“I need a change of pace, loss of face,” sings experimental Philly artist Jack Hubbell on the first track from the 13th Telyscopes album, Spectacol ///. “I need an unpaid vacation that never ends.” And sure enough, his narrator gets what he asks for, way down at the very bottom of everything. The song is called “MH370,” framed with a two-note guitar vamp that flashes like a warning light, and it ends not with a wonderful splash, but with audio carnage–howling distortion as grim sound painting of the Malaysia Airlines flight whose disappearance dominated the global news in March of 2014.
Telyscopes’ catalog is, on some level, a flight recorder logging Hubbell’s musical fixation on disaster. Sometimes that’s personal (finding blood in your urine, getting swept away in a flash flood) and other times, it’s social and political (nuclear weapons tests, assassinations). Like the best cinematic horrors and thrillers, the setup creates compelling drama by pushing humanity to the most extreme limits–or at least engages in the time-honored tradition of tapping your fellow man on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, was that fucked up, or what?”
To that body of work, Hubbell adds the chilling “O-Ring,” littered with saxophone, theremin, and debris from the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Is it morbid and horrific? You bet–take it up with cable news, I guess. This is a record haunted by the sense that catastrophe can happen at any time, but Hubbell doesn’t make the alternative sound much better: “What is waiting for us, at the end of our numbered days?” he asks on “Python (In the Weeds).” “Maternity centers, custody hearings, nursing homes, marble graves.”
That’s a rare direct soliloquy on an album that, as often as not, invites you to gawk at its wildness. The title Spectacol /// comes from the Romanian word for “show.” To wit: in the music video for “Metamorphosis” (more chant than song, rattling by on chitinous legs), Hubbell drinks raw egg from a champagne flute before flashing a demented smile at the camera. The album follows much the same spirit, pushing the experimentalism of his last full-length With A Y while cutting back on that record’s diaristic tendencies (unless, of course, there’s something he’s not telling us, re: his experience with prion diseases).
Spectacol /// is personal in other ways–this time out, there are fewer instrumentalists hired from Fiverr and more focus on close collaborators from past projects. Patty Hamill provides pianos and synths, Karl Hovmark plays drums, and long-time live singer Madelyn Van Trieste becomes the first guest vocalist to feature on a Telyscopes record. And in the end, there’s no mistaking Hubbell’s singular rhythm, piloting through ecstatic skronk, synth-laden nightmares, and soft fusion jazz like bends in a jungle cruise.
He isn’t coy about what lies at the end of the river, but there’s no telling what might happen on the trip (there is a non-zero chance of–random example–being brutally mauled by a panther). Best to buckle up, but either way, the Spectacol must go on.