Concert preview: The Van Allen Belt finds inspiration in the heavens

By Columbus Alive
From the December 5, 2013 edition

Almost everything written about The Van Allen Belt describes the psychedelic Pittsburgh crew’s sound as “unclassifiable,” since its music tends to blur genre lines, drifting from symphonic art-rock to down-tempo electronica to melodic indie-rock.

“Sending out press releases explaining what we do can be tricky,” said Canton native and primary songwriter Ben Ferris, 32. “It’s put us on a variety of bills, for sure, and we’re just as at home on a hip-hop bill as an indie-rock bill. [The music] isn’t genre-specific, but to me it feels very normal.”

While the band’s name and its occasionally expansive sound certainly nod to the cosmos, there’s an even more heavenly inspiration fueling its output.

“Both my father and mother are pastors, and I grew up in a church where there was always music,” Ferris said. “My mother actually wrote children’s musicals that would be performed every year in church, and I would say in a pretty significant way you can hear that in our music.”

Religious imagery has even surfaced in some of Ferris’ lyrics, which are given life by gorgeously understated singer Tamar Kamin. The songwriter penned much of the 2007 album Meal Ticket to Purgatory while living on unemployment and struggling to find his place — “I felt very much in limbo, and the themes [on the record] had as much of a psychological implication as a religious one,” he said — and he intended the record to serve as the first in a three-album, 50-song trilogy encompassing purgatory, heaven and hell.

As of late November the band was nearly finished with the second, heaven-themed album, which Ferris hopes will surface sometime in the spring of 2014. Hell, however, could be a ways off, as the musician envisions it as a final, fiery parting shot before calling it a day as a band.

Like many preachers’ kids, Ferris spent much of his youth in a state of rebellion. He played trombone in the school band until he was kicked out for being, in his words, “a really bad kid.” Following the dismissal, he picked up a bass guitar and bashed out Metallica covers alongside some buddies in a teenage heavy metal band.

The Van Allen Belt’s music, in contrast, tends to be comparatively tame — not that Ferris has lost a desire to let it rip now and again.

“There is still a part of me that wants to go out there and make peoples’ ears bleed,” he said.

Photo courtesy The Van Allen Belt