For the better part of a decade it seemed as if Shabaka Hutchings existed in three different places at once. Up until just recently, he’s balanced the work of three different groups, each of which commands its own unique space in contemporary jazz. His recently retired Sons of Kemet was the most grounded, a protest-minded London quartet playing Afro-Carribbean jazz, heavy on the funk, while Shabaka and the Ancestors—featuring an ensemble of South African musicians—traveled the spiritual realm. With The Comet Is Coming, a group balancing jazz improvisation with electronic elements, Hutchings and company transcend time and space, as if beaming transmissions back to us from the future.
Albums such as 2019’s Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery revealed the curious duality inherent in the group, showcasing them as simultaneously the most accessible and the most idiosyncratic of the bunch. Such is the nature of electronic music, or for that matter jazz—either can speak to the physical or metaphysical experience, and the UK group explores the entire spectrum that comprises. But where that album felt like landing on another planet, its follow-up Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam explores darker terrain—more Blade Runner dystopian than initiating First Contact.
It’s not The Comet Is Coming’s methodology that’s changed so much as the tone through which they apply it—the elements of laser-beam synths, ecstatic and urgent beats, and hypnotically forceful saxophone remain the tools at their disposal for navigating this jungle of neon and smog. The opening sounds of leadoff track “CODE” even sound like sirens, as the group is dropping the listener straightaway into the action—its beefy bass tone kicking in as if to soundtrack a suspenseful pursuit. There are more sensual moments (“Lucid Dreamer”), more ecstatic moments (“Technicolour”), and even those that feel like brief sprints through machine-learning gauntlets. But rare is the song here that arrives as if on a ray of natural light.
Whatever darkness The Comet Is Coming seem to be up against on Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam, they make fine work of feeling their way through it, not so much carefully or cautiously but with a drive to confront it with everything they can muster. And so it’s in the most incendiary and defiant moments—the dark-ambient fire music of “Angel of Darkness,” the Afrobeat synth arpeggios of “Aftermath,” the booming back end of “Atomic Wave Dance”—where The Comet Is Coming reveal some of their most exciting work to date. The future they project, or reflect, here may not be as wondrous so much as intimidating and paranoid, but the confidence and power they project makes it feel a little less daunting.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.