Finally! All this talk about Mickey Hart and his cosmic beats from outer space has come to fruition in the Mickey Hart Band’s newest release: Mysterium Tremendum. The name itself is indicative of the true nature of the source of the sounds — the universe may be the most tremendous mystery any of us will ever encounter.
If you haven’t yet heard about what the former Grateful Dead percussionist is up to these days, here’s a recap. Hart, with the assistance of NASA, acquired a set of sound waves derived from light waves that are emitted by our solar system. The process used to create these noises out of the light waves is called “sonification.” He then used the noises to create beats, which are the backbone of the songs on this album.
In keeping with the theme of deep space, the album features songs whose subjects are large, overbearing ideas, rather than more specific topics that may be found in other songs. For many of the lyrics, Hart turned to the indomitable Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Titles like “Heartbeat of the Sun,” “Starlight Starbright,” and “Through Endless Skies” add to the idea of the massiveness of the universe.
The sound of the album is invariably massive as well. Hart’s assembly of musicians create a strong and relentless sound that expresses their ability to be a musical powerhouse.
Mysterium Tremendum doesn’t waste any time getting into the spacey stuff. The album opens with the ominous, trancey sound that anyone who has attended one of the band’s recent shows will recognize. The first track, “Heartbeat of the Sun,” opens the album with a sound that could only be described as eerie, calling to mind the psytrance duo Shpongle. This all-instrumental song is a fantastic introduction to the album, driving home the idea of the intensity of the cosmos.
This creepiness subsides, however, when the tension is broken on the second track, “Slow Joe Rain,” by the raspy vocals of keyboardist and singer Tim Hockenberry, a music industry veteran who has worked with an incredibly diverse range of musicians. Hockenberry’s voice is less spacey and much more hard-rock than the sound of the album’s intro, creating an interesting clash of worlds. This dichotomy is a great metaphor for the human’s dual perceptions of the world: what they see in the everyday world, and the gigantic and intimidating mystery of the universe as a whole that is always hidden in the background.
“Slow Joe Rain,” begins laughably, with the introduction of a take-no-sh*t Lake Champlain redneck who likes his oysters raw, likes his women fat and mean, and openly disobeys the law. The lyrics of this song are really what makes it stand out — Slow Joe Rain turns out to be an incredible philosopher, preaching that, “if you can’t fix a busted heart, don’t try to save the earth.”
“Cut the Deck” is obviously a Hunter product, with lyrics that could be interpreted multiple ways. The sole variation from typical Hunter words is the clearly defined chorus to the song, which repeats the lyrics, “All I ever wanted was some of your love.” This song’s sound is a bit more like a traditional rock ballad, if traditional rock ballads were set to spacey beats.
The next song, “Starlight Starbright” is one of the album’s more standout songs. It’s the first track on Mysterium Tremendum that features the incredible voice of the Mickey Hart band’s second vocalist, Crystal Monee Hall. Hall’s voice is a distinct opposition to the raspy rockiness of Hockenberry’s — it’s clear, tribal and soaring.
“Who Stole the Show” is yet another unique song on this album. The lyrics were written by Hart and percussionist Sikiru Adepoju, and the music was written with the help of the likes of Steve Kimock and Dave Schools. Sung by Adepoju, a native of Nigeria, the song sounds straight out of an otherworldly tribal ceremony. The ominous feeling of the song is broken only at selective points, when a chant of “who stole the show” brings us back to earth.
Interestingly, the version of this song that is included on Mysterium Tremendum is not its first incarnation. The song was originally introduced in 2000, and included a long set of lyrics detailing the lightning-speed evolution of human culture in modern times.
“Djinn Djinn” features Hall and Hockenberry singing in unison, with both slightly holding back to create an almost etherial sound. In the background is a constant spacey sound that yet again is reminiscent of a component to a Shpongle song.
The next track is another departure from what a listener might expect from the album. Hall’s ever-morphing voice turns “This One Hour” into a soulful ode to blissful life reflection. This song also has a bit of history attached to it: In his songwriting process (which, at the time, was for the Rhythm Devils, Hart’s project with fellow Grateful Dead drummer and partner-in-crime Bill Kreutzmann), Hunter had written an entirely different set of lyrics. Upon realizing that his lyrics were negative, Hunter decided to write a whole new set, which (thankfully) turned into this beautiful song.
The only way to describe the next song, “Supersonic Vision” is as a powerhouse. Its sound and lyrics are driving and intense, and the song itself seems as if it should be the theme song to an action-loaded sci-fi television show.
“Time Never Ends” tackles the difficult and mysterious topic of the infinite nature of the universe. This is another song with lyrics written by Mickey Hart, and is sung in unison by Hall and Hockenberry, a strategy that has proven itself to create a certain eerie and far-away sound. If “Time Never Ends” sounds familiar, it’s because it’s another reworked older song. It made its debut with somewhat different lyrics in 2000, and then a version closer to the present one was played by the Dead in 2004.
“Let There Be Light” also features both vocalists, but in quite a different manner. Hall and Hockenberry trade-off lines during the verses of the song, only coming together to create a powerful chant during the chorus.
The second-to-last track on the album, “Ticket to Nowhere,” is another updated throwback to the 2000 incarnation of the Mickey Hart Band. It’s another that has a soulful sound, with far-away vocals that even approach gospel.
Rounding out the end of the album is “Through Endless Skies,” a love song that leaves the listener with the idea that the universe is, in fact, unending. The song was written by Hart for his wife on Valentine’s Day in 1998, and has also been in the Mickey Hart Band repertoire since 2000.
Mysterium Tremendum is yet another example of the versatility of Mickey Hart — every album released by him on his own is entirely different from any others. Continually devoted to creating sounds that have never been heard before, Hart manages to create a unique product with every project he begins.
Mickey Hart’s newest release makes it very clear that if you’re expecting the Grateful Dead, you probably should not buy this album. Hart has left the Grateful Dead in the dust.
1. Heartbeat of the Sun
2. Slow Joe Rain
3. Cut the Deck
4. Starlight Starbright
5. Who Stole the Show
6. Djinn Djinn
7. This One Hour
8. Supersonic Vision
9. Time Never Ends
10. Let There Be Light
11. Ticket to Nowhere
12. Through Endless Skies