There is something thrilling about hearing a band grow and evolve before your ears. Sons of Ra fits that description. And the evolution has only just begun.
I first became aware of this power trio when they opened Progtoberfest III in 2017 at Reggie’s in Chicago. Truth be told, it was guitarist Erik Oldman who recognized me first (apparently, he had read some of my previous work). A conversation at the merchandise table ensued, and a new band interest was sparked.
Based in Chicago, Sons of Ra makes music that skillfully straddles the lines between progressive rock, metal, and jazz. Calling their music mere “Fusion” seems remarkably limiting, once the listener goes beneath the surface. With their debut EP Anthropology (released in 2014), Sons of Ra planted the seeds of infinite musical possibilities. With their forthcoming release, Cognitive Dissonance (out later this year), those seeds have sprouted roots. And those roots are taking a firm hold.
Part of the reason for this evolution stems from a personnel change. Sons of Ra have a new drummer in Michael Rataj. Oldman and bassist Keith Wakefield have a new musical foil off whom they can bounce their musical thought processes, which has opened up many entirely new musical avenues. The band is seizing on those opportunities, and making the most of them.
From a live standpoint, Sons of Ra are embracing their heavier side, opting to play gigs with more metal bands, as opposed to jazz. This gives them the advantage of putting their music before more receptive listeners not looking for a band to recapture the sounds of the jazz-rock bands of years past. Instead, modern metal fans are given a healthy — albeit sometimes subtle — dose of a music form many of them may not otherwise pay attention to intentionally.
On a personal level, Oldman is every music fan’s best friend. He has no issue with sitting in a bar, drink in hand, and talking at length about music. (I speak from personal experience.) He is passionate about the art form, and possesses an extensive knowledge which he brings forth without arrogance or pretense. Rare is the day I don’t walk away from a conversation having learned something new, with the overwhelming urge to dive headlong into this new musical possibility.
In the old musical economy, Oldman and his band would be out there full-time, bringing Sons of Ra’s music to the masses probably the world over. Alas, Oldman — like nearly everyone else — holds down a day job that pays the bills and supports his family. In a way, it can be argued that his situation makes him even more relatable on a human level. It can also be argued that such a situation makes him pour that much more passion into his musical efforts.
From his home in Chicago, Illinois, Erik Oldman took some time to answer Seven Questions from CirdecSongs.
CirdecSongs: More than a few things have changed since Sons of Ra released Anthropology. How are you feeling about the way things are currently situated?
Erik Oldman: Really, really good, actually. We had a brief period of trying things out, seeing what we could do with different contexts, and working with some drummers with different backgrounds. We did a lot of work with arranging our set to the (new) drummer we were working with, and it was a fun challenge for us to rethink some of our material that way. Drums are the clock of the band, and it’s always playing in a different time zone with each drummer. We didn’t want to hold cold auditions again, and we had a network of musicians here in Chicago we could tap into for support.
We knew Mike from our network. I’ve seen some of his other bands over the years and really liked his energy. We hung out a few times, informally. No audition, no pretenses. That was really important with the next step. We wanted people who got what we do and could hang with us. The paradigm of, “can I spend eight hours in a car with this person between gigs” and seeing if they were onboard with the greater vision of what we are doing and where we want to go. Our first show with him was a road gig, out of state, and it went amazingly well. We’ve been running with that energy since.
How has your songwriting evolved of the past couple of years?
It’s on a spectrum of improvisation versus composition. The newer material has different ranges of sections that fall between being more “changes” or “patterns” we improvise over, or stuff that is really tightly arranged and almost orchestral in nature. Some stuff is straight ahead “AABA-section” format. Some stuff has mixes of tight parts and improv parts. Stylistically, we’re still all over the map. That’s something that people seem to enjoy about us.
The longer pieces have more of a journey or storyline to them. Those are the ones that tend to veer off into different extremes. The stuff we write is mostly arranged through a more pragmatic, straight ahead jazz-oriented lens. We’re not as concerned with playing “out,” or a lot with time shifting. Its more about feel and thinking about how things resolve. Sometimes they resolve traditionally in, say a “ii V i” cadence for a 16-bar sequence. Sometimes, they don’t. But we’re more deliberate about those aspects in writing.
A lot of our material has gotten heavier in nature. It’s just how the sound developed, in a sense, with this lineup, especially for this body of work. Mike brings a certain heaviness with him as a dynamic we didn’t have before. A lot of what I’ve been feeling personally also probably reflects to some of that.
Some of the things that changed our sound (came from) using technology. We have a lot more synthesis going on in the band, Keith is using a guitar synthesizer for a lot of his lead sections and some underlying textures. I’ve done a lot of work with pitch shifting and harmonizers to where it’s a significant part of our sound. I will be bringing my synth out again in the near future for additional layering and voicing.
We’re also going to be doing a bit more work with live looping soon. Some of the material is written for that. I suppose that’s the “progressive” element of this group: we embrace technology as a tool to accomplish what we can with just three members.
What are you most proud of or pleased with, where the new album is concerned?
We’ve had a really smooth recording process so far. The first four tunes are done, and are being mixed. We found a fantastic engineer to work with who seems to really understand our sound. It’s also pushing me personally to be a better player and composer. Some things need precision with tracking, whereas other things need to breathe. The sounds we’re hearing in the mixes are pretty exciting.
Has Sons of Ra officially found its new voice and direction, or is this a step toward said direction?
We’re under the idea that what we’re playing at the moment is really a fusion of jazz and metal. That feels about right. That sounds about right. It’s heavy, but it can still swing. It has the chord extensions or alterations I like to play, it has the thing in the air about it I get when I’m listening to early Mahavishnu (Orchestra) or the Miles (Davis) live electric stuff (from the ‘70s) … electricity, edge, heaviness in that way, too, as with listening to bands like Neurosis, Blotted Science, or Behold the Arctopus.
That being said, I don’t think its a “final” sound. I don’t think we’ll ever have one. I very much like Robert Fripp’s notion of the music is organized as “a way of doing things” more so than anything else. The three of us have a way of doing things that is starting to crystallize. It’s just where we are at the moment.
I kind of think of it like Miles’s groups starting the mid-‘60s with Filles de Kilimanjaro going through the live Fillmore albums in the early ‘70s, or King Crimson between Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Red, and then Discipline.
Prog/Fusion is not the easiest sell in the music market. What does Sons of Ra bring to the table that makes it stand out from the rest?
We’re not classicists or traditionalists. We’re not catering to the crowd who just wants to hear stuff from the 1970s. It’s impossible to market to people who only listen to the past. We’re writing stuff that appeals to us first. What can we take from what we’ve learned –from our experiences — and take some risks with it. We seem to do best with a heavier crowd as a live band, so we’re bringing some of the jazz idiom in a heavier context.
How does the band’s approach change between the studio and the stage?
There’s more precision in the studio. Guitar-wise, the harmonization that’s done is mostly done manually, in separate tracks. Live, I use multiple-voice harmonizers. We’re doing a lot more with synthesis live, and we will be moving into loop-based stuff as well. The music has more room to breathe live. We also tend to play things with a focus on communicating energy externally, rather than trying to get the sound to be precise for a recording.
What excites you most about Sons of Ra’s future?
It’s the first step of this lineup, and we’re all walking the same direction with each new piece we complete. And that direction is anything but a straight line.
(Top photo by Josh Dagenais)
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