The first thing you notice about Floating in the Whale, the second self-released album by Adrian Otterman, is its sound.
In an age of digital overcompression and earpiece headphones, Otterman and his band, Over Orange Heights, create music for big speakers, speakers with woofers that can handle a full-bodied bass-drums rumble, tweeters that can handle a razor-sharp high end, and a midrange cone that can handle Otterman's soaring baritone voice.
The second thing you notice is the seven-minute rendition of "Onward Christian Soldiers"-not because of its length or because of the way it builds from a quiet, voice-and-piano beginning to a wailing, electric climax. You notice because it's actually a medley of "Onward Christian Soldiers," Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," and the Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) the Reaper."
It's a medley, in other words, unlike any other-and just what you'd expect from Otterman, a rock musician unlike any other.
Born 37 years ago in Vermont and a Christian since the age of 5, Otterman didn't buy his first instrument until after he'd graduated from Villanova University and become a commissioned officer in the Marines. But he was a quick study: By the time he'd begun working as an aviation intelligence officer at the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro, Calif., he was ready to form a band. "Working at headquarters means you don't deploy much," he told me. "So I actually had a little free time."
The band fizzled, but its attempts at making an album were, according to Otterman, "the beginning of [his] obsession with recording."
Currently he practices law, completing what's probably the least aesthetics-oriented resumé of any artist since Wallace Stevens.
But an artist he is. And after paying dues in local church-sponsored venues-and after learning that Vermont was tied with New Hampshire for the lowest per capita church attendance in the nation-Otterman realized he was almost literally singing to the choir. "There we were," Otterman says, "playing our hearts out for 20 people because nobody 'new' was going to walk through the doors of a church to hear music."
So he built a studio; recruited Bruce Nyquist (cello), Tom Longfellow (drums), Andy O'Connor (guitar, keyboards), and Josh Hayford (bass), aka Over Orange Heights; and wrote and recorded Floating in the Whale, an intense, often dark album that Otterman hoped would gain his music a hearing beyond church walls.
It didn't. "Other than a couple of gigs," says Otterman, "most of the bars or clubs we've contacted have not been interested."
The album did, however, catch the attention of local Christian radio, which, to Otterman's surprise, took to it immediately. "I never imagined," says Otterman, "that the album would resonate within the church."
He was surprised because, not counting "Onward Christian Soldiers," Floating in the Whale's explicitly Christian content is relatively sparse. And what explicit Christian references there are often function as parts of a larger, seeker-friendly puzzle.
Even the implicitly Christian elements-Otterman's singing the title cut from Jonah's point of view, for instance, and the nine-minute "Deny Me" from Jesus' (Matthew 10:33)-will go over the heads of the biblically illiterate.
Otterman suspects it was the album's somewhat anachronistic progressive folk-rock style rather than its content that kept it from opening doors.
So he's working on a follow-up that he describes as a "fun, cello-laced rock album with blistering lead guitar solos, big vocals, and pounding drums that anyone who likes music can enjoy."
"Who knows?" he says. "If they like it enough, they just might be willing to give a listen to Floating in the Whale."
Email Arsenio Orteza