Since the dawn of man, science and exploration have fed the creative imaginations of musicians, artists, writers and later, filmmakers. Like an ever-expanding spiral, dreams of the seemingly impossible were realised by scientific minds inspired by artistic vision. No surprise then that The European Space Agency (ESA) wanted to celebrate the relationship between music, writing, film, and astrophysical science.
That’s the deep voice movie trailer version of what is happening in the Indigo O2. The short version is; a bunch of space, sci-fi and music fans want to get together and geek out.
The event is split into three segments. It is best to picture the event as divided in the style of Venn diagram with overlapping circles. The first is pitched at science fans, the second at sci-fi fans and the third music fans. Tickets can be purchased separately or as a complete package, so the audience interchanged slightly through the day.
In the first segment it becomes clear that geekery starts young and I begin to suspect the audience will reflect a life cycle of its own before our nearest star sets. Sitting amongst such a young crowd felt like a flash back to a school trip. MC Dallas Campbell pitched his banter accordingly, although the scientists presenting needed to work to make what could be stock lectures into bite size talks for kids. There are impressive descriptions of a range of space-based careers like: How to search for the presence of dark matter, given by Dr Maggie Lieu, who I kid you not has the coolest job title known to humankind, ‘Dark Matter Detective’.
Honestly, it sounds sexier than ‘Physicist’ right? How to prepare human beings for the conditions of ‘long haul’ space travel, the kind of long haul where Earth falls out of sight, given by human dynamo Dr Beth Healy MD. She herself having spent fourteen months living and working in Antarctica to gather data. How to launch a probe from a moving satellite on to a moving comet as described by the witty Dr Matt Taylor from the Rosetta and Philae lander mission. At the end of this ‘career day’ on steroids, the speakers gather together along with charismatic Astronaut Tim Peake to answer questions as a panel.
With only a couple of questions from the audience being broad enough for the entire panel to weigh in, most are directed from young, curious minds to Tim Peake. Questions like, “Before you went into space did you ride the Vomit Comet?”, “Why didn’t you join NASA?” (erm…thanks once again to our sponsors ESA) and the frank and brilliant question, “Did you like it in space, or not really?”
After a brief break and a switcheroo of about two thirds of the audience, Tim Peake returns to another panel, joined by sci-fi novelist Alistair Mitchell, Film and Game artist and Director Gavin Rothery, space inspired musician (former Ash guitarist) Charlotte Hatherley, and extraordinary brainbox Professor Mark McCaughrean from ESA. A lively and fascinating discussion is stoked and settled by BBC Radio 4’s host of It Is Rocket Science, Helen Keen.
Topics of discussion range from, sci-fi you can no longer watch or read once you know the science is wrong, to a recommended reading list (which was unsurprisingly heavy on the Carl Sagan)! To keep the conversation lively the panel are swapped for the second half of the second segment. Charlotte Hatherley prepares for her performance and is replaced by Lonely Robot frontman and one-time member of It Bites, John Mitchell. Gavin Rothery steps aside for epic panel guest, Queen guitarist and owner of anti-gravitational hair, Dr Brian May CBE.
In the course of debate and banter May and the group drive home a message that how ever ambitious and driven we are as a species to further explore space, we are not currently and may never be in position to colonise other planets and live there, we must start taking care of our planet because there is no stand by. They also mused about the possibility that alien cultures think we’re idiots and have been avoiding us. Perhaps, choosing to hide because the universe is a threatening place, whilst humankind sends out endless signals, chatter, and noise both purposefully and involuntarily.
The music portion of the event aimed to draw out the themes from the discussions using atmosphere, aesthetics and, in some cases, direct references. Charlotte Hatherley arrived on a simple stage lit with streams of light, dressed in a fitted flight suit, her face blocked out along the contours with white grease paint. Her set consisted of tracks from her most recent album True Love and EP Night Vision.
This ambient ‘80s inspired synth pop is reminiscent of the likes of Goldfrapp and Ladytron. These are seriously pretty songs soft, haunting vocals and shimmering keyboard effects and tiny flare ups of funk in the bass lines. The cinematic qualities are increased on her final song, a cover of the Bee Gee’s How Deep Is Your Love which is matched expertly with gorgeous visuals of Orion captured by ESA missions.
One of the biggest treats of Space Rocks is a unique performance by Arcane Roots. The special set up for the set having been alluded to by frontman Andrew Groves on Twitter the night before, “Going full modular tomorrow, juggling two voices with about 5 seconds to change the settings between each song, while keeping an eye on our entire set sequenced on to an Analog Rytm, then actually remembering to sing and play keys. Terrified.” The results were worth the fear.
The swell of sound was cut through with Groves intense vocals which have the power to shift from angelic to full throated outcry without losing musicality. The harmonies are the star as the three band members pour their hearts into their performance.
There is a faltering moment when Groves stops the song midway to explain the complexity of the set up and request that they start the song again having drifted from their intended sound, saying “We made an album, and this is the electronic version of it.” The audience are patient and appreciative of the group swallowing their egos in favour of giving the best performance they can. Their commitment to stay in keeping with theme of the event pays off completely. Perhaps they should consider making a fully electronic album?
Bringing the night to close is Lonely Robot, the solo project of John Mitchell. He is joined on stage by a full band to play tracks from sci-fi inspired album The Big Dream. Mitchell presents tracks with a heavy prog rock sound and high production value. His technical expertise as a musician is demonstrated with intricate guitar fingering and guitar solos that wail to life.
There are moments in the changeable tracks that sound reminiscent of epic guitar parts by the likes of Toto. Coupled with the visuals and a stay pair of slow motion space walker moving through the crowd (who look suspiciously like over enthusiastic panellists) the whole performance takes on the feel of a narrative space opera.
This is the first Space Rocks event, although it still a little unclear who the target audience is, ESA and guests have produced a vivid and broad ranging showcase with something on offer for everyone.
Photographs by Paul Lyme and Live Review by Sarah Sievers of Space Rocks at Indigo o2, London on 22nd April 2018