Sunday, May 23, 2004

Can it finally be time to actually buy a turntable?

There are still some who attempt to negotiate the sub-pop terrain without the aid of a turntable, but for people who value overdriven, mind-flaying psych, that very well may be about to change. Two of the nation's finest practitioners grace alternate sides of this clear blue wax, molded by the head doctors at Plastic Records. Boston's Major Stars are rightly revered as the masters (and mistress) of skull-scraping, stadium sized rock glory, but Santa Cruz's Comets on Fire are rapidly climbing to the top of the same cosmic shit heap and surveying all the ruins scattered below with a sly grin.

Live in Europa is what one hippie might term a cosmic alignment of the spheres, or I might call the soundtrack to that expedition to the shit heap summit described above, but in reality it is simply a recording culled from a rock show at the Club Europa where the two bands shared a bill in 2003. Neither of these groups really write songs as much as chart improvised flight paths. These paths can take on the form of a straight line, involve just an arch from point a to point b, or weave complex trails between dense storm banks in sprawling polymorphic zigzags. There are melodies, maybe a verse or two of words, but really the whole song thang is just an excuse for some of the most tectonic shape-shifting psychedelic noise rock heard this side of the almighty High Rise. The Japanese masters are a noticeable influence on both bands here, but in the case of the 'Stars, guitarist Wayne Rogers (not the guy in MASH) has his own post Richard Thompson by way of Jimi Hendrix electric vocabulary that never fails to mystify lovers of explosive acid guitar squalls.

If anything can be knocked, it's Rogers' somewhat limited vocal range, which in studio can be tweaked and layered, but live barely registers audible over the shockwave of distortion the quartet (rounded out by David Lynch on heavy metal hammers, Tom Leonard on bass, Kate Village on second guitar) musters from beginning to end. So, I'm not sure if that's a viable critique. Who ever really listened to those old Dino Jr. albums for the vocals? Ok, I'll admit, J's voice grows on you, and if you want to hear a more impressive vocal performance from Mr. Rogers, you could do worse than Magic Hour's blissful Will They Turn You On or Will They Turn On You?, on Twisted Village, but what grabs me about Major Stars is not so much what or how the guy sings. It's the visceral lunge of the pummeling rhythm section and the staggering gymnastics of Rogers' dazzling fretwork, supported and complimented every step of the way by Kate's rabid rhythm playing. This is the music of a band not turned off by the endless side-long jams that comprise a bulk of the records put out on Brain in the early 70s, delivered with an attention to detail more expected from a Joe Boyd production, only it's live.

Don't get the wrong impression. As structured as Major Stars can be, they're definitely from the Dylan school: No song is played the same way twice. The epic "Elephant" is a prime example of this exploded pop cum improv action with a plaintive, folky opening, an endless shoegazing maelstrom of a midsection and an ultimate heavy psych fuzz climax. I have no doubt it's a monster pretty much every time they play it, but it's very hard to imagine a more vital or cathartic performance than the one found here.

Comets on Fire enforce their chosen musical operandi with a similar feral devotion, but this young quintet sounds a lot more drunkenly in debt to the early primitive blues psych of Blue Cheer and the Stooges. This is post death metal acid punk that singes eyebrows and melts teeth at extreme volumes. Rhythmic flows shift and buckle, kicking into overdrive at the drop of a dime, and downshifting into maniacal doom sludge before the smoke clears. High Rise, Mudhoney, and others have traversed such jagged high altitude terrain, but Comets on Fire live up to their name and leave gravity behind. Ben Chasny and Ethan Miller's ferocious, yet complimentary guitar playing is another parallel that can be drawn with Kate and Wayne of Major Stars, but these guys offer up an altogether more sloppy beast that feeds on lighting bolts and shits high voltage lava streams. What I'm saying, basically, is if you don't own a record player, you can't listen to this! And it may just be the best release either band has put out yet. Now is the time to join the vinyl revolution, all you 21st century schizoid children!

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