This feature originally appeared in Issue 03 of Lamplighter Magazine in December 2012 and subsequently on LamplighterNJ.com in March 2013
The date is July 31st, 2012. Joseph Kenyon waits inside his Linden, New Jersey home, watching the digital clock on his computer. Midnight arrives, carrying August with it. He clicks softly. The screen refreshes, revealing a music player loaded with the songs he has been writing and recording for the past month, replacing the batch of songs he released on July 1st, which in turn had replaced another batch of songs from a June 1st release. Surrounding that ever-changing music player is the art that Michal Brodka has been preparing for the past month, also replacing the art from the month before, which had already replaced the art from the month before that. This is not a pair of collaborators with creative A.D.D. or collective, monthly self-doubt. This is simply the August installment of Celestial Bodies.
As the tagline beneath their moniker explains, Celestial Bodies is “a 12 month galactic collaboration” between musician Joseph Kenyon’s solo project, Ruined Machines, and artist Michal Brodka. On the first of every month, the duo release a pairing of music and artwork inspired by a different celestial body, created entirely within the month since their last release. What this means is that Joseph has exactly one month to write and record each album, and Michal has exactly one month to conceptualize and create the artwork for the album, all while crossing their fingers in hopes that their respective contributions will successfully complement one another. “I’ll write tunes that I think reflect that month’s celestial body,” Kenyon explains. “He’ll draw something up that resonates with him, and near the end of the month, when everything’s almost done, we’ll show each other what we have. We’ve been extremely lucky so far that the images have ended up fitting the music very, very well.”
While the music of Celestial Bodies may be too acquired a taste for many a listener, it is no cavernous stretch for Kenyon. Celestial Bodies continues his trend of trance-like instrumental arrangements, carrying with it a certain fragile ambience that more or less follows the direction in which Ruined Machines has been heading with previous releases. The ambitious nature of the project, however, does beg to raise a few eyebrows, even for devoted fans of the instrumental progressive rock that Ruined Machines has been crafting.
So how do a 24-year-old musician and a 27-year-old artist come to the decision to release a collection of twelve extraterrestrial albums in twelve months? “I just wanted to do something totally different,” Kenyon recalls. “I was hanging out with Mike in the middle of the night near my house one night brainstorming, trying to figure out what we could really put our heads together and get done. After about 10 minutes of silence, I said, ‘Let’s do the planets.’ Mike said, ‘Done.’ We split up a couple minutes later and got to work.”
Not quite the ‘big bang’ one would expect for such a zealous undertaking, but the pact was formed and the deeds were drawn up. Twelve celestial bodies. Twelve months. One album per month, no matter what. Early on, the pair made a trip to Barnes & Noble for research materials, learning what they could about the solar system. While Kenyon simply wanted to develop a ‘vibe’ for each body, Brodka had other ideas for the visual side of things. “I didn’t just want to draw some planets,” he confesses. “There had to be more to each picture. I started looking into astrology and myth to gather potential ideas.” In the end, the result was to assign each celestial body a color, a zodiac symbol, an alchemical symbol, and a mythological image. For instance, the cover for the first release, The Sun, features two shades of gold on a black background depicting a lion feasting on The Sun. Brodka then includes an original combination of the alchemical symbol for gold (The Sun) and Leo’s zodiac symbol, which is, conveniently, also the alchemic symbol for digestion. The connections are almost endless, and the rest of the releases so far have continued to follow this pattern. “When it comes to album art or visual representation,” Brodka explains, “association, even a vague one, to a band’s overall aesthetic is important for the listener to become a viewer, and the viewer a listener.”
This ideal relationship between ‘the listener’ and ‘the viewer’ is one of the many things that makes Celestial Bodies such a unique project. Often, visual artists in the music industry are thought of as subordinate to the musicians they work with, if they are even thought of at all. An unfortunate fact, since their art is viewed by everyone who purchases the album, even in a digital form. Yet, with Celestial Bodies, the art is in collaboration with the music, formally granting both the same degree of importance. It works on a similar level to the way that a ‘split’ does for independent bands. Those who come for the art will be exposed to the music, and those who come for the music will be exposed to the art.
In their effort to turn their listeners into viewers, the duo even sell a combination package for each album that includes a signed and numbered limited edition screen print of the cover art, as well as a digital download of the music. A bold move in a cultural climate that values the digital over the physical, but it seems to be paying off. “There have been more downloads and plays than ever, and I’ve heard nothing but incredible things from everyone who’s heard the project,” Kenyon says. “People are picking up the art prints that Mike got pressed up. People have been buying the tracks on Bandcamp, even though they are pay-what-you-like, including free. The response has validated the entire project, and it’s not even halfway over yet.”
As unheard of as this whole idea may seem, the abstract concept album is not actually a novel concept at all, even in an episodic format. Thrice, for example, released a collection of four EPs (The Alchemy Index) in 2007-2008, each inspired by one of the four classical elements. However, at its core, Celestial Bodies is a collection of concept albums, for which the concept exists not only within the music and art, but outside of it as well. It would be appropriately fitting to label this project ‘experimental.’ Not quite in the manner that amateur musicians often label their creations experimental, simply because they don’t know which band they are actually ripping off — Celestial Bodies is, in essence, an experiment; one that tests not only the duo’s ability to create individually within a regimented and demanding time frame for an extended period of time, but also their compatibility as creative collaborators from separate fields.
And while each release is indeed a finished product, every album should also be considered only a slice of an ironically circular and abstract creation, as well. Ironic, in that the rehearsal is the performance, the study is the test, and the manufacture is the product. In the end, the quality of the music and art that Joseph and Michal create is almost irrelevant. What matters is simply that they do it. What counts is that they finish what they started: one album every month for twelve months.
The project began in May with the release of The Sun, followed by June’s Mercury, July’s Venus, August’s The Moon, September’s Earth, and October’s Mars. That is only five albums out of the scheduled twelve. In other words, Celestial Bodies is barely half-way complete. The project is set to continue until the final chapter is released in April of 2013, which Kenyon will not reveal anything about. Until then, the inevitable question of course is, “Will they run out of steam?” Fortunately for Celestial Bodies, Kenyon is not bothered by the pressure. “I think that if the deadlines were any longer, they’d be too long,” he declares. “One month really forces me to get in gear and sit down and get the ideas out. … It’s really making me get the job done. I’ve also been writing a lot differently than I have in the past, too, so if you ask me, it’s all going perfectly according to plan.”