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The vibrant sound of The Van Allen Belt

Searching for discoveries

The Van Allen Belt make music as if it was a movie.

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When was the last time you discovered something new? Not new in the universal sense, like spawning a brand new species in some sparkling white laboratory somewhere, but something new to you? Discoveries are made melancholy; I feel, by the knowledge that they've usually existed around you the entire time, little to your knowledge. Imagine how James Van Allen must have felt when he discovered a ring of energized particles in Earth's magnetic field. What does it mean? No clue. But he actually discovered something that had actually been surrounding all of us for quite some time.

Discovering new sounds is the Sisyphean pursuit of music-lovers in general, let alone those poor, unfortunate souls that write about music for a living. Years of sifting through different bands tends to lead to tiny fractions of differences that stand as a reasonably suitable metric of telling one similar band from another. Genuine surprise is a coveted commodity. What remains, save for the tantalizingly rare presence of a truly genius and original artist, is the most creative way of stripping down and rebuilding what we've come to know of popular music. In recent times, Tune-Yards and St. Vincent have been superlative practitioners of this sort of genre experimentation.

Named after that aforementioned scientific discovery, The Van Allen Belt are doing their part to tear down and rebuild. Their recent LP, Heaven on a Branch, is a sly study in mixing and matching. The ways they play with sounds and expectations is sometimes so subtle that you find yourself waking from a trance at a song's end and wondering what route you took to get your head where it's arrived. A big part of the band's success comes down to lead singer Tamar Kamin's effortlessly soulful voice, which handily weathers the storm of mastermind Benjamin Ferris' gently forceful experimentation.

"We started recording in 2006 as an untitled project," says Ferris. "Originally, the idea was to make a modern spin on the Phil Spector girl groups. Since then, we've evolved into something entirely different. We were all friends long before we made music together. Both Scott Taylor and I are transplants to Pittsburgh from Ohio. Very early on, we met each other in film school. Tamar was actually squatting at a friend's place while she was still in high school. ... The first album was a lot of samples of old recordings, along with live instrumentation. Scott played drums, I played keyboard and bass, and we processed those sounds to match the samples. Now, we have a greatly electronic setup. Scott's a MIDI wizard, so a lot of it is MIDI manipulation. The new album, for instance, has a lot of manipulated turntable channels that are chopped up and reconstructed to conform to the chord structures."

With the addition of Tom Altes on bass and guitar, The Van Allen Belt was underway. Soon, the girl group flourishes of the early days were replaced with choral arrangements and instrumentation that bounces from '60s lounge grooves to beat-heavy grooves to almost Suicide-esque electro slow-burns, all with the assured lead of Kamin's smoky, relaxed vocals. Even a cover of Neutral Milk Hotel's unimpeachable "Holland, 1945" is approached in a roundabout way that practically dares hipsters to throw a fit. In a live setting, all of this is accompanied by vibrant visuals that trade off in pastoral serenity and brain-melting awe.

It's not surprising that the band has opened for the likes of Stereolab and Atlas Sound, with their dedication to globetrotting experimentation and airtight grooves. New sounds are hard to come by, but The Van Allen Belt shows that there are people out there still searching. What they find can still surprise.

THE VAN ALLEN BELT, w/ Anna Gordon, Swoon, Beatrix Sky, 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 17, Northern, 414 ½ E. Fourth Ave., Olympia, $5

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