January 28, 1986 was one of those dark, tragedy-stricken days in American history, for on its tenth mission, in front of live television cameras, NASA space shuttle Challenger broke apart soon after its launch. Many might still remember the images of the Challenger coming apart at the seams, a completely devastating yet eerily majestic remembrance of lives and aspirations exploding in cascading plumes of exhaust and smoke.
The new album by C. Spencer Yeh’s Burning Star Core project bears the same name as that ill-fated space shuttle, and it finds itself working towards a similar pathos. Opening track "Challenger" is a prime example, setting the tone and immediately bringing to mind Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. But this venture could be more aptly dubbed Music For Space Stations: relying on softly shifting tones and a repeated high-frequency blip intermittently ringing out, Yeh depicts a relatively calm scene, only to be devastated with racket around the three-minute mark. Screeching noise disrupts the consonance, as if offering up a sacrifice, beholding the magnificent to be ritualistically destroyed by its preternatural dichotomy.
Indeed, Spencer makes it clear from the beginning that Challenger is a composed work rather than an improvised one (as his usual wont), and it's made even clearer as this compositional method returns throughout the album. In fact, Yeh frequently adopts this formula on this album, in which the song starts off quietly, builds into a transcendent soundscape, and is then counterbalanced by some sort of dissonance. "Mezzo Forte," for instance, centers around Yeh’s voice looped in staccato patterns over one another, until a cosmic stuttering orchestra of “uh”s accumulates. A mesmerizing Satie-like piano line is added, but like the opening track, "Mezzo Forte" undergoes the ritualistic process whereby beauty is built up and subsequently destroyed.
Elsewhere on the album, "Hopelessly Devoted" features Hair Police member Trevor Tremaine supplying cascades of Jew’s harp on a really deep track with plenty body-vibing resonance, as "Un Coeur En Hiver" (translation: "A Heart in Winter") starts off with snippets of conversation and field recordings of what sounds like the din of late-night garbage pickup and rusty, swinging gates. Meanwhile, On "Mysteries of the Organ," Yeh busts out his trademark violin, with some swelling, attack-delayed organ -- slightly reminiscent of an instrumental Burzum piece -- and a violent assault on the piano.
Although not necessarily a "challenger" because it is one of Yeh’s more difficult works, the album instead challenges the listener into thinking more deeply about the nature of consonance and dissonance, and how it is enforced in the modern music scene. He's playing with our relationship between aesthetics and emotion, making it easy to be reminded of, say, the Challenger space shuttle painting an epic canvas in the sky. The album’s cover art (by Robert Beatty of Hair Police/Three Legged Race) only adds to the tension: a Monty Python-esque burst of Technicolor springing forth from a crack in a gray, featureless celestial body surrounded by a similarly dreary universe.