Spiral Joy Band's "Summoning" captures a moment of departure
The new release was recorded before several members dispersed from the Madison area.
The drone ensemble Spiral Joy Band has embraced its status as a moveable, changeable entity since its founding in 2004, altering its lineups, instrumental configuration, and sense of place with almost every recording and live show. "Each release captures a moment—a unique vital intersection of people, place and time," says member Patrick Best.
A Spiral Joy Band set tends to be long and continuous, rooted in elements that range from soothing harmonium drones to rumbling gongs. Madison became part of that story when Best and founding member Mikel Dimmick—who also play together in the avant-folk band Pelt—both ended up living in the area between 2008 and 2015, as Dimmick pursued a PhD at UW-Madison and Best moved with his family to Mt. Horeb.
The move brought Dimmick and Best into contact with new collaborators, including multi-instrumentalist Troy Schafer and vocalist and visual artist Dani Schafer. The 2013 release 13 Moons Of Doom: Birth Of The Water Dragons, recorded in 2012 at the much-missed Project Lodge, features Troy Schafer on viola and electronics, and Andrew Fitzpatrick (Noxroy, Bon Iver, All Tiny Creatures) on guitar, piano, and electronics, and Dani Schafer also came into the fold at other Madison shows. Pelt recorded some of its 2012 album Effigy at Madison's historic Gates of Heaven synagogue, deepening that connection to the area.
"The first time Dani and I encountered Pat and Mikel, they were performing an SJB set at the Harvest Abbey house in Madison," Troy Schafer says. "In close quarters, they had all their gongs ringing full blast, harmoniums roaring. It was so loud and dissonant that Dani became physically ill and we had to leave. Naturally, I wrote them that night and asked to sit in with the band."
"I think my response to the first live SJB set I experienced was mostly due to something I drank that evening," Dani Schafer says. "That was almost 10 years ago, and since then, I've heard Troy perform with Pat and Mikel, and then, I had the honor of joining them for a live performance a few years ago. That was a transcendental experience for me, and there's definitely a unique creative energy that I feel with SJB, capturing the energy of the space, time and all those participating."
Spiral Joy Band's latest release, the new Summoning, captures the moment when the band had to end its Madison-centered chapter, or at least embrace the beginning of a new phase. Dimmick, Best, and the Schafers recorded its three tracks in 2015 in Dimmick's half-moved-out house in Monona, as Dimmick and his wife Emily Keown (who has also played in Spiral Joy Band) prepared to move away to Houston and the Schafers were getting ready for their own move up north to Antigo. (Best still lives in Mt. Horeb and has continued to play around Madison in various solo and collaborative settings.) The moves impact the sound of the release in ways both emotional and literal.
"The living room had been cleared out and we took advantage of the high ceiling and open space to give it more of a cavernous and open sound," Dimmick says. "Previously we had been recording in my basement, where we set up almost on top of each other. this whole sound approach shaped a good bit of the earlier Madison recordings. The living room gave us the chance to spread out, and I think you can hear in the recording how the sounds have room to breathe and be differentiated."
On Summoning, those sounds include Best's warm electric guitar, Dimmick's harmonium, Troy Schafer's violin, and Dani Schafer's scraping-the-heavens vocals. (You can hear more of those vocals on the Schafers' collaborative recordings under the name Devotion.) "Adding Dani to the jam elevated it into the outer limits," Best says. "I personally feel it’s not an evolution, [but] rather a electric revelation."
"Lateral Waters And Languid Domes" gives Best room to meander a bit on guitar, "Starlings In Deerwood" opens up plenty of eerie space around Dani Schafer's voice, and "Down the Lane the Park Is Still And The Water Chill" gives us the maximalist version of Spiral Joy Band, piling percussion atop the drones over the course of 22 minutes. For all the calm and surrender that drone-based music offers, Spiral Joy Band also find a great deal of tension and urgency here. "Down The Lane" is blissful, sad, and searing all at once.
"A big part of this for me was leaving Madison, which of course meant moving away from Troy, Dani, and Pat," Dimmick says. "We had been wanting to arrange for Dani to record with us for a while—she had played a few times in some of the live SJB shows, and her own solo recordings are absolutely breathtaking. So, I see the feelings situated somewhere between the melancholy feeling of leaving and the absolute delight at having this chance to do something new, that we had been hoping to do for a long while, before leaving. 'Down the Lane the Park is Still and the Water Chill' was the last thing we recorded, and I still hear that imminent departure and new found delight in it. A celebration that we could be together, in that moment, and to mark it, to hold onto it—a celebration that we would always be in this shared space, geography be damned."
Spiral Joy Band is on a bit of a break for the moment, but Dimmick wants to try and release some archival recordings in the near future. Pelt is working on new music, and Best continues to work on solo music, a collaboration with Taralie Peterson (of Spires That In The Sunset Rise and Louise Bock). Indian Summer, a hardcore band Best formed in high school, is planning to release a long-lost EP. Dani Schafer continues to work as an abstract painter, and Troy Schafer has a wealth of projects in the works, both on the solo front, with the experimental folk outfit Kinit Her, and in a new project, Pod Cast, that he refers to as a "meta-fantasy/dungeon synth collective."