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Psychedelic Underground

Local Duo At the Altar of the Cosmic Unicorn Brings Everything and Anything Into Its Mind-Bending Sounds

Sam Holden
PSYCH!: Neil Aviles and Erika Valencic live in a sonic world of their own.

By Jared T. Fischer | Posted 5/11/2005

At the Altar of the Cosmic Unicorn plays the Supreme Imperial May 14

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The basement is divided by a thin partition into two compartments. An orange light hangs from the ceiling of the room behind the stairs. In this space, a cushioned sofa and love seat rest around a low tea table, a setup as fit for meditation as mindlessness. The second compartment is more open, with an oriental red lamp glowing above musical equipment. Surrounded by a washer and dryer, two silvery half-stack amplifiers face each other. Guitars lean against them, while wires, pedals, a four-track recorder, and primitive boom box cover the floor.

This is where local duo At the Altar of the Cosmic Unicorn creates its songs, typically unpremeditated duets between alternating, effects-laden lead and rhythm guitars. For any length of time, guitarists/vocalists Neil Aviles and Erika Valencic simultaneously explore and experiment around a common key. The resulting sounds range from melancholic guitar twang to brutal wah and fuzz licks bouncing between Royal Trux and Jimi Hendrix. Above all, a consistent, loose sense of harmony presides over their songs, with wordplay and automatic, free-associative verbal slinging dominating Altar’s cosmic pool of lyrics and song titles. It’s all about the adventure of creation.

“You kind of get yourself into this thing where it’s like you’re making something, and then it’s made, and it’s like, Where did that come from? Who made that?,” Aviles says. “When you hear the music made by a person in a psychedelic mind-set, you think, Whoa. How did that person make the thing in a way harmonious with this other experience?

With its fantasia name and meandering sound, At the Altar of the Cosmic Unicorn doubtless holds communion with psychedelia of the past, but the band breaks from the big-riff, formally structured trips that marked head-freeing 1960s rock. At the Altar of the Cosmic Unicorn plays like action painters, and the music-making process is as integral to the production as the music itself. The freed music leads to freed minds.

“To get away from watching TV and to retrain your attention span and to really get into playing something, you can’t do it in just three minutes,” Aviles says. “You’ve got to play a part until you’ve gotten into it.”

“You have to reach a musical trance,” Valencic interjects. “Long songs are very un-American. The radio is full of two-minute songs.”

“We are very intent on the music of it all,” Aviles concludes. “I guess there are a lot of people who pay attention more to the lyrics. But I think there is a lot to be said about getting into the musicality of a band.”

Tall and slender, Aviles opens the door to his West 27th Street rowhouse dressed in a black woolen turtleneck and frayed jeans, his hair wild, long, and brown, bangs neatly tucked above an ear. He smiles with watery, rabbitlike dark eyes. A wolfish dog with two different colored eyes grumbles at his side then quickly settles down.

Stepping out from the sunlit room behind them, Valencic smokes a cigarette and holds a rainbow-speckled cup of tea. Also attractively gaunt and tall, she wears jeans and a white T-shirt on which the black print of a woman’s face appears a dozen times. Her long black hair hangs shaggily, her bangs falling just short of covering her wide eyes.

An intimate couple, they have been playing music together for four years, ever since they started dating. Aviles grew up in Woodlawn, playing in local shockers Bad Blood, Guillotine, and Practicefinger. Valencic gained what small and humorous rock experience she could in her hometown of Saegertown, Pa., where she played keyboards in an outfit called God’s Favorite Panties when she was 17, before fleeing to Baltimore.

“It’s a lot better [here] than Saegertown,” she admits. “Saegertown had all these really crappy punk rock kids who were 16 and played shows at the YMCA. It was fun. Once, I set up a show with Joe Preston of the Thrones in my friend’s basement in Pittsburgh, and there were like 10 people there, and he had two Marshall stacks. It was so awesome.”

That sense of wonder is echoed in At the Altar of the Cosmic Unicorn’s music-making. “Some of our songs don’t have lyrics at all,” Valencic says. “Just singing, using the voice as an instrument.” An example comes to life when Aviles flips on the four-track and plays an untitled song with a repetitive, Sabbathesque riff over which Valencic bellows incomprehensibly harmonious nonsense. Modified by an echo effect, her voice fills in for the absent lead guitar. Listening, the two look at each other and appear pleasantly amazed; from time to time, one or the other laughs at the wicked tension between her voice and his guitar.

“A lot of times, our writing styles are free-form,” Valencic admits.

“We constantly bounce phrases off each other,” Aviles elaborates. “Or, like, I’ll come up with one word, and then I’ll be like, ‘Come up with another noun,’ and we’ll put the words together. We do stream-of-consciousness writing and pick the best from that.”

The resulting lyrics—in “Space Orchids,” for example: “Space orchids/ blossoms of void/ across the subliminal wind/ telepathic frequency/ croque monsieur/ all the time”—are enticingly nebulous.

“Well, they’re definitely something about the unseen conflicts in the world, metaphysical conflicts,” Aviles says. “I think that’s what a lot of our lyrics are about. They’re definitely not about—”

“We’re not singing about walking down the street,” Valencic cuts in.

The duo collected its sounds on Altared States, a free MP3 album it recorded in 2003 and made available through its web site last September. States remixes the clean recordings of a six-song 2003 self-titled and -released EP. The postproduction tinkering modulates the tracks of every song by a number of sound effects, ranging from tremolo and flange to delay and backward tape effects. The album’s airy, atmospheric tone is offset by light, speed-building melodic guitars following sad, spaced-out progressions and sustained vocals. Opening track “The Aura of Your Infinite Vortex” has a western movie soundtrack mystique and begins with a shaky rhythm guitar as a crisp lead guitar traces what becomes the main vocal melody. Valencic’s voice sounds possessed as she holds on to each word of the title’s enigmatic phrase, repeating the notes of the lead. It sounds like an outer-space chant, one that starts to fade out before building an insane crescendo of unintelligible words and frenzied strumming.

Elsewhere, “Predatorial Tendencies” mixes flanged guitar with a haunting Arabian-tinted lead; multiples of Valencic’s voice overlap, creating a freakish heavenly vibe. And the duo offer a beautifully drunken cover of David Bowie’s “Saviour Machine” from The Man Who Sold the World.

This free-form blending is all part of Altar’s psychedelic rock. “Instead of trying to make music that is derivative of one kind of thing, I think it is better to take everything you possibly can and throw it all together,” Aviles says. “I think that’s the psychedelic way. Psychedelic things are like when a person talks to the moon and the moon talks to the color red and then the color red talks to a blender and everything gets all connected from everywhere. So it’s more freeing that way.”

It is this playful obsession with getting inside their music that sets At the Altar apart from psych bands that rigidly structure their songs and take everything too seriously. Aviles and Valencic believe in the “eternal party” of psychedelic music. And nothing is more fascinating than seeing the two of them completely surprised by the strange, wild sounds of what they have created.

“We just combine everything,” Valencic summarizes. And listening to their music, you’re peeking in on the secrets unlocked by their sound.

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