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.