Comets On Fire: Avater
Dominic B. Simpson
If you’re of the disposition that the likes of Acid Mothers Temple, the Sunburned Hand of the Man, or Jackie-O Motherfucker are just too wigged out to really appreciate, Santa Cruz’s Comets on Fire may be just your thing. The five piece’s kindred spirits lie in the psych rock and free-folk scene currently doing the rounds (the aforementioned Sunburned, Bardo Pond, Espers, Akron/Family etc.), as well as the stoner rock riffs of Dead Meadow, but equally there’s no getting away from it: Comets on Fire love their Zeppelin, their Deep Purple, and their Southern-fried boogie. And just as Royal Trux discovered 70’s rock – albeit of a warped kind – a couple of albums into their career, on 'Avatar', Comets on Fire inch ever closer to the classic rawk in the sky.
It’s a different sound to one that has graced their debut, self-titled LP, and 'Blue Cathedral', their breakthrough album on Sub Pop. The latter, produced at the wonderfully monikered Louder Studios by The Fucking Champs’ Tim Green, distilled their sound: screeching vocals by Ethan Miller, belching guitar, crashing drums, and the distinctive zapping sound of an echoplex (courtesy of Noel von Harmonson, adopting the same role that ‘electronics wizard’ Higoshi Higashi takes up in Acid Mothers Temple) burrowing into your brain. Yet it also had nods to a classic rock sound, despite the fact that Comets on Fire have been active on the psych-rock and experimental scene, releasing collaborations with the likes of cosmic constellation travellers Burning Star Core (aka violin and drone improv one-man-band C. Spencer Yeh) and the aforementioned Sunburned Hand. Perhaps it was the arrival of Ben Chasnay on second guitar, who’d hitherto been jamming with the band but not as an official member. With his far-out drone mantras dominating his side project Six Organs of Admittance, whose 'School of the Flower' album spun mystical guitar evocations reminiscent of John Fahey and Jack Rose, Chasnay has brought a new edge to Comets on Fire’s sound.
On 'Avatar', the songs certainly have time to breathe: almost all are between six to eight minutes long, the exception being the insanely heavy punk thrash 'Holy Teeth', pointedly only around two minutes long and a reminder of their past.
The album begins with 'Dogwood Rust', which kicks in straight away with some galloping, horse-drawn drums predominating, while a high-pitched riff rides over the top. After some fiery double-tracked vocals enact a verse and chorus, though, the song suddenly pulls in a different direction, with a wailing wah-wah guitar droning away atonally while the drums suddenly flail in a circular beat, stretching out the mantra to seven and a half minutes, departing from the ordinary confines of a conventional song structure. Drummer Utrillo Krutschner is the real star here, with all kinds of pyrotechnics in his percussive avalanche on the kit that would put Keith Moon to shame. It’s thrilling to behold, and an indicator of just how potent and incendiary this band can be live when in their element. 'Jaybird' pulls the band in a more muted direction after the previous track’s sonic fireworks, as Miller and Chasnay’s jazz-influenced guitar scales entwine with each other, before a big rock chorus that acts as a bridge to the mid-song freakout.
It’s on 'Lucifer’s Memory' that the band’s tilted cap to classic 70’s rock is pushed to the fore. With a crooning, Sinatra-like piano riff and some surprisingly conventional guitar ballad histrionics, it’s always in danger of straying into cheesy territory, yet somehow manages to transcend any negative tendencies through the sheer force of brilliant songwriting and some great chord progressions, not to mention a genius middle-eight with some of the most spell-binding harmonies for quite some time. What Miller is singing about is anyone’s guess, though take your pick from the following inscrutable verse: “Bounds for Lands End / Destined for the gallows / down the road most travelled…the demon’s come in / a life most desired / and in the end they conspire…for vengeance instead.”
Chasnay’s work with Six Organs can be found with the guitar mantra beginning 'The Swallow’s Eye', which bathes in a sea of reverb, before the song explodes in a fireworks of descending guitar riffs and electronic explosions, von Harmonson’s echoplex pushed to it’s limit. 'Sour Smoke', meanwhile, rides a fantastic boogie-woogie keyboard and trance-like drum pattern; despite remaining mostly instrumental for it’s eight minutes, interjected only by the occasional echoing chants, it never loses momentum as the song unfurls around twin guitar arpeggio riffs, accentuating a fantastic groove.
After that, the album closer 'Hatched Under the Age' can only disappoint, an inferior cousin to 'Lucifer’s Memory' that strays far too close to Queen territory (especially with Miller’s croon), while the second half of the song inexplicably heads into cheesy prog rock territory. It’s here that you begin to worry if Comets on Fire have taken their 70’s boogie rock excess direction just a little too far, particularly if the bands in question happen to be the likes of the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Thankfully - given their instinctive left-field warped musical leanings, coupled with some breathtaking musicianship and a knack for great songwriting - the album’s bulk is thankfully free of such stylings for the most part. Where they go after this, though, is another question altogether.