September 23, 2004

Comets on Fire "Blue Cathedral"

One of the highlights of my recent month-long summer vacation in NYC was watching Comets on Fire play to a maximum-capacity crowd at Williamsburg art space the Mighty Robot. I originally attended the show because the “New Weird America” jam band Sunburned Hand of the Man was one of the openers, and I didn’t want to miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see them live. Unfortunately, Sunburned Hand played an uninspired and disappointing set and got quickly blown off the stage by the headliners. Comets on Fire delivered the most violent sonic bitch-slap I’d seen at a rock show since I saw …Trail of Dead for the first time in 2001. The maelstrom of fleet-fingered distorted guitars, savage drumming, reckless screaming and woozy sound effects was enough to make the Mighty Robot seem even hotter and sweatier than it already was. I felt like I could pass out at any moment, but I hoped that I wouldn’t so that I could experience every second of their set. After watching …TOD drunkenly stumble through their performance a couple of weeks before at this year’s Village Voice Siren Fest, Comets on Fire’s set was just the fix of TOTAL ROCK POWER that I needed.

I knew, though, that such sustained intensity couldn’t be duplicated on record without sounding monochromatic (an adjective that‘s been used to describe COF‘s otherwise amazing previous work), which is why I’m so pleased that on their latest album Blue Cathedral they take the time to chill out every once in a while. Blue Cathedral is sequenced nicely in that it alternates between full-blown rockers and calmer keyboard-driven instrumentals. Of course, “chill out” is a relative term for the band, as even the Doors-like descending organs on “Pussyfoot the Duke” get overtaken by squealing guitars every once in a while. Among the instrumentals, “Wild Whiskey” is unique in that it is directly influenced by the band’s newest addition, second guitarist Ben Chasny. Better known for his work under the name Six Organs of Admittance, Chasny infuses “Wild Whiskey” with the same kind of raga/folk hybridization he’s been doing on his own for years.

Fortunately, at least half of Blue Cathedral can still be considered business as usual for Comets on Fire. Drummer Utrillo Belcher still does his best Keith Moon impersonation. Founding singer/guitarist Ethan Miller still sounds like a pissed-off version of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, howling in a manner that would render his words indecipherable even if they weren’t being ceaselessly manipulated by Noel Harmonson’s omnipresent Echoplex. Together, Miller and Chasny lay the finger gymnastics on thicker than ever before, pausing every once in a while to let guest saxophonist Tim Daly add some Albert Ayler-style skronk to the mix. Most jam bands would start with the skeleton of a song, and then use it as a springboard for climactic group improvisation. For COF, though, the screeching climaxes ARE the skeleton of the song, with even the more subdued moments (for instance, the midsection of “Whiskey River”) getting underscored by siren-like feedback. It’s almost as if their songs are structured in reverse: whereas most bands end their epics with guitar solos, COF chooses instead to BEGIN album closer “Blue Tomb” with a four-minute solo before going to the first verse.

Even at its loudest, Blue Cathedral doesn’t fully capture the unbridled aggression of Comets on Fire’s live shows…but then again, how could it? It comes close, though, rocking hard enough to ensure that the album will serve as more than a mere advertisement for their gigs, with just enough variety to keep listeners from being overwhelmed. After having listened to far too many of Sub Pop’s mediocre attempts to cash in on the garage-rock craze over the years (Gluecifer? The Hellacopters? The Makers?), COF has given us a 44-minute slab of pure psychedelic pentatonic pleasure that almost completely redeems the time.

--Sean Padilla

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