Pop: The general theory of relativity

Dark Star were born from Levitation's ashes. Which is as melodramatic as it sounds. By Fiona Sturges
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The Independent Culture
SOME BANDS make you feel pensive, awakening far-off memories and cherished moments that until then seemed irretrievable. Others cause your stomach to surge in a wave of nervous excitement, the same feeling you get when you are about to embark on something dangerous or frightening. Some even make you swell with pride, as if you have been privy to the creation of something very special.

Dark Star manage to do all these things. Watching them live ignites a series of contrasting emotions that would cost hundreds of pounds to thrash out in therapy. They infuse the grubbiest venues with a semi-religious ambience - an atmosphere heightened by the presence of fairy lights and candles that bathe the band in a celestial glow - while their tortured melodies, undulating instrumentals and wilfully abrasive distortions create a vast sound that leaves you both exhilarated and exhausted, your senses lying shattered at your feet.

The band are set to release a debut album, Twenty Twenty Sound, a collection of songs "borne out of pain, penury and a basement in Clerkenwell" that endeavours to recreate the heightened atmospherics of their live shows.

Singer-guitarist Bic Hayes, bassist Laurence O'Keefe and drummer Dave Francolini are the remaining fallout from the sombre early Nineties outfit, Levitation. This enigmatic band were known for their impassioned live performances. But in 1994, their notoriously-unhinged frontman, Terry Bickers, copped a strop halfway through a gig and left - a similarly dramatic exit to the one he had performed in 1990 as guitarist with The House Of Love. The remaining three band members were left standing on stage, slack- jawed in disbelief. They haven't seen Bickers since.

Hayes, O'Keefe and Francolini soldiered on for a few months, then admitted defeat and went their separate ways. Hayes began work with Heather Nova and All About Eve's Julianne Regan, while O'Keefe collaborated with Dead Can Dance's Brendon Perry. Wholly disillusioned, Francolini stopped playing altogether. "After a while, you don't want to get out of bed for the aggravation," he says.

But it was Francolini who suggested they start working together again in 1996. "There was always this sense of unfinished business," he explains. And Bickers? "Our paths will no doubt cross one day," he says, with a glint in his eye.

After Levitation's catastrophic demise, they were hesitant to throw themselves into a new band, but their epiphany arrived one evening when they went to see Sonic Youth. "They were totally inspiring and the old enthusiasm came flooding back," explains Francolini. "We booked a studio the next day and started rehearsals."

The band advertised for a new singer, but after several auditions they gave up. As a result, Hayes took over vocals, a position with which he still seems uncomfortable. "The vocals have always been secondary to the music," he mutters. But despite his bashfulness, Hayes's haunted vocals fit perfectly with the epic melodrama that characterises Dark Star's music.

Named after an invisible star known only to exist from observation of its gravitational effect, Dark Star's musical aspirations are as lofty as their name. "We are a very insular band who are totally hooked up with childhood memories, our adult experiences and the bands that we like," offers O'Keefe. "Some memories are too colossal to be ignored."

Dark Star have found it impossible to extricate their experiences with Levitation from their present endeavour. Such self-absorption could put them in danger of alienating their audience, but the three of them are adamant that people won't be lost along the way.

"We want a co-operative atmosphere where the audience are as involved as we are," says Francolini. This may seem a lot to ask from a roomful of complete strangers, but ultimately it is their trump card. From their first gigs supporting Mercury Rev last autumn, they began making waves with their ferocious performances.

Their freewheeling sound stems from a rehearsal strategy that is fanatically improvisational, and separates them from their hyper- produced contemporaries.

"We don't adhere to the usual pop formula - verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle-eight, end. We just turn the tape on and play," explains Hayes. This modus operandi echoes a host of Seventies prog outfits to whom Dark Star acknowledge a debt, though their sound owes as much to the hazy psychedelia of the Sixties. Indeed, Levitation were renowned for their narcotic excess which they see as partly responsible for the meandering nature of their music. "Binge there, done that," quips O'Keefe. "It's great to have that perspective, but it's not actually key."

While Twenty Twenty Sound doesn't quite match the feral intensity of the live experience, it has the same sense of drama and bears testament to Dark Star's agonised inception. It's the kind of record that demands fierce concentration, maximum volume and makes your mind wander in a million directions at once. Put simply by O'Keefe, "It's a document of where we were then."

`Twenty Twenty Sound' is out on Harvest Records on 19 April