Expanding the musical universe 

Amid the wash of images cast by a video projector, a collective of musicians soak the Bodhisattva Social Club's woodsy attic retreat in ethereal female vocals, classical instrumentation, ambient synthesizers, hypnotic percussion and warm bass tones. The room is packed tight and attentively quiet, so much so that a lonely beer-bottle clank breaks the crowd's study-hall-like concentration. The six men and women who call themselves Red Shift Mantra like it that way.

The four year-old local group -- with one-and-a-half years in its current incarnation -- came together when R&B fan Bethany Pritchett (vocals, flute) joined forces with techno-industrialized Rhett John-son (programming, synths, percussion). The pair set out to explore the experimental side of electronica, using a tension-filled thematic approach, much like that of a film score. They also added the distinctive wrinkle of a live-band feel. "Anybody can turn on a 303 sound with filter cutoffs," says Johnson, a well-heeled producer in his own right, who lists a Seal remix on his growing resume of techno accomplishments. "We're going for a more organic ... earthy vibe ... with live percussion."

The duo found others interested in furthering their pseudo-ambient charge, including Vanessa Howell (piano, synths, vocals), percussionist James Brown (who recently parted ways with the group) and bassist C.K. Young (who came over from techno-metallists Midst of Zool). The last to adopt the Mantra was Kim Rivera-Crochet (electric violin). The result is a futuristic, soundtracklike din with a new-agey spin, but far more reaching and complex in its scope. And although there are touches of jazzy, off-the-chart improvisations, most of Red Shift Mantra's compositions are structured affairs, albeit loosely, without the typical verse-chorus-verse restraints.

The talented troupe -- named after the combination of "red shift," the way we measure the expanding universe, and "mantra," a reflection upon that process -- prides itself on being able to switch on and off a variety of effects-laden instruments both onstage and under the recording microscope. Even the vocals aren't vocals, per se, but yet another stunning instrument in the band's arsenal. The musical minutiae, along with an occasional driving, dark-continent beat, is what sets RSM apart from the crowded field of dreamers.

RSM deliberately emphasizes the visual element of their show, ably provided by the projection of eclectic footage from the group's growing collection of clips. "Physically, we're not a high-energy band," says Pritchett. "[The imagery] adds movement and a little bit of distraction. ... We wouldn't have a show without it."

For its visceral conquest this weekend at Dante's, Red Shift Mantra is planning to envelop the front half of the room in its trance-inducing lens trickery. They'll take that effect to a higher level on April 7 at Bodhisattva, when they unveil the "Red Shift Mantra Ambient Sound System," a 1,000-watt monster capable of distributing the group's aural subtleties with improved crystal clarity.

"It's fulfilling ... it's good for us to go to every outlet that we have," says Pritchett, the group's primary voice. "That's going to make us more creative and fully expressed as musicians."

Eventually, the band -- who has yet to release any recordings -- sees the growing mass of audio and visual elements coming together in an over-the-top expression, much like that of prog-rock pioneers Pink Floyd. Johnson envisions a "full-on theatrical experience" capable of taking the audience to another place, another time. That time is now.

More by Mark Padgett


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