Communion, privately released in an impossibly small edition of twenty five cassettes in 1986, is a beguiling, politically underpinned meditation of cosmic improvisation and wayward folk music from Cleveland’s Universal Liberation Orchestra. The group’s name is, in one sense, a tongue-in-cheek reference to their changing membership, while also a proclamation of intention. Started in 1979 as a five-piece, first known as the Cleveland Collective, the group eventually whittled down to the duo of brothers River and Tom Smith.
Much of the siblings’ music has an overt political bent; their first two albums under the originally abbreviated name Universe, New Day (1984) and Open Season (1985), express anti-war sentiments with songs like “The Bomb” and “Hiroshima Nagaski Blues.” The brothers’ practiced what they preached, too: playing at anti-nuke demonstrations, performing at labor rights picket lines, and opening a Cleveland rally for Jesse Jackson during the reverend’s first presidential campaign. River himself even ran for congress multiple times, all while practicing as a clinical psychologist.
River and Tom assume distinct roles in ULO: The former is the lyricist, while Tom handles songwriting and most of the instrumentation. River’s interest was always in poetry, and in his early twenties, he set up readings and workshops around Cleveland. Tom took guitar lessons at fourteen, and while he soon abandoned the instrument, he eventually embraced it, emboldened. “I had an aptitude where I could basically pick up any instrument—whatever suited my fancy—and play a little bit here and there,” he says.
By the mid-seventies, Tom was composing music for the Cleveland Collective, with the group road testing material at a local community theater and for River’s network of poets. For the brothers, this artistic medium would prove meaningful and modal. “If you have a message, you have a better chance of getting it out with something creative like music,” says Tom. “Music is a universal language.”
While much of ULO’s music follows folk rock’s lineage, a slightly psychedelic and cozy meandering that exists on earlier recordings takes full form on Communion. The album stands out in their discography with less emphasis on River’s vocals and more on the music: moody synths, bright percussion, and a delightfully homespun charm.
River and Tom collaborate in a generative manner: they begin with a lyric or rhythm, and let the rest flow. You can sense that anything goes approach and confidence on multiple tracks throughout Communion, yet an undeniable cohesion. The album’s true constant: minimal, mesmerizing atmospheres. If previous music provided declarative political messages, Communion is a moment for rest before continuing the fight.
The brothers called what they created for Communion “liberation music.” River defines liberation as “realizing all the possibilities available for all of us,” specifically referring to ongoing battles against sexism, racism, and classism. But this recognition of what could be manifested in their musical audacity, too. “We didn’t feel a great need to stay in one genre,” River asserts.
While Universal Liberation Orchestra essentially ceased in 1992, both Tom and River continued their artistic pursuits in the following decades. Most notably, in 1993 they shifted their attention to running a politically charged cable access show that, in its current iteration, exists online and is called Liberation Brew TV. Tom, who has always edited the duo’s musical recordings, enjoys the same meticulous process for their videos. River continues to write, and published a self-help book called A Conspiracy to Love (2009) that comes with an accompanying CD, a couple tracks of which are from Communion.
River expresses how happy he is to see things slowly but surely changing, as with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the greater acceptance of ideas regarding gender identity. He provides one more definition of liberation that feels true to his and Tom’s entire lives: “liberation is to care deeply about humans.”
Universal Liberation Orchestra’s Communion arrives January 28, 2022 as part of uncommon¢ (uncommon sense), an open-ended serialized endeavor from Freedom to Spend providing new meaning for rarefied recordings from music’s outermost fringe.