We live in the future. Or at least the future as defined by the forward-thinking people of our past. At any moment, we can put our hand in our pocket and pull out a device that has access to pretty much all of humanity's collected wisdom and knowledge — everything since we began keeping records. We have more understanding and documentation of the universe's vastness and intricacy than at any point since the first microbe started doing the backstroke in the primordial ooze. Calling up and watching the furthest reaches of the galaxy — the outer reaches of the most ancient and distant space — is easier than ordering a pizza. And a world of unprecedented technological change and ability — an era that's becoming more Asimovian than Isaac Asimov himself could have predicted — needs a soundtrack. A futuristic soundtrack that pushes its listeners to the edge of the quantum void — to the very edge of space-time as we know it.
Cue Space Zen, the sophomore album from Nashville electronic duo Sub Shanti. The brainchild of Belmont alums Dex Palmer and Saum Goth, Sub Shanti fuses the conceptual milieu of trans-global classical music with the infinite sandbox of electronic production. While not the first electronic artists to bring classical influences to the patch bay — electronic music as we know it was essentially ushered in by classical composers and performers like Terry Riley and Wendy Carlos, and dance music certainly wouldn't be the same without the influence of classically trained cellist Arthur Russell — Sub Shanti is certainly among the first to bring a belletristic sense of orchestration to the dance clubs of Music City. And while the easy summation of Sub Shanti's sound might simply be "dubstep" — arguably the most dominant electronic sound in the city at the moment — the truth of the matter is that the tunes on Space Zen are far more liminal than the bludgeoning bass-lurch we've come to expect from the genre.
From the reverb-drenched strings nestled into the synthetic drums of album-opener "Space Zen" to the transcendental chants and grimy bass of album-closer "Cosmic Brains," it's clear that Sub Shanti inhabits far more dimensions than your average bro-step midi manipulators. Again, dubstep is the easy reference point — innard-rattling sub-bass is one of Sub Shanti's hallmarks — but the sense of melody is more complex, more developed. Motifs weave in and out of songs, which don't adhere to the four-notes-for-16-bars-vocal-sample-bass-drop-repeat formula that's come to define the genre's most predictable proponents. Sub Shanti's music flows naturally, descending into chaos at some points, gently lapping at the shores of consciousness the next. Tempos shift and unfurl across Space Zen like a light-speed traveler veering between gravity wells, accelerating and decelerating amid galactic bodies on a voyage to the outer edge of the knowable, the comprehensible.
The triumph of Space Zen is in, appropriately enough, its balance. It can be rave-y and intellectual, rugged and docile, or dynamic and atmospheric where so many of Sub Shanti's contemporaries just beat the listener over the head with the physical intensity of monster bass and rapid-fire pop-culture references. It's electronic music that begs for intellectual engagement while eliciting corporeal responses, involuntary or otherwise. There's an undercurrent of blues — of melancholy — in Sub Shanti's tonality; a black hole at the center of their glowing and pulsing star cluster; a grief in their glitch that belies the happy-go-lucky hedonism of dance culture and connects on a deeper level than many of their Dayglow peers. There is dark matter pulling on the fabric of songs like "Fading Away" and "Soul Stealer," giving them a shape unpredictable within the normally linear realm of electronic music. By the time the sitar comes in on Space Zen's penultimate track "Birds Flying Higher," it's clear that Sub Shanti doesn't plan to stop at the edge of the universe. If anything, Space Zen represents the start of a long, deep musical adventure.