COMET, CACTUS, CAFE

Decade Diving

Number #4

2006

Comets On Fire Avatar

Though I tend not to loiter at the heavier end of the music spectrum here in Vinyl Connection land, there is a goodly chunk of noisy stuff in the collection. Avatar by US West Coast band Comets On Fire is an album I’ve had for a while and really like, despite an aversion to over-wrought vocals. Fortunately the voice is mixed well into the surging wash of sound so that visions of big-hair and spandex are (mostly) kept at bay.

The entry of the opening song sounds like a sudden edit into a thundering jam that has already been rolling for at least ten minutes. The groove has a strong Guru Guru feel: pounding drums, distorted guitars. The vocals are pure West Coast metal, however, as Ethan Millar bawls the words over a righteous psychedelic squall. The song is ‘Dogwash rust’, whatever the hell that means. Listening to the vocals doesn’t help, while the lyrics —helpfully reproduced in minuscule handwriting scrawl— are just as unintelligible. Doesn’t matter much though. We’re not here for poetic subtly but for all-out sensory overload delivered by twin distorted guitars, some drone-like keyboard underpinnings, and earthquake drums. Apparently no less an authority than Julian Cope described Comets drummer Utrillo Kushner as playing like ‘two drummers thinking they are Keith Moon’. It’s an eight minute assault that really sets up Avatar. [Listen here]

‘Jaybird’ starts more reflectively with an infectious bass figure that sounds familiar; like something from mid-70s Deep Purple, say. The guitar figures are lighter and nicely placed in the mix, vocals are (at least) double-tracked. Some nice synth noise adds cosmic intensity. Oh man, where is that damned riff lifted from?

Third song, ‘Lucifer’s memory’ is basically an electric ballad, a slow rolling song that opens with piano chords and builds throughout its seven minutes to a climax drenched with woozy psychedelic guitar lines.

Later, there’s even a slab of funky keyboard boogie in the instrumental ‘Sour smoke’ —whose borrowings also hover just outside the Zone Of Identification— before things finish in suitably grand fashion with ‘Hatched upon the age’. This six minute closer is powerful and elegiac: electric piano/picked guitar ballad intro followed immediately by vocals that evoke ‘Theme for an imaginary Western’*. Again, the guitars build slowly to a surprisingly abrupt end.

Comets on fire - avatar

How to give an impression of Comets On Fire’s Avatar that is indicative but not derivative? What about this: a cosmic collision between MC5 and Hawkwind. Or perhaps this: the acid-fried love-child of Blue Cheer and White Hills?

Whatever. If you like massive effects-laden guitars, monstrous rhythms, waves of recycled 70s motifs rejuvenated with energy and flair, moments of melody washed by electro-technics (like pyrotechnics, but more electrical), this is an album worth checking out; it really does deserve that hackneyed back-cover command: ‘Play loud’.

* In fact, Ethan Miller’s vocals remind me of Dave Lawson of Greenslade, who covered the Jack Bruce / Pete Brown song ‘Theme for an imaginary Western’ (also recorded by Colosseum and Mountain) on 1974’s Spyglass Guest.

1976

Dave Greenslade Cactus Choir

Greenslade being one of my favourite keyboard-based bands, the above footnote had me scurrying to the catalogue to see if there was anything Greenslade-related that fitted the Decade Diving format. And voila! Enter Dave Greenslade with his solo album Cactus Choir. Given the Roger Dean cover, and the presence of Tony Reeves on bass for the entire album, the connection with the recently defunct band is strong.

Opener ‘Pedro’s party’ has, as suggested by the title, a Spanish feel. Co-written with Jon Hiseman (Dave’s former colleague in Colosseum), ‘Gettysburg’ is a pleasant but unremarkable number sung by Steve Gould. After the voice of Dave Lawson (which could be kindly described as ‘unique’), this sounds fairly pedestrian. With third piece ‘Swings and roundabouts’ we’re back in the safe instrumental territory that is Dave G’s strength. Organ, synths, electric piano, all layered and interlocking in a bouncy rhythmic piece with a fractured final coda whose tolling bell leads into ‘Time takes my time’, a slow song delivered by Dave himself. Not sure he should sing, really. Have to say I’m missing Dave Lawson about now. His strangled whine made even the most pedestrian lyrics sound odd and a little disquieting. Mid-tempo instrumental ‘Forever and ever’ closes out side one with a pretty melody and deft use of analogue synthesisers.

Cactus Choir back cover Greenslade

Side two is, other than a brief vocal on the opening title track, entirely instrumental. This is largely a good thing, as most who sought out this album would do so based on Dave’s keyboard prowess. There is plenty of this on display, all beautifully played and tastefully arranged. There’s even an uptempo electric boogie (‘Country dance’) and for analogue keyboard nuts the lashings of ARP, Hohner electric piano, moog and clavinet are well worth the price of admission. Really, my only criticism, bearing in mind that I savaged a later Dave Greenslade opus (here), is the politeness that pervades the album. Final piece ‘Finale’ even has an actual orchestra, arranged by Simon Jeffes*, which reinforces the cultured cultural underpinnings of the work. Perhaps that’s why I missed Lawson and (the band) Greenslade; they were not quite as ‘nice’.

* Simon Jeffes was, of course, the English composer who founded the Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

Now I wonder if they did anything in ’76…

1976

Penguin Cafe Orchestra LP

The first album by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra was released in November 1976. The group began as a quartet, formed by composer Simon Jeffes (1949 – 1997). ‘Classically’ trained, Jeffes was interested in exploring forms outside traditional composed music and indeed, rock and popular music. Although later Penguin Cafe Orchestra albums are elegantly structured and most accessible, the debut album was an altogether more exploratory affair. As Music from the Penguin Cafe has appeared at Vinyl Connection before, I won’t bang on about how much I like it (even though I like it a lot).

I was interested to read that Simon Jeffes’ son Arthur has formed a group called Penguin Cafe who play PCO music despite having no original members and who have an album planned for 2016. Why not? It’s fine music and deserves to be heard.

15 comments

  1. Great write-up on Avatar, Bruce. I love that LP! I’ve tried to write about it before and failed miserably. I think there’s something rural sounding about this one too. Ben Chasny is definitely one of my favourite guitarists currently out there, wonderfully expressive and organic playing; nice fella too – I met him when he was playing with his other band Six Organs of Admittance.

    I saw the Penguins last year and they were really rather excellent, I think Jeffes son is the front man now. I still don’t own this yet.

    I love the Greenslade cover and that’s where I’ll leave that one I think!

    Really enjoyed this one Bruce.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Met this one, heard that one… you are so an international man of musical mystery.
      (And right on the green stuff with Greenslade – I might have a crack at nudging you towards the first band album, but, despite an excellent Roger Dean cover, not this one)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know Bruce, I know. It’s why the ladies love me so much.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Smashin’ post, Bruce. Like Joe, I’m pretty fond of that Comets On Fire album. Really splendid piece of noise, eh, rockery. Haven’t heard the others, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s fine, innit? Love it when something comes up that a few chums know and the words kinda mesh with our various experiences.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You bet. Also results in the inevitable revisit! Some noisy rockage … space … textures … those swells that wash over the vocals like waves … all the good stuff.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll eventually get to the Penguin debut through the 1001, what an intriguing cover!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Isn’t the art beguiling? The painting is by Emily Young, a member of the PCO.

      It’s fascinating that, (a) this debut is in your 1001 edition [there are no Penguins in my 2005 version], and (b) that the more experimental debut was chosen over, say, the self-titled second album or Broadcasting from Home (the third) both of which are truer to the way the ensemble developed and continued.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m often curious as to why one album is selected over another by the same artist – I think they tend to emphasize ‘significant’ over ‘best.’
        Pearl Jam’s Ten is on the list, it is far from their best in my opinion, but is probably there because it was part of a significant musical shift in 1991 (incidentally, my favourite palindromic year)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I just recently picked up that Music from the Penguin Cafe album and have been playing it within an inch of its life 😉
    May need to get a replacement copy (or two)…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s fantastic FF. Perhaps you’ll explore more of the PCO catalogue? (Which is excellent though less experimental than this debut)

      Like

  5. Used to read Julian Cope praising Comets on Fire and various related offshoot/solo projects on his old monthly reviews at the Head Heritage site but never explored because most of the stuff Julian pushed was a little too noisy/droney/outré for me (and my “department store tastes (smile)) Seeing CoF on Vinyl Connection forced my mind open however; I’ve ordered Avatar and will brace for the cosmic collision…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’re all about forcing minds open here, Mister. None of yer gentle persuasion and personal discovery mamby-pamby stuff. It’s cosmic crowbar in cranium all the way. No more hiding in the white goods section. You have been warned.

      Like

      1. Finally gave Avatar a focused listen tonight and was pleased. I especially like the track “Sour Smoke” (or “Soup Smoke” as you’ve deemed it – smile) despite its relative simplicity: I get something of a Native American vibe from it. Thanks for the steer/nudge.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. A typo! Aaaah! Torture the sub-editor!

          (Thanks. Corrected)

          Like

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