Greece, 500 B.C.: Pythagoras, the first man to call himself a philosopher, wanders past a blacksmith beating on an anvil. Listening to the sound of metal against metal, he reasons that all pitches come in divisions of four. Through continued study, he determines that every planet's orbit produces a different pitch, creating a sound that resonates through all space and time, governing everything from biology to the seasons to the human soul. Eventually, an entire mystical sect called the Pythagoreans forms around his idea of musica universalis—music of the spheres.
"I don't really expect anybody to get any of this stuff," says Trey Spruance, multi-instrumentalist and obsessive brain behind Secret Chiefs 3. "It's just our own way of creating music. The fact that the vast majority of people have no idea what's going on but still like the music is very encouraging."
Spruance, talking on a cell phone from somewhere in Australia, is a self-proclaimed Neo-Pythagorean. Not only is he one of the few living songwriters to actively employ Pythagoras's ancient tuning system, but he structures his songs according to ratio-based numerology so that his music can truly be a link between philosophy and meditation.
In the mid-'90s, after years of playing guitar with hyperactive genre-hoppers Mr. Bungle, Spruance and two other Bunglers formed Secret Chiefs 3—less a band and more an amorphous project for Spruance's wild, virtuosic compositions. Secret Chiefs 3 includes countless rotating members and a whole catalog of obscure genres, from Middle Eastern techno to thrash punk to romantic film music. But instead of a big random mess of music, SC3 are meticulously divided into seven different subgroups, separated by musical style and a system of Led Zeppelin–like symbols that fill their liner notes. The current touring subgroup are a traditional Persian-sounding ensemble called Ishraqiyun, but there's also UR, a surf-rock band, and Holy Vehm, a "super hardcore black-death-metal band" with lyrics like "I am whore and holy one/Here to destroy everyone."
These iterations are all connected through a trilogy of mystical concept albums, introduced on 2004's Book of Horizons and continued with the upcoming Book of Souls. With this trilogy, SC3 have finally descended into the depths of their weird, hermetical world, using "a second-century pre-kabbalistic commentary on the Torah" to create a structure that requires years of research to funnly understand. Yet, despite all the intricate work that goes into these structures, Spruance doesn't want the occult to become the music's crutch.
"I like it when people don't get any of it," Spruance says. "I hate it when music is so proprietary or some weird conceptual thing so that you can't relate to it unless you have all the background information. That's a musical failure. If what we're doing with all this rarefied stuff is real, then it should function on every possible level. Otherwise, we're kidding ourselves."
Tempering all of the "rarefied stuff" is the fact that Secret Chiefs' music is actually fucking funny. The wild leaps from Bollywood filmi sangeet (film songs) to carnival-esque organ melodies are campy, even absurd. Even while they're tearing through Spruance's "microtonal, ratio-based scales," they're wearing their tongue-in-cheek black cloaks, never taking themselves too seriously.
"We like to see how many layers of the ironic you can pile on top of each other," Spruance says. "Locating a sense of the authentic underneath the hall of mirrors of irony is, I think, a trick that all of us face in postmodern times. Trying to avoid that musically and pretend like you're touching the authentic just because you're strumming an electric guitar in a coffeehouse doesn't quite do it for me. Confronting that irony head-on requires a sense of humor."
Listening to all of these genres juxtaposed on a record is one thing, but experiencing the intensity live—Spruance wailing on his saz (a Turkish lute), Eyvind Kang sending his violin through a chain of guitar pedals, the rest of the band sprawled across a giant Persian rug, swept up in some opiated musical arabesque—is like watching a traditional ritual from a shamanic culture that never existed.
As unlikely as it sounds, something must be working—the cult of Secret Chiefs 3 has surpassed Spruance's vision. "I always thought I'd just be slowly narrowed into a tiny corner and get frustrated by how shitty the world is," he says. "But as time goes on, I actually feel more and more satisfied that the right audience is being connected to. I've been proven wrong in my cynical outlook."