Zero to Infinity

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Australian spacehead Daevid Allen began appearing on recordings by progressive rock pioneers Soft Machine and Gong in the late '60s and early '70s. Thirty years later in the year 2000, the serious-minded prog rock outfits are long gone, but Gong is back in action with Zero to Infinity, one of the strongest releases ever by the "Daevid Allen" version of the band. Zero to Infinity is part five of Gong's "Radio Gnome" saga, a whimsical tale about the adventures of protagonist "Zero the Hero" and the many cosmic characters he encounters on mystical journeys through space and time. As in previous Gong efforts, some of the best stuff happens when the band stretches out and jams. In "The Invisible Temple," a midtempo modal space-funk vamp clocking in at over 11 minutes, vocalist Gilli Smyth's vivid imagery of myriad life forms ascending through "vast concentric rings" intertwines with nice solos from alto saxophonist Didier Malherbe, guitarist Allen, and especially new tenor saxophonist Theo Travis. Originally penned in 1969 and appearing on Allen's comparatively low-key Good Morning album in 1976, "Wise Man in Your Heart" is a wistful ballad embedded with old-fashioned hippie idealism. Featuring one of Allen's most affecting, least mannered vocal performances, "Wise Man" derives its floating quality in part from Mike Howlett's repeating bassline that punctuates the tune in an off-meter cycle. Like most of Zero to Infinity, the song is gorgeously produced, a bit slick but with the same warm qualities that can be found, for example, in the production work of Daniel Lanois with Peter Gabriel or Brian Eno. While Zero to Infinity works most of the time, it is not without the occasional clunker, such as "Bodilingus," a musical exploration of the aging Allen's body parts set to a 1970s-style disco arrangement. The jokiness of a tune like "Bodilingus" has become part of Allen's irreverent persona and is likely endearing to Gong diehards. Misfires notwithstanding, most of Zero to Infinity finds long-term Gong mainstays in fine form. Thirty years on, and Daevid Allen still manages to walk a pop music tightrope, balancing the artful and the absurd while remaining true to his vision of music as a spiritually liberating force. Zero to Infinity finds Allen and his Gong bandmates persisting with their optimistic message from the 1960s, happily out of synch with the prevailing currents of more cynical times.

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