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Review: Number Three Combo – Solarium (released September 15, 2016)

Number Three Combo is a trio of musicians from Tucson, Arizona consisting of Ex-Black Sun Ensemble members Eric Johnson (12 string acoustic guitar, keyboards and vocals) and Joe E. Furno (flute and vocals) along with Cobracalia’s percussionist Carl Hall (dumbek and acoustic percussion). Their 2015 album, Retrofitting, found the band creating lush Middle Eastern influenced tracks with a largely acoustic variety of instruments (guitar, flute, percussion) with the small addition of some synths and electronics for flavour. Now comes their follow up album, Solarium, but rather than repeating what they did on their debut, Number Three Combo have kept the same essential concept musically, but instead of an acoustic album, Johnson ditches the guitar in favour of an array of synths, keyboards and electronics. Furno and Hall however continue to play flute and acoustic percussion, respectively.

Evoking the past with seminal artists such as Tangerine Dream, Future Sound of London, Nik Turner and even Spiral Realms, the Simon House/Len Del Rio project from the 90’s, but moving headstrong into the future, Number Three Combo cover many moods and styles throughout the album. The band’s previously folky vibe is replaced with spacey, pulsating (and sometimes quite heavy sounding) electronics, along with a great deal of Hammond organ. The music has both a rocking edge to it, as well as an electronica style groove going on. And while the latter may conjure up visions of pounding dance floor club tracks, the music of Number Three Combo is not as simple as that. The opening instrumental, Banana Seat, for example, sets Middle Eastern melodies to a grinding electro-industrial rhythm, and tosses in aggressive Jethro Tull style flute playing to top it off! This is matched by the slower, cinematic style instrumentals like The New Kingdom, with its glockenspiel-like tones set to evocative ethnic rhythms; the Middle Eastern sweep of Arabic Satori (a cover version of a Black Sun Ensemble tune), with its bright, infectious melodies; and the intense and driving Future Sound of Tucson, with its manic sequencing reminiscent of mid-80’s Tangerine Dream. The instrumental cuts are balanced out with a couple of terrific vocal tracks: Dive, which sounds like a particularly great, long lost 80’s synthpop track and the dark cyber rock of Superstition Machine, one of my favourite tracks on the album. It all culminates with the nearly 10-minute ambient epic The Grand Sky.

Despite the variety, the album does not feel unfocused. Number Three Combo has their own unique sound and it shines through on every track. Had I heard it then, I’m sure Solarium would have ranked high on my top albums of 2016 list. Better late than never though, because this one is not to be missed!

(Note: the digital download version of the album also has a number of bonus tracks, live demos, alternate mixes and studio outtakes)

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