Steven Drozd – The Heart Is a Drum Machine

Stephen Drozd - The Heart Is a Drum Machine

What is music?  The question – though examined by countless musicians, scientists, and philosophers over the centuries – continues to befuddle humans with its indeterminate and often esoteric properties.  More perplexing still is the mystery of why we are so obsessively drawn to music.  It’s easy to side with Leonard Bernstein, who once famously alleged that, “Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”  For those still tirelessly searching for something more tangible than Lenny’s conjecture however, there’s The Heart Is a Drum Machine – an indie documentary by filmmakers Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke.  Featuring commentary from an impossibly hip personnel roster that includes the likes of Maynard James Keenan, Wayne Coyne, John Frusciante, and MGMT, the movie merges pop/rock cool with Nova-esque science education, meaning that the accompanying soundtrack had best be scored by someone with hipster cred who can also cut some astral tunes suited for the local planetarium.

Enter Steven Drozd, longtime Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist and space rock aficionado.  If you fancy yourself even a casual fan of Oklahoma’s favorite psychedelic rock band – particularly the group’s work of the past 10 years – then you’re bound to delight in Drozd’s atmospheric creations, which at times could pass for outtakes from either Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots or At War with the Mystics.  Synth textures and digital processing dominate the tunes on The Heart Is a Drum Machine, but unlike the Lips’ recent records, turbulence is kept to a minimum; these sound collages are largely intended to mollify.

Unlike the output of John Williams or Hans Zimmer, there aren’t any megaplex-sized hooks or melodies present here to unify Drozd’s score; this soundtrack owes more to the ambience of Brian Eno than it does to anyone in Hollywood.  Still though, there are unabashed moments of elation and bliss – the understated keyboard arpeggios and burbling synthesizers of “Born” give way to an assured midtempo rock groove, while the feathery piano melodies and major 7th chords of “The Great Pleasures” seem positively amorous.  In a few intriguing instances, Drozd goes for bigger gestures, as is the case with “Quaalude,” where fuzzed-out guitar riffage and throbbing low end threatens to subdue the prolonged keyboard harmonies.  “Bad Moon Rising/Dimensionless” showcases the score’s two extremes, the ostinato bass line and towering drumbeat of the former juxtaposed by the gently droning thrum of the latter.

The quirkiness and frivolity for which the Flaming Lips are well known is also present in Drozd’s songwriting, as featured on “Requiem for a Dying Star/Ode to a Twinkling New,” where one of the world’s oldest lullabies gets a Postal Service-style makeover after a dark and brooding soundscape begins to light up like firing synapses.  By far though, the album’s oddest (and most delightful) turn is “Rocket Man” – a cover of the Elton John classic and the soundtrack’s only song to feature vocals.  Up to the task was Maynard James Keenan, a man whose pipes can unsuspectingly go from a whisper to a roar.  On this particularly slowburning rendition, Tool’s frontman sings with such reservation that the slew of applied digital effects renders his voice almost unrecognizable.  The expansive tone of Drozd’s “Rocket Man” and the liberal use of electronic enhancements really lend the song a celestial quality; only the listlessly strummed acoustic guitar seems to be pulling things back down to earth.

Elsewhere, Drozd keeps things relatively mellifluous; “A Flood of Light” is simply two minutes worth of warm and dreamy chords run through a phasing effect, while “Last Dose” employs frosty textures that sound like they were culled from a Björk record.

The movie has gotten mixed reviews from critics, but Steven Drozd’s score for The Heart Is a Drum Machine should be more warmly received.  For as vexing as it can be to hypothesize why music matters, Drozd has provided us with a soundtrack that makes the journey to finding an answer a far more pleasurable experience.