Panabrite’s Headphone Astronautica

(Immune Recordings)

Like some new form of meta-synesthesia, media saturation leads to media convergence: Pavilion, the latest album by Panabrite, would make an ideal score for Interstellar, the latest film by Christopher Nolan. These works are born from separate worlds—Norm Chambers, the sole musician behind Panabrite, has been operating in the Seattle electronic underground for more than a decade. Interstellar comes from a Hollywood auteur with a zillion-dollar budget and endless creative leeway. No way either knew the details of the other while in production. But both have lingered in my mind in the last week, overlapping and informing each other in a sort of cross-disciplinary Venn diagram.

(I had a similar experience earlier this summer with the movie Under the Skin and Shabazz Palaces’ Lese Majesty—two contemporaneously released, postmodern tales of alienation and empathy that hinge on masterful sound design.)

Pavilion comprises a series of instrumental set pieces unfolding with warm, synthesized sounds that immediately register as aural sci-fi. The music massages the same region of third-eye-open cosmic consciousness Nolan’s film. Both push at the very fabric of their respective mediums—and in the process raise questions about the human perception of time in an inhuman universe.

A couple months ago I used the word planetariumstep to describe the whooshy, reclined head music of Seattle electronic artist Hanssen. Panabrite travels the same spaceways, the same metaphysical zone originally trailblazed by esoteric European New Age bands of the 1970s like Tangerine Dream and Popul Vuh. But I’d like to recant the moniker: There’s no stepping going on here. This music is not danceable. It’s not even head-nod-able. The only appropriate motile response to Pavilion is inner journeying, or maybe astral projecting. Interdimensional. Right now, Seattle is a hotbed for this kind of headphone astronautica. (Maybe that’s what we’ll call it.)

The album opens with the sound of falling rain interwoven with warm-blooded, pitch-shifting synths. This delicate moment—titled “Veil”—calls to mind a poignant scene from Interstellar and introduces the overarching aesthetic of Pavilion: You are technology. Your recording device and your playback device are as natural as the pitter-patter they capture and release. Evolution=upgrade. Inexorable, hopeful and not as far-out as the idea seems.

Rain sounds surface here and there throughout the record, a tether to terrestrial reality. Keyboard melodies arise from the ether, coalesce and dissolve. No drums. No verse-chorus-verse structure that demarcates conventional “songwriting.” These pieces are more akin to scenes, linear in their construction, unwinding for upwards of six or nine minutes. “Arcade” is haunted by the distorted voice of a machine-made ghost, seemingly sinister in its mystery but ultimately benign. That voice returns in “Regent,” which slithers further into darkness with the sounds of twisted electronics and bent circuits. “Balsam,” the lead single, features acoustic guitar strummed over digital cricket chirps and acoustic chimes, as gentle and expectant as a springtime sunrise. The title track hums with the album’s deepest low-end, ballast against the remaining lighter-than-air sonics, suggesting the roar of a starship’s thrusters silenced by the vacuum of space.

As a sonic tapestry, Pavilion leaves much to the listener’s imagination. This is musical impressionism, free of lyrics, vaguely titled, open as the starry sky to interpolation. Like Nolan, Chambers suggests that as far as we can know, there is no space, inner or outer, without human perception of it. We’re literally making it all up as we go. These works represent the zeitgeist, a collective sense of consciousness connected to something far grander than quotidian reality, through our devices and through empathy for each other. Profound, promising stuff—as long as we take the time to notice.

This story has been corrected: Norm Chambers has always been a solo performer; Bob Hansen, whose Hanssen project is referenced here, is one-half of Jacob London.