A few weeks back, Majeure — the solo project of Squirrel Hill's A.E. Paterra — posted a SoundCloud track called "Total Drum Workout." It's a 10-minute, utterly mind-melting drum solo recorded by Paterra, which he describes as such in the accompanying caption: "Set up my kit in a rather large brick warehouse room and cut loose for a while. Great reverb! Headphones recommended."
Based on that description, you might imagine that Paterra holed up in some desolate, 50,000-square-foot warehouse alone, in the middle of the night, to pull a full-on Neil Peart in the most epic way possible. The caption seemed to say: "Well ... where the hell else would I play a 10- minute drum solo?"
In reality, it was recording in his practice space above The Shop, in Bloomfield. But even if the exercise didn't happen in quite in the way I imagined at first, Paterra's description seemed indicative of the way he approaches his music; consciously or unconsciously, he appears to be obsessed with space. Or more specifically, he appears to be obsessed with the illusory spatial properties of sound, and the ways in which music can conjure impressions of great expanse with relatively small alterations in texture and mood.
This palpable sense of hugeness is probably the first and most apparent trait you can glean from the music he's made over his decade-plus career, most prominently with Steve Moore in prog-rock duo Zombi (whose Spirit Animal album cover featured an illustration of a charging elephant in a thunderstorm). Now he brings it to the celestial, synth-driven, John Carpenter-on-acid solo project Majeure.
"My strength has never been composition," Paterra says. "I've always been better at evoking ambience and atmosphere. I want to write songs that create [distinct] images in the listener's head, and are open to interpretation."
Even with his open-ended approach to songwriting, Paterra still manages to wear his earliest musical impressions on his sleeve. Growing up in Canonsburg in the '80s, he began playing piano in grade school, but eventually became fascinated by stadium-sized drumming (inspired by equal parts Neil Peart and John Bonham) and early electronic music — two of his biggest influences that still battle for space inside his music today. Especially concerning Majeure, Paterra can draw a straight line back to a school-sponsored viewing of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner in sixth grade, when he heard Greek electronic-music composer Vangelis' paranoid, pulsing synth score for the first time. The soaring electronic horns, build-and-release compositions and classical bent of Vangelis' approach became seared in Paterra's memory.
"You know how the brain is open and receptive to learning language when you are younger? I feel the same about music, film, et cetera," Paterra says. "I saw Blade Runner and heard [Vangelis' theme] at a time when my mind was a blank slate as far as these two arts were concerned. I became obsessed with what he was doing with that score."
After drumming in various local bands throughout high school and college at Pitt, including a fairly lengthy stint with noise-rock stalwarts The 1985, Paterra connected with classically trained musician and Monroeville native Steve Moore. The two bonded over their shared love of Italian prog-rock group Goblin, specifically the soundtrack they composed for Dario Argento's cut of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, titled internationally as Zombi. Moore and Paterra soon began recording expansive instrumental rock music under the name Zombi, injecting their winding, extended cuts with horror-movie ambience and dread.
After four full-length albums (all of which were chock-full of burning, Möbius-strip-style rock behemoths) completed in nine years, the duo became known nationally and abroad as a seriously formidable progressive rock band. Zombi's past three full-lengths have been on the well-known metal-and-more label Relapse.
"We both spoke the same musical language, having grown up obsessed with synthesized movie scores and prog rock," Moore says. "[Paterra] would come up with a synth bass line or sequence or melody, I'd hear it from the same reference point and be able to build around that idea in a way that would seem appropriate if not obvious to both of us, even if it wouldn't to others. We were able to complete each other's musical sentences."
Paterra worked for years with a kindred spirit, and extremely competent composer, in Moore, and began feeling more and more comfortable experimenting with the synthesizer-based movements he was drawn to from his childhood. Soon he was merging his love of electronic music with his proggy, time-signature-fucking percussion work under the name Majeure.
Eventually, he culled his growing book of solo work and put together the three nine-minute-plus tracks for his self-produced debut album, Timespan, released in late 2009 on Temporary Residence. Forsaking electric guitars completely and layering head-spinning patterns of vintage synthesizer work, the album was a dense tour of Paterra's musical crucible; it sounded and felt like the score to a science-fiction film from 1984 that was never released. The title cut was a labyrinthine jigsaw puzzle of existential unease, racing and disorienting, and could be viewed essentially as a companion piece to Vangelis' end credits from Blade Runner.
"In some ways, I always want my music to be beautiful but menacing," Paterra says. "With Timespan, the atmosphere was particularly edgy, almost harsh. I wasn't worried about putting together what could traditionally pass as songs, but these longer pieces that could change shape two or three times over the course of their duration."
Now, with his sophomore release, Solar Maximum (like Timespan, it was self-produced), it's obvious Paterra's approach altered in small but significant ways. The track list is twice as long as Timespan's, a telling sign he's focused on crafting tighter, diamond-hard compositions. ("Give me a full album side, and I'll end up making a 20-minute track, left to my own devices," Paterra says, referring to the Brainstorm split EP he made with Moore earlier this year.) The sonic palette he's working with is noticeably warmer, with moments bordering on anthemic uplift.
There are still a few of the Moog-devouring beasts Paterra has become known for — opening tracks "Maximum Overdrive" and "Solar Maximum," for example. But the album's centerpiece, "Extreme Northern Lights," proves to be genuinely moving: an epic, rather than overwhelming, sojourn toward sentimentality. Featuring a central synth line that wouldn't be out of place in M83's early work, Paterra deploys those Vangelis-ish electronic horns to magnanimous effect, rather than as harbingers of doom. ("I think 'Northern Lights' was inspired by watching years of church choir as a kid," he notes.) By the time the massive organ and drum hits come in at the 3:48 mark, "Northern Lights" has become the prettiest song in Majeure's catalog.
The intense writing and production processes of Solar Maximum pushed Paterra beyond his comfort zone. But the project resulted in not just the most mature work he's done to date, but renewed focus in the science/art of creating the music he loves.
"I spent hours upon hours tweaking, mixing down, listening, remixing, adding, subtracting. Only through that process am I able to improve," says Paterra. "It's always a struggle for me to compose an actual structured song, but given enough time I'm usually able to put music together that I am proud of."