. Maybe in five years we’ll figure out the live aspect.”
Two elements set this album apart from most anything modern:
1) The album relies very little on electronic effects. This is hard-core instrumental work with minimal vocals that tell only a portion of the story. This story is told by the band.
2) The album is driven by the story. Carney explains: “The original story, part one, was just that an astronaut detached from his vessel. When the album grew we obviously had to add more, but our concept was becoming a little too Avatar-ish. A creepy alien creature chasing our astronaut. It was a little silly.” They went the opposite direction. The astronaut remains alone, traveling through space with only his thoughts. He’s sucked into a black hole (take that Stephen Hawking) and atomized. He’s transformed into a celestial super-being. “Once we came up with the story, the story drove the album.”
Most expect the story of a space-rock opera to be driven by anthem-like vocals — a story told through lyrics. “There is some of that going on in our record, but what we also wanted to do was put the listener in the astronaut’s suit. I wanted to try to tell the story through music in a way that was more interpretive of the imagination of the listener. We wanted to thrust the listener into the headspace of someone going through this horrific experience.”
It’s this lack of reliance on vocals, like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” that sets this concept album apart from others. It works.
Carney and Heustis have known one another since high school, almost 20 years. Many of the songs are created exactly as they sound; two guys sitting around jamming, talking, working through what is in their heads. When they were in their early 20s, they would record, like many at the time, on cassette tapes. They’d gather in a basement or a garage and play for 45 minutes, flip the tape, and play another 45.
“I found one of these old cassette tapes in 2009, 2010, and what was on that cassette found its way into what essentially became part one of ‘The Astronaut.’ Something we’d done a way long time ago.”
Now that the thousand-plus hours of work are done on “The Astronaut” and no tour is planned, the duo is hard at work on the next couple of projects. Wax Fang likes to make announcements about projects in unique ways, like the trailer for “The Astronaut,” so Carney wasn’t too open about future projects. “We’re really excited about what the future has in store.”
Another conceptual album? “Probably not for a very long time, if ever. We’ll see how this one does. I’m enjoying going back to my roots writing simple, shorter pieces of music.”
If Wax Fang had a dream collaboration, one would be to work with a rock-and-roller like Kurt Vile. “He’s a great guitar player, really laid back, and his music is like — I don’t know how else to describe it — it’s super pleasant.” Other ultimate dream collaborations include Radiohead or making a record with Brian Eno.
What does Scott Carney do on album release eve? “I’m going to get off the phone and hit the gym.” The NachBar was hosting an informal listening party as we talked, and he’d considered a nightcap there. “But the album is playing in the background, and it’s always weird to be someplace where your music is playing.”
I asked if he’d be distracted by the attention the crowd gives the music. “I would like to say no. I would like to say no, that I would not be that person sitting there submersed in my own neurotic brain wondering what everyone is thinking. But I probably would.”
It seems Carney does have one major hope when it comes to this album: “On that first listen, we hope people will make enough time to sit down and experience it.”