Comets on Fire - "s/t" (Alternative Tentacles 2003, Virus 301)
Comets on Fire - "Field Recordings From the Sun" (Ba Da Bing 2002, Bing 034)
Uploaded to Aural Innovations: September 2003
With the rise of punk in the late 70ís and synth driven electropop in the early 80ís, progressive rock took a major critical beating from which it is only starting to recover some 20 years later. But space rock, while hardly in the forefront of music, especially in the 80ís, didnít suffer the same critical backlash as its older brother, progressive rock. This may have had something to do with the fact that long before there was punk, or electropop, or even electronica, space rock was embracing the very things that made those genres of music popular further on down the musical road: a rough sound with lots of attitude and the willingness to experiment with new technologies and electronic sounds. In fact, those later genres really only tended to water down and make commercially viable what the original space rockers had done. It remains a great irony that space rock still takes a back seat to the genres that it influenced. And in the meantime, the genre of space rock itself has changed dramatically over the decades. Enter Comets on Fire. Hereís a new band that is not only returning to the punk and experimental roots of space rock, but casting it in a new light for the present and future as well.
Recently re-issued by Alternative Tenacles (Jello Biafraís hardcore punk label), Comets on Fireís previously ultra-rare self-titled debut (it was a limited vinyl-only run of 500 copies) takes us on a manic journey to the stars. Imagine The Stooges jamming with Hawkwind, and youíll get an idea of what this album sounds like (it also, surprisingly, sounds a lot like a heavier version of the lesser known Simply Saucer, reviewed recently in AI-though without the Velvet Underground influences). Thereís definitely more of a punk and garage rock feel on this first release, but throw in lots of echo and trippy electronic freakouts, and thereís no question this stuff is blasting off for outer space.
Noel Harmonson (of Strange Attractorsí The Lowdown) on Echoplex, joins Ethan Miller on vocals and guitar, Utrillo Belcher on drums, and Ben Flashman on bass for a combination that is literally explosive. Itís rare these days to hear a band so utterly committed to this kind of intense energy. Things kick off with the feedback shriek and electronic wail of the anthemic All I Need, which sets the mood for the rest of the album. Tracks like Grave Robbers and Got a Feeliní are pure, snarling, fuzzed out rock, full of Millerís raw and bluesy vocals echoing all over the place, while Harmonsonís Echoplex and oscillators rampage through it all with their burning cosmic electricity. But Miller, Flashman, and Belcher get creative too, bursting into moments of ultra chaos, then drawing it together into oddly angular jams, like the severely abstract ending of One Foot. Letís Take It All even delves into a sort of ultra-heavy, mid tempo, Zepplin-esque blues grind. The Zeppelin influence rears its head again in the excellent Ghosts of the Cosmos, which is raunchy cosmic blues at its most delirious. The final blow-out is the acid drenched Days of Vapors, which rocks with pure abandon, though is actually one of the most focused tracks on the album, ending with a psychedelic march that fades into the emptiness of space. The Alternative Tentacles release also includes 20-odd minutes of live material that wasnít on the original release. Following after a few minutes of silence on the tail end of Days of Vapors, this stuff is raw, loud, and loose, but proves that, if itís possible, Comets on Fire has even more energy live than they do in the studio.
Field Recordings From the Sun, although out earlier than the re-release of their debut, is Comets on Fireís second full-length album. Whereas their first release was definitely headed for the stars, this one explodes into space. The title of this album may sound like a nice, tranquil name for a new age album, but this is far from a tranquil affair. Donít let the title fool you; this one is a tour de force of scorching fury and celestial mayhem. Tripping on the same manic punked out energy of the first album with more cosmic space jamming, this time Comets on Fire lives up to their name, downplaying the punk and amping up the cosmic. A cast of side-players, including guitarist Ben Chasey from Six Organs of Admittance and Harmonsonís Lowdown partner, Josh Alpers, joins the band this time out to expand the line-up and range of sounds used on the album. The opening track proves that Comets on Fire have come a long way in the short time since their debut. The 9 Ĺ-minute Beneath the Ice Age, gets underway with a freeform ambient exploration full of unusual instruments like heaven bells, jews harp, camel bells, Mexican bells, xylophone, tingshaws, sleigh bells, and ankle bells, all laced through with acid feedback, before it kicks into hyperspace with wild drums, searing guitars, and whipping, spiralling space electronics all over the place, dissolving finally into more bells and cosmic space chanting for a trippy, mystical ending. If thatís not enough to hook you, Return to Heaven actually finds the band getting back into their Zeppelin influence a little, though less from their blues period, and more from the mid-career arty period, but itís still fuzz drenched and flying through the stars. The Unicorn totally surprises, though. Guest Ben Chasey does a folksy improvisation on acoustic guitar, which is eventually overtaken by the squall of noisy electric guitar and echoplex. ESP is another acid freakout, full of noisy space jamming. The final 10-minute plunge of The Black Poodle is down ní dirty, barely controlled cosmic chaos at its best, with walls of feedback, wailing electronics, tortured saxophone, pounding fuzzed out guitars, wah-wahing solos, tribal drumming, more feedback, and what sounds like someone taking a hammer to a piano! Various members of the band are credited with things such as electric fuzz destruction guitar, intercom control panel, input jack, tuning pegs, and extended stoned white wah! Itís pure space rock on overdrive, to fry your synapses and melt your brain.
Space rock fans may want to check out Field Recordings first before delving into the punkier self-titled release, but both are exhilarating, high energy freakouts not to be missed. Highly recommended!
For more info, visit the Alternative Tentacles web site at: http://www.alternativetentacles.com.
The Ba Da Bing web site at: http://www.thevessyl.org/badabing.
Reviewed by Jeff Fitzgerald