Volitar invades again

Engstrom introduces his new rock-opera sequel, 'Alien World'

Posted: Thursday, January 19, 2006

When Juneau musician Andy Engstrom last visited the remote mining post of Volitar, on his 2002 rock-opera concept compact disc "Murder, Mystery, Mayhem," the region was in dire straits.

Revolutionary war had erupted in Ganthros, the neighboring planet that supplies many of Volitar's workers. The revolutionaries were searching for Volitar's secret site of Santanium ore - a key component of the ancient Ganthronian time-based perception drug Santain.

Mining moon owner Trevor Braiden, played by Engstrom and a central character on the first CD, returns on "Alien World," Engstrom's sequel, which will be released at a listening party Saturday night at the Backroom at the Silverbow Inn.

Braiden has a lot on his mind. He knows the site of the ore, and he's pursued by the Ganthronians. He's also recently married the planetary geologist Dr. Desiree Lear (Becky Engstrom). "Alien World" begins with their honeymoon flight to Intrincia, a trip that's soon aborted when their ship is sabotaged and forced to crash land in the heart of Ganthros.

Engstrom, a Juneau native, drummer and professional window cleaner, created and composed the two-disc, science-fiction Volitar rock opera over the last seven years. He released the first Volitar CD in April 2002 and began writing "Alien World" immediately.

"I knew about halfway through 'Murder, Mystery, Mayhem' that I couldn't get the whole story on one CD," Engstrom said. "But I wanted to keep a similar sound and I wanted to keep a similar tone for the sequel. I envisioned everything I wrote so it could possibly be presented in different formats in the future."

"Alien World" continues with the "movie without images" concept that Engstrom explored on the first CD. The music, scenes, dialogue and sound effects are set into the CD, which made it particularly difficult to write.

cd listening party

what: "alien world," disc two of the volitar series, cd listening party.

when: 7 and 8:30 p.m. saturday, jan. 21

where: back room at the silverbow inn

"I'd already produced something that defined certain rules and guidelines in which to follow," Engstrom said. "When I first started, I didn't have the idea that it was going to be this movie-without-images concept. It was just going to be a well-rounded songwriter's portfolio, the kind of thing you present the music industry with a bunch of songs that reach into a lot of different areas. The first CD is very eclectic. The second CD I went with the type of music that I like to write. My regular writing is art rock, symphonic progressive rock-type of material that doesn't lend itself to radio play."

Still, KSUP has been playing two of the songs from "Alien World" - "Understood" and "Fire in the House," the soundtrack to the scene where the evil Ganthronian general tortures Trevor.

Engstrom recorded most of the keyboard, electronic percussion and vocal parts at his home using the audio production program Cakewalk. He took those recordings to Gold Street Studio, where engineer George Bryson did most of the mixing and Engstrom laid down most of his drum tracks. Once the drums were mixed, he added the other instruments: Ward F. Ward on guitar; Andrea Mogil on flute; Rick Trostel on flugelhorn; and Sheldon Winters on trumpet.

Engstrom borrowed a microphone from Albert McDonnell and a minidisc player from Sandro Lane to record some scenes on location. For a crowd scene near the end, he recorded 30 drama students who were rehearsing for the upcoming high school presentation of "Pippin." The dramatic, surprise ending was recorded from his pickup while coasting through downtown starting at Fifth Street.

The 1950s-style sound effects were created from a cache of vintage keyboards, including his 1972 ARP Odyssey Analog synthesizer, an antique he acquired from Bryson.

"The idea was to have this very modern-day, very progressive musical sound but incorporate older sounds to recreate this 1950s-style, science fiction blend," Engstrom said.

"We wanted to combine the old science fiction of the 1950s genre, things like 'Star Trek,' 'The Day the Earth Stood Still,' "Forbidden Planet,'" he said. "Those types of story lines were almost B-rated, and some of the sounds and some of the character parts are intentionally a bit cheesy. When you look back, they kind of look silly now because the technological understanding of the world is different."

Scott Hamilton, now at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, played guitar on the first CD. Ward created and composed the multitracked, counterpoint guitar parts on "Alien World."

Ward and Engstrom have played together in a handful of recent projects, including Groove Cult, Special Guest and the drums-guitar-trumpet trio Naughty Jo. For the self-titled track, Ward used a pitch shifter on a diminished solo to recreate an alien sound.

"I had heard the previous Volitar CD and I was pretty impressed with that," Ward said. "And he played some of the material for the second CD, and I knew it was going to be much better, much improved, so I wanted to be part of that."

"One characteristic of Andy's style is that he really has an ear for dissonance," Ward said. "Normally that has negative connotations, but it sounds positive the way he does it. He's able to fit it into music in a way that sounds correct."

Becky Engstrom, Andy's wife, co-stars again as Desiree, the saucy scientist who marries and rescues Trevor.

"She still has remnants of the old character - this sexy 1950s-type girl - but we're continuing with the merging of the concept that she's at the same time a modern, intelligent, well-educated, well-spoken woman," Engstrom said. "Becky really did a lot to articulate the character."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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