Overlooked: Comets On Fire – Field Recordings From the Sun

This is it. The pinnacle. The heights of what rock music from whence it was birthed has reached and shall be measured. Comets On Fire‘s 2002 sophomore record, Field Records From the Sun, is the album that obliterates the bar for which high energy music is set. You can stack all the metal, punk, noise, hardcore, noise punk, grindcore, free jazz, free jazzcore, and on and on and none if it can touch the astronomically chaotic universe found within this record’s thirty-seven minutes. Nothing even comes close. It’s thirty-seven minutes of cosmic evisceration and psychedelic carnage that somehow remains wholly listenable without putting on the airs maybe found in any one of those aforementioned genres (save perhaps whatever the phrase “trippy, dude” gets you). Which is an achievement in itself. This record is built from influences that certainly front energy as a priority, if not its main priority (Hawkwind, MC5, The Stooges), but none of those have (arguably) stood the test of time, in terms of intensity, when confronted with three decades of rock and metal and everything else. And Field Recordings’ penitent for bombast isn’t really built on anything that’s come before–classical music maybe? Jazz? That simultaneously gives it way too much credit and undermines its power, found in the human impulse given to create choas. But there’s a point I’m getting at, which is Field Recordings exists completely on its own as a statement of universal creation in the form of blistering sonic destruction.

It’s very possible most of society and rock music itself, has moved on from being concerned with how heavy and raw and destructive music is and can be. Those descriptors in themselves denote anger and angst and tension and even self-indulgence relegated, once again, to genre-based music. Field Recordings never even approaches an engagement in the emotions of anger. If anything it’s celebratory, even as it destroys. But found on the record is an instant argument for the relevance of heaviness and destruction. It’s one of those records that overcomes limitations in music in order to express itself. If an artist’s objective is to create a feeling of loneliness in his or her songs, they can do so in a number of ways–stripped down melodies, minimal arrangements, softly damaged vocals, etc etc. That’s just one way. Perhaps it’s too much to assume Comets On Fire’s primary goal was to create feelings that conjure what it must have felt like when the universe was created, but this record feels like that was the primary intention. Secondary is the intention of forming a psychedelic rock band and making some killer tunes, dude. That’s a dynamic not discussed enough in music–what’s the best way to express a particular emotion prior to the arrangement. None of those genres I mentioned above are in it for anything other than rocking the genre (which is fine), but what we get with Field Recordings is an album that skips over the limitations of genres and gives us a statement that makes us forget its psychedelic rock with some Hawkwind and MC5 influences. Field Recordings is totally singular in that regard. Maybe I’m infusing it with more pretension than it actually deserves, but, regardless, it exists outside of those¬† claims.

I first heard the album in 2007, quite a while after it was released, and I’m in no way surprised it was lost in the shuffle and dwarfed by Comets On Fire’s 2004 followup, Blue Cathedral. BC is a better record in the traditional¬† sense. It has a more varied tone and more varied song structures. It’s not all just amps-to-11 and search-and-destroy-everything-in-our-path-all-the-time-forever. There’s some folky numbers and some more strung out jams and some tighter display of reserve. It’s certainly the record that got them some attention. It does have the sonic workouts in tracks “The Bee and The Cracking Egg” and “The Antlers of the Midnight Sun,” which does a good job matching the intensity on the previous outing. The record’s great, but it remains a psychedelic record. And after a hundred listens of each, BC feels a bit more glossed over in comparison.


So that’s a lot of talk about nebulous shit–what does Field Recordings actually do musically? Comets On Fire get a rap for piling on the guitars to the absolute breaking point, but in reality, they may get one or two overdubs in over the duel riffing of Ethan Miller and Six Organs of Admittance‘s Ben Chasny. They definitely do a lot of point breaking with what’s there, letting the fuzz grind into the earth and the feedback ring to the stratosphere in all its abrasive glory. But the record’s success is found in its miscellaneous players, its pretty intricate arrangement of the madness, and the holy-fucking-christ drumming of Utrillo Kushner.

Noel von Harmonson who is credited as “electronics” is responsible for the group’s live vocal treatment. When the Comets played live the dude stood on stage, armed with an Echoplex placed on a stool and he mangled vocalist/guitarist Ethan Miller’s voice by whipping the echo device’s tape back and forth. Sounds gimmicky, but damn, do they push it, and on the record it comes in at some pretty key moments, turning the vocals into an instrument of stuttering abrasion. He also gets mistaken as guitarist much of the time as he’s often just creating feedback and noise to linger like exploding stars all over the mix. His job really is to create texture and by doing so he adds an extra layer that pushes its way into the corners of the stereo-field, alluding to a grander more astral-bound timelessness.

I remember reading somewhere Utrillo Kushner called “two Keith Moons.” It sounds pretty good. It might be hyperbole, Moon might have packed a little more subtlety beneath the flash, but it’s not far off. Kushner’s drumming is fill-heavy enough for it to sound like he’s just wildly soloing along with the mass of monolithic noise at times, though he’s obviously driving it. He doesn’t stay in one place for long, and his chops are only trumped by his energy, which in many cases is a point of reference for the listener and their perception of the colossal freak-out.

Tim Green is the man behind the boards. He recorded and mixed Field Recordings and it’s not exaggeration to say the album’s success in the transcendent department might be owed solely to him. On first listen, the record might sound like the aural equivalent to the shear clusterfuck of a nuclear bomb detonating, but on repeated listens, the mixing and production reveals itself to be downright meticulous in its placement of every single noise squall. Green doesn’t obscure everything in reverb either, but arranges things on multiple levels of clarity, communicating the sensation (I would imagine) of listening to spacebound dogfights looping in on each other.


Then of course there’s just the song craft owed to Comets’ leader, Ethan Miller. The riffs are mountainous and they don’t linger. Hooks pop up here and there, but most of the time the band is dead set on heading, light speed, straight for the sun. Every single change in course is huge and sweeping beyond anything most rock groups can muster and it’s all guitars and all three-chord attack. The songs fall in between six and nine minutes, but as a certain punk legend once said, “we play slow songs really fast,” and the Comets pack the conception and destruction of whole worlds into each track. Opener, “Beneath The Ice Age” begins with layers of feedback wafting gently over some sporadic tribally percussion that soon gets steamrolled by the oncoming army of noise. It’s hard to even keep track of the directions and sonic destinations the song takes, but it somehow ends up with drums and guitars randomly firing canon bombasts and the whole band chanting in unison. There are only five tracks to speak of–one of which is an acoustic interlude–so it’s a pretty quick ride, all said, but it ends with a pretty satisfying climax. My original claim is exemplified two-fold in the ten-minute closer, “The Black Poodle,” which has the most diabolical riff I’ve ever heard and it hits with the force of a death-from-above apocalypse (you know–like the one that killed the dinosaurs). Not to mention the epileptic saxophone freak out and Kushner’s non stop fill rhythm. But it’s when Ethan Miller screams one long wordless note over the whole thing that it becomes something transitory.

If Comets On Fire did anything right on Field Records From the Sun, it was to find a balance in which all the other elements discussed followed. The group balance intricate and contained spontaneity with carefully crafted sonic annihilation and it creates a whole that I find hard to believe will ever be matched in intensity. Musically, it’s the success of never letting the listener not be battered by something new and bombastic. Nothing ever repeats itself in the orchestrated barrage of noise missiles. It all adds up to a dense uncomprehendingly deep whole that does what it sets out to do from go and builds into a transcendent almost spiritual experience that never compromises its apocalyptic vision. This isn’t a record of long range improvisational meltdown like the Acid Mother’s Temple do and it isn’t a record of free range noise making (though it gets there); it’s an album of exceptional craft with a specific focus in mind: when destruction becomes creation.

Field Recordings isn’t going to appeal to everyone. It’s a record that quite loudly and violently demands the listener match its energy, which, understandably, not everyone is willing to do. But there is a record here that contains something truly wonderful and unmatched in all of music. It’s the ultimate end of a singular emotion. One that rock was arguably born from and has been reaching for since its conception.

Will’s 10 Most Anticipated Albums of 2011

The cool thing about music is the good shit never stops. First some speculative picks:

Okkervil River is due for a new one after a decent turn as Roky Erikson‘s backing band on last year’s True Love Cast Out All Evil. They’re still hanging on a high note with 2008’s The Stand Ins. While great, it didn’t quite stack up to the masterpiece that is Black Sheep Boy or its superb followup The Stage Names.

Another speculative release, more than overdue, is from dubstep’s catalyst, Burial. Okay, it’s only been three years, but after his contribution to the 2009 Hyperdub compilation 5, it’s hard to sustain patience for a followup to the watershed record, Untrue. I say a prayer before I turn in each night that said followup might grace our ears in 2011.

Here’s the stuff that’s all but officially announced if not already been so:

10. The Go! Team – Rolling Blackouts

Nothing out of this camp is ever going to match the eclectic madness of Thunder, Lighting, Strike, but 2007’s Proof of Youth certainly wasn’t a dud. It gave us the manic roller coaster track “Keys to the City” if nothing else. From what I’ve heard, Rolling Blackouts more than keeps pace with its predecessor and there’s still something about double-dutch chants mashed up with car-chase-horn-bombast that doesn’t get old.

9. Panda Bear – Tomboy

Full disclosure: I haven’t heard any of the singles from this one yet, and I have been a little disappointed¬† that Panda is apparently moving away from his signature sample sound found on Person Pitch. It makes sense though, as more than a few have ripped the style from top to bottom. Despite the text descriptions, it’s still Panda Bear.

8. Toro Y Moi – Underneath The Pine

I was way late to last year’s Causers Of This. Late enough that Underneath The Pine is only a few months following to these ears. That said, goddammit, I can’t get enough of the young producer’s blurred-80s-sleaze-meets-J Dilla aesthetic and the man still seems to be on the sharp upward arc in his career.

7. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong

The 2009 debut did a more than satisfactory job at distilling the best aspects of late 80s, early 90s dream pop and shoegaze into a consistently rad long player. My only concern is the group, which previously recorded with barely any budget, has seemed to have gone the glossy high production route. We’ll see how reserved they’re able to remain with the final product.

6. MillionYoung – Replicants

I may have already heard most of this album, but the potential of a long player from one of 2010’s best sleeper acts is pretty exciting. MillionYoung is still pretty grounded in the chilliest of chillwave, but there’s just a little bit more reverb here and just a little bit more subtlety there that hooks me into the unabashedly bedroom-based output. Also, the album is titled Replicants.

5. James Blake – James Blake

The UK producer absolutely annihilated last year and now has the chance to be a potential dubstep crossover hitter with this LP. Grandeur aside, James Blake just makes damn good music and I’m super excited to see how he shapes a full-length.

4. Cut Copy – Zonoscope

In Ghost Colors, in my humble opinion, is one of the best dance pop albums ever crafted. It sets itself up for greatness every single track and just delivers ten-fold at every pivotal point. I absolutely cannot wait to see what the Aussie trio has in store for a followup.

3. Radiohead – TBA

Um…enough said.

2. M83 – TBA

Other than the lackluster debut, everything M83 has done feels as if its been pried straight from my wildest musical dreams. 2008’s Saturdays = Youth is a spacey John Hughes film score–in all it’s over-dramatic and angsty glory. 2005’s Before The Dawn Heals Us especially ignited my aural pleasure centers, conjuring one of the sign posts of my imagination, Blade Runner, with it’s cityscape cover art and it’s Vangelis synth textures. The good news is, Gonzales is returning to Dawn‘s dramatic soundtrack-styling flair, as he told Pitchfork late last year. I’m so goddamn excited.

1. The Avalanches – TBA

It’s probably disingenuous of me to put this on the list as this record has been supposed to come out for the last four years or so, yet still doesn’t even have a title. The group has been apparently clearing samples or something in the interim. My expectations for this one are so high that they’ve somehow lapped themselves back into cynicism. 2000’s Since I Left You is one of the best, most ambitious, and technically profound electronic records ever created. It was a sound collage that somehow worked as a dance mix. Seriously. Let’s hope they’ve used the last eleven years to make the followup worthy.

Those are my picks. Keep in mind, that most of these are scheduled for the earlier part of the year. In reality, I’m most excited about the surprises that come in the form of late announcements and little indie darlings.

So what are the patrons of Pure Pop looking forward to in 2011?

YearEnders: Will’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

Where am I? Inside 2010 with James Murphy, that's where.

It’s bloody hard to go twelve months in new music without finding something that you dig, but 2010 was an especially good twelve months. For me anyway. Grand statements aside, it was much harder to narrow this year down to ten of my favorite releases than it was last year. So here we go with some honorable mentions:

I spent a good amount of time on a few mega releases. Beach House‘s Teen Dream leaked last November and still sort of feels like a 2009 joint rather than something out of this year. The duo cleaned off their basement haze pop dynamic into something all together shiny with beautifully minimal guitar and organ melodies, but Vitoria Lagrand’s voice, which was decidedly bigger than previous releases, is what really set things apart for Beach House this year. Arcade Fire‘s The Suburbs happened. The record is huge and, for better or worse, it’s Arcade Fire (for better). Deerhunter‘s new record continues to push the group into indie dominance. I don’t really have much more to say about Holcyon Digest other than, just listen to those saxes on “Coronado” or the wordless chorus on “Revival” or the rhythm jam on “Memory Boy.” Sufjan Stevens returned to relevancy with two amazing releases–All Delighted People EP and Age of Adz–both shamelessly indulging in their unending pastiche of wondrous intricacy–Sufjan ever leading his army of musicians into the territory of beautiful inapplicability. Except when it’s just him whispering softly into your ear.

My number 10 spot was especially competitive this year. Here’s what didn’t quite make the list but you should check out anyway because they’re pretty good: Twin Shadow‘s Forget was a pretty pleasant pop music surprise. The record is a sharp playlist of synthpop songs with a contemporary fondness for the 1980s. Darkstar‘s North found an endearing place between synthpop’s immediacy and dubstep’s negative space. The group’s label, Hyperdub, certainly seemed busy this past year. Perfume Genius‘s Learning was another surprise, and a pretty special record, being a collection of ten highly affecting lo-fi piano tunes. Lo-fi in the right sense too, in that it feels and sounds like it was found by chance somewhere forgotten and dusty. Australia’s Tame Impala with their debut, Innerspeaker, created some analog psych-pop that sounds drenched in 1960s summer sun. Salem led the mid-year witch house (or whatever it’s called) charge with King Night and their blend of chopped and screwed hip-hop with heavy graveyard dream pop. But enough. Needless to say, it was an amazing year. On to the list:

10. Prince Rama – Shadow Temple / The Body – All The Waters of The Earth Shall Turn To Blood (Tie)

A tie (okay, so it’s not quite down to ten). I wrestled endlessly between these two, but it’s a fitting tie. Shadow Temple is a very straight forward record, unlike a lot of pseudo-experimental psychedelic rock records these days that get too bogged down with esoteric indulgences. Prince Rama aims to create a swirling wall of sound formed by synthesizers, guitars, chants, and wordless vocals, all propelled by ceremonial tribal percussion. And it does that. With great success owed to it’s momentous energy, distant melody, and a perfect balance of all these elements to leave the listener breathless on the edge of whatever state of transcendence the group creates in the record’s thirty-five minute span. The Body finds their own form of transcendence on All The Waters… (as apocalyptic and metal as it sounds) in a primal slow freak-out brand of sludge that combines classic downtuned droney riffs and cathartic “holy-shit” banshee screams with a layer of careful experimentalism made up of femm choirs, guttural throat chanting, and string arrangements that never get in the way of the devastatingly crushing noise.

9. James Blake – Klavierwerke EP

James Blake was a busy lad this year and he deserves some kind of recognition for it. Three very strong EPs all of which showed great diversity and a sense of linear evolution from clubby dubstep into something altogether unique, ending with a cover of Feist’s “Limit Your Love,” which points forward to a pop, vocal-based direction for the young Englishman. Klavierwerke is the third in the string of EPs and easily the strongest. The Bell Sketch and CMYK are both arguably dance crossovers, whereas Klavierwerke exists firmly between your noggin as a headphones-destined kind of record. It’s so minimal in places it’s almost cocky. James Blake gets constant props for his unique use of pitch-shifted vocal samples, but the element of his sound that struck me most, especially on this record, is how powerful his use of negative space, that often descends into flat out silence, can be.

8. Scuba – Triangulation

This year dubstep turned into post-dubstep and post-dubstep turned back into dubstep until that turned back into just being general electronic music maybe and then no one cared. I did a full review of this record for Purepop back in September and it has only continued to grow on me. Scuba’s Triangulation is the essential isolated-nighttime record of 2010, basically destined for some personal midnight walking choreography. As danceable as it is meditative, Scuba’s production is full of momentum and atmosphere, and there’s enough attention to detail to impress the most nerdy of production nerds.

7. Zola Jesus – Stridulum EP

Zola Jesus didn’t quite hit it big this year, but the two EP’s she released in 2010 has her, in my mind, destined for something great if she can follow them up with an appropriate full-lenth LP. She’s only 21, for one. And otherwise, she has a pretty distinguished voice that’s touted as operatically trained, and press aside, it is huge and gorgeous. Then there’s the music simply being damn affecting for some reason. It’s made up of overlapping synth melodies drowning in a thick wash of gothic black reverb. The drums and lyrics are perfectly simple. All to create a uniquely thick and immediate sound.

6. Teebs – Ardour

Ardour sounds like a record of beautifully musical found-sound. It’s a perfectly organic album that’s offset by its beautiful melodies of sparkling shimmering percussive samples with the right amount of Brainfeeder-style drum programming to weigh it down. Teebs seems anxious to show his audience glimpses of an aural paradise he’s discovered and brought back with him only to rough it up with huge kick drums and offbeat snare. It helps the songs barely ever cross the three minute mark, creating a sort of naturalistic flow that’s been pieced together with as much delicacy as which it was discovered.

Continue reading YearEnders: Will’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

Feeding Brains, Post-Dilla, and the Los Angeles Sound: Part II

Flying Lotus‘s third full-length, Cosmogramma, was released in May of this year. FlyLo’s personal sphere of inspiration while making the record reportedly gravitated around his own mother’s untimely death, and it’s probably now appropriate to mention the Los Angeles beat-maker’s blood connection to Alice and John Coltrane, as their astral inspired brand of free jazz seemed to be an important musical signpost Steven Ellison aspired to channel on the record (Cosmogramma refers to a lecture Alice Coltrane gave). Trane’s son Ravi can even be heard with a tenor sax on two of the seventeen tracks. With this in mind, it’s a good guess Cosmogramma is much more inspired by the Coltranes or even Sun Ra rather than FlyLo’s contemporaries. The new exploration of sound was a bold move, and one that more than paid off. Flying Lotus has managed to transcend the sound and scene he helped create by completely stepping into a realm beyond the general approach of electronic music.

Cosmogramma itself flows as a singular experience. It creates a context that lives up to it’s astral-based name, born from a place that feels more connected with spiritualism, psychedelia, place and time. Something to fall into. The scene from which it was born still remains though, it’s just hard to imagine anything like this coming from something built upon a collective. It boasts Flying Lotus’s vision as a producer and musician. There’s a moment with some records where you feel the music is really only a means to an end. Where the musician’s voice is alluding to something deeper and bigger instead of just pulling back a curtain to show you a couple songs they made, which in most cases could describe (however fantastic) the sound that’s come out of LA in the wake of Flying Lotus’s Los Angeles. Or even electronic music as a whole. It’s something historically relegated to high concept music, definitely not hip-hop inspired beats.

As I mentioned in Part I, J Dilla‘s Donuts was a sort of opus for his experience and memories. And feels like that in how cyclical and fleeting it is. Dilla is known for aesthetics, but it’s that element of Dilla’s musical voice that lasts, especially as a statement right before his death. Flying Lotus has built that into his own music, starting with Los Angeles and making it completely his own with Cosmogramma. It’s easier to talk about how Dilla’s “submerged” bass lines or FlyLo’s off-beat programming helped create something new in electronic music (it’s definitely important) than how these guys have brought something unique and highly affecting in regard to their personal outlook and perspectives, communicated through their music. But, oh well, I guess. In the end the musical experience speaks for itself. What’s the point of trying to force it into words (like I’m doing right now)? Listen to the records.

With all that said, in 2010 Los Angeles still stands and Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder record label is in a prolific infancy. More than a few talented producers have come out of the city or are making their name as apart of the Brainfeeder crew. Here are a couple of my favorite records out of that scene from this year:

Continue reading Feeding Brains, Post-Dilla, and the Los Angeles Sound: Part II