Area 51 Debris
Jahloon (Jeff Berg)
Area 51 Debris was an article written for the magazine Alien Worlds which was due to be published in issue 5. Sadly the economic climate at the end of 2008 prevented this from happening.
Area 51 Debris
Mention the words “Area 51 Debris” to any self respecting Alien Worlds fan and it will conjure up some pretty esoteric ideas, parts of an alien craft, destroyed in the desert, hastily removed to a high security hanger, never to be seen again. What if you did a web-search for Area 51 Debris, and came across something completely unexpected but equally intriguing? Well this is the story of a strange and unique musical device, and how it came into my hands.
I had known about the instrument for some time, and like I mentioned, web-searches can turn up some intriguing stuff. My search found a picture of a guitar like nothing I had seen before, enigmatically named “Area 51 Debris”.
At first I thought it had been made specially for Infinite Ego, a formidable instrumentalist.
He hosted an Internet site and forum, which went through several iterations, changing name, changing identity, but with a core of avant garde musicians varying from the obscure to the almost famous.
One day you could find them, join their conversation, and the next day they had jumped continent, to reinvent themselves on a new website. Some website names you might recognise; Kronosonic / Shred Like Hell / Cone of Silence / Negation Hoster / GtrOblq and their latest incarnation Flophouse Nouveau.
Additionally they were a very close knit crew, with limited membership, if you weren’t a serious musician, or didn’t turn up on a regular basis, you were history.
Infinite Ego pictured with Area 51 Debris
Then, one day I logged on to their forum, and happened upon one of Ego’s postings, he was selling some gear, it looked like he needed some cash for a new project, so I posted him and asked if he ever wanted to sell Area 51 Debris, to give me a call.
That’s when things changed, he called, he said he didn’t own 51, he said it was just a loan from the creator, and to contact him if I was interested.
That was one of the things with the Kronosonic guys, they had this altruistic friendship type of bond, where they would loan each other instruments and equipment, and play on each other’s albums. I’d even made a track for one of their collaboration CDs, “The Unravelling Begins”.
The Unravelling Begins
So I took Infinite Ego’s advice, and contacted the creator of Area 51 Debris. He was credited with crafting some very weird string instruments, mostly they didn’t even play normally tuned music, you know like twelve notes to the octave, he made kit that played 19 notes to the octave, or even more. Funny thing was, he never took any commissions, never wanted any publicity as a luthier, mostly just creating instruments for close friends.
Well I know Ego and the creator talked at length about the strange guitar’s fate, and I finally got a cryptic e-mail that said it was time the instrument moved on.
The Creator gave me a price and we agreed to a sale.
It took a long time for the instrument to transfer from Ego to the creator and then make its way across the Atlantic, unusually it spent three weeks in customs.
But arrive it finally did, a sleepy day at the office, and a call from reception advising I had customs duties to pay the waiting courier.
It arrived well packed, and there was an unusual metallic chill when I finally raised the creation from the packaging. It looked a lot more strange than the internet pictures, it looked old and ancient and at the same time modern and alien.
Ever wandered around a music shop? The pianos look like pianos, brass instruments are nice and shiney, guitars are polished and pristine, everything has the look of planet Earth, they are just what you expect them to look like. Nothing strange, weird, or out of your comfort zone. Just stuff, created for the expectations of the purchasing public. Area 51 Debris certainly did not belong to that world.
You remember the ethos of the early Star Wars films? All the gear on set had to look used, old, been through the mill. No shiney space age equipment, everything had to look functional and used. Well that certainly was the look of Area 51 Debris, it looked like it had actually been built out of wreckage from a crash site.
I couldn’t even tell what metals had been used in its creation. The internal wiring was like nothing I’ve ever seen, fractally functional, just a socket for the sound lead and a single volume control.
There was nothing else recognisable as a stock item, the whole creation was made from scrap parts, things that previously would have had an entirely different function, but I could not guess what. And it was heavy, but it had an acquired strange balance, you know like, if you have the right fulcrum a mouse can lift an elephant.
How can I describe it? It is a stringed instrument, seven strings to be exact, a close relative might be a (six string) guitar, but this instrument has no frets, so the fingerboard is more like a violin, and that fingerboard on 51 isn’t wood, isn’t metal, isn’t plastic, it is as smooth as silk and plays fast as lightening. Of course there is an electrical pick-up to detect the string vibrations and take them to an external amplifier.
But why no frets? If you are scratching your head at this point, frets are thin bands of metal fixed to a guitar’s neck, fingers stop the strings at the frets and their precise spacing ensures all the notes played are in tune. Without frets you have the ability to play any frequency between notes. Pianists would say; playing the notes between the cracks. Music lovers would call for earplugs.
Now normally headless guitars are body heavy, but (as I mentioned earlier) this guitar was perfectly balanced at the point where the neck joins the body. That means an unfeasibly heavy neck, but the neck looked like it was made of wood.
But when I worked things out, the neck was far heavier than the volume of wood suggested, a density of almost three times that of the equivalent volume of water. Look, I’ve been around a long time and seen some strange things, but what kind of wood doesn’t float? I mean, that’s what wood does.
And the electrical output is massive, in simple terms, about 50% higher than my top of the range shred guitar. Now that seriously stresses the input of any amplifier, its a bit like using a blowtorch to light a cigarette, and then smoking that cigarette in an oxygen tent. Kinda blows the cobwebs off your eyebrows.
In addition, the magnetic field around the instrument is enormous, it actually distorts a television screen from over a meter away, and then playing the beast, that is a whole different experience. If ever an instrument came to life when you plugged it in – Area 51 Debris does just that, the burst of energy through the amplifier, the overdrive, the feedback and sustain just have to be heard to be believed. To say it is a whole new playing experience is an understatement. The seven strings means you can play notes significantly lower than a normal guitar, down to a low A, that’s seven notes lower than a standard guitar. Then the really amazing bit, the extra long neck gives an extra eleven higher notes than an ordinary axe. A total range of over five octaves, very few instruments achieve this frequency span.
Then as it was a guitar, one thing puzzled me, there were no strap posts, so you couldn’t hang it around your neck like any other guitar. Then the penny dropped, it was the perfect shape to play sat down, crafted for a couch potato like me perhaps. But that was the beauty of the instrument – precise balance, you could sit for hours playing and never feel tired.
One more thing I knew about the instrument, was the rumour that the shadowy musician Bofatron Sofasaurus had used it on some of his recordings.
Bofa had appeared out of the Kronosonic artist’s stable, playing well beyond anything deemed humanly possible. Guitar internet forums buzzed as to who he actually was. Some put forward the theory he was a top name, playing what his record company did not approve of. Others claimed the performance was electronically generated, again the degree of artistry deemed beyond human achievement.
One thing I did know; Bofa had done some of his performances on the instrument. I did not know which, because many had been pulled from the Internet, but I did have his instruction book. Pretty much full of esoteric musings.
We still don’t know much about Bofa, he arrived and then he left, and while he was around he dropped some off the edge musical diversions, characteristics like “Transgressive Fluidity” and “Disturbing Shred” were names he gave his style. Then he would espouse scale fragmentation theory, harmolodics, and the tyranny of the Id. Couple that with killer tracks like Jupiter Proximity (death in orbit) and you can see the direction he was headed.
The only web pic of Bofatron Sofasaurus
So I knew a couple of things, I had acquired a first class unique instrument which already had a playing history. But what about the guitar itself? At first the name of the instrument “Area 51 Debris” appeared quite novel, but after a few days I had started to wonder if there was any truth in its origin. At least one of the Kronosonic guys was a high ranking officer in the US air force, and the possibility that others had military connections was wide open, the credentials of the World Wide members, upon investigation, revealed little, though they all used aliases to conceal their day jobs. Names like; Aliensporebomb, Sonic Deviant, Brainphart, Stick Man and Ubertar. They also used avatars (pictures to represent themselves) from old SF flicks, when I posted on their forum I used an image from the original 1963 Outer Limits TV series, “The Mutant”.
Trouble was, in a similar vein to the Kronosonic guys, my day job was significantly tied into the UK & European Security world, so possession of Area 51 Debris would not be a piece of public information, in fact, it had better remain secret. I didn’t even tell any fellow musicians until last September when I was in New York, playing a jazz festival, and sat in a bar with an old friend Brad, chewing over what we had been up to since we last met. I mentioned I had recently purchased Area 51 Debris, and my friend Brad was instantly taken aback, “IE sold you 51? It was his favourite guitar. You had better look after it, in fact you had better do it justice.” It was starting to dawn on me that I had been given a responsibility beyond just ownership.
After returning from New York to the UK I came across a communication between the creator of 51 and Infinite Ego, its long time custodian. Basically it said “What will the English guy make of 51?” Well, I’ve still got a lot of questions, but meantime I’m playing and composing. To tell you the truth, composing music I’d never accessed before, ideas that never previously surfaced, its a mad roller-coaster ride with new sounds constantly bursting the barriers of normal musical intonation.
Next task is to look for a gig, maybe at an SF convention where the intricate musical concepts can be really appreciated. (I know Aliensporebomb plays these gigs in the States) The next task is to get everything down onto a CD, limited distribution, Indie label, i-tunes downloads, there are a lot of possibilities.
On reflection, you could argue that Area 51 Debris is an iconic instrument, but it became more so when Glenn from Abbotsford, BC, Canada built a copy. Well I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and true to the spirit of the original, he built it from readily available spare parts, proving that you don’t have to spend a fortune to generate alien music. Not only that, but he published an article on how his instrument was built, “Building a Fretless Guitar”
I still have a lot of questions which, at this moment in time, remain unanswered. What happened to Bofatron Sofasaurus? What materials had been used in the creation of Area 51 Debris? Plus I wanted more information about the guys at Kronosonic, more knowledge about the instrument’s creation, and why, and possibly with what purpose, it had fallen into my possession.
So far I can pass on a little wisdom; if you are a musician, or an aspiring one, it doesn’t matter where you collect your debris, or where you collect your guitars, you could just happen upon a miracle, or a miracle could happen to find you. Meanwhile, I’m looking for a percussionist to accompany this ethereal stream of music and take it on the road. I’ll keep you posted.