Rocking rock research: ‘Science Slam Sonic Explorers’

Rocking rock research: ‘Science Slam Sonic Explorers’

Mats E. Eriksson (University of Lund) writes

Personally I have a soft spot for the unexpected, those contrasts in life—curiosities that make you think as well as smile. As a lifelong music fan (who, just like many of my peers, had aspiring rock star dreams in my teens) and a palaeontologist by profession,
I cannot help myself but feeling thrilled by the wonderfully weird concept of the so-called ‘Science
Slam Sonic Explorers’ (SSSE). SSSE allows, in mymind at least, the best of two worlds to meet: science and music. Moreover, at this point in time, when
scientific outreach is of crucial importance, they fill an untapped and quite remarkable niche.

So what is it? SSSE is a transatlantic collective of musicians and researchers (Fig. 12), captained on the scientific side by Senckenberg-award-winning geologist Achim G. Reisdorf (University of Basel/Museum of Natural History Bern), and on the audiovisual side by New York’s Submerged (Kurt Gluck), of ‘Ohm Resistance’ ( ‘Science Slam Sonic Explorers’ was formed in 2013 to bring published scientists together with published musicians, and combine their talents to create a new form of sound and visual art—one that specializes in distilling complex scientific ideas into a language all can understand, set to music and complemented with visual art.

As an example of this collaboration I had the wonderful opportunity of personally being involved in the latest SSSE sonic output, the heavy metal tune Deep Time Predator. Not only did this allow me, from a personal perspective, to be artistically creative and have lots of fun—it also gave the opportunity to convey the message of one of my research papers into the format of lyrics for a song (as impossible as that may seem). Recently, I had described (with colleagues) a polychaete worm from the Silurian of Baltoscandia (Eriksson et al., 2012, GFF, v.134, pp.217–224; Fig. 13). As a fan of Scandinavian heavy metal star King Diamond, I dubbed the creature Kingnites diamondi. With this ancient organism’s musical nomenclature, rock musicians were drafted in to give it a suitable heavy metal kick. Tomas ‘Tompa’ Lindberg, front-man of Swedish metal band At The Gates, vocalizes the piece, backed by American musicians from the band Invertia, and Seetyca, one of Germany’s top ambient talents.

The lyrics were composed based on the scientific paper about a fossil worm, and conveys the story of the creature from a first-person narrative point of
view: that of the creature itself. The story focuses on the inferred life style of the animal, in fact a true ‘Deep Time Predator’; its subsequent entombment, fossilization and how the remains can be used as environmental proxies by scientists today. The lyrics are filled with metallic aesthetics and, like the name of the fossil itself, the wording flirts with the musical legacy of King Diamond.

Accompanying the original version of Deep Time Predator is an Invertia-based remix by producer Submerged, and a sonic experiment, the first of its kind: vocalist Tompa reads the abstract of the scientific paper itself against an eerie experimental background, with atmospherics provided by American sound deformers Zerfallmensch—unlocking the unseen door between palaeontology and heavy metal. Last but not least is a raging, thrashy version of Deep Time Predator from Tomas Andersson of resurrected band Denata.This also celebrates the first sonic output of the band since their last official release, Art Of The Insane, in 2003. Check out the different versions of Deep Time Predator at: sets/ssse-deep-time-predator.

As a professor of palaeontology, it is not every day that you get to have personal contact with professional musicians and producers, bouncing ideas back and forth, trying to bridge communication difficulties coming from two very different worlds with their own sets of technical jargon and language. Whereas the musicians might struggle with understanding and pronouncing the scientific terms correctly, we researchers, on the other hand, have to deal with trying to decide which of the mixes presented are optimal, how much compression should be used and if 200 Hz is appropriate for the bass sound. As is probably well understood, it is a daunting, fun and interesting learning experience.

Thus far, scientists as well as musicians involved in the SSSE projects have all been extremely supportive and thrilled with the working process and authentic outcome. Not only are SSSE really thinking outside the box and doing something completely novel, they also make the world a funnier, warmer and quirkier place—and that, I think, is fantastic. For further information and other SSSE releases, also see