Operation Sunbeam by Thollem Electric

The new album from the master keyboardist and improviser Thollem McDonas, under his plugged-in moniker “Thollem Electric,” has the cheery title Operation Sunbeam, which has a disturbing twist: that’s the name of the final series of above-ground nuclear tests conducted at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in 1962. The album’s cover art, featuring a ballet dancer in front of a mushroom cloud, is not a Photoshopped composite, but an actual photo used in the ‘50s to promote nuclear testing. 

This odd combination of gleeful vibrancy and massive amounts of destructive energy is appropriate for the album, which could be likened to a grinning, uncontrollable madman driving a tank down a city street, flattening everything in his path. 

McDonas, who has released dozens of albums and collaborated with everyone from guitarist Nels Cline (Wilco) to jazz bassist William Parker to Mike Watt (Minutemen), is primarily known for his acoustic piano work, but he eagerly introduces electronic instruments into his arsenal. His primary keyboard on Operation Sunbeam is a modified Yamaha PF10 from the early ‘80s, and he uses a variety of effect pedals—distortion, ring modulation and more—to dirty things up or provide a sort of sci-fi sheen. 

Operation Sunbeam was released on the label Aural Films, which has a unique shtick: its releases are soundtrack albums for non-existent movies. Clearly, Operation Sunbeam conveys the chaos, mayhem and troubling mutations that might be shown in a cold-war-era mid-20th-century sci-fi flick, with McDonas’ improvisations that harness a dark energy into piercing runs or provide a sort of nauseous uneasiness. 

With McDonas’ piano work, he is always one step ahead of the game, crafting skillful runs and vamps that flow seamlessly together; here, the game seems to be different, with McDonas relinquishing a certain amount of control to the effect pedals and their grotesque manipulations, then constantly reacting to each new sound and mood. 

While somewhat sinister, Operation Sunbeam is also oddly nourishing and not wearying, as if to say, “Here, enjoy this refreshing blast of wind from this nuclear explosion.”

-  Ernie, Paik

Original Review: http://www.chattanoogapulse.com/music/music-review/long-distance-collaboration-nuclear-testing-set-to-music/

Album Page: https://auralfilms.bandcamp.com/album/operation-sunbeam