Last year at about this time, Comets on Fire erupted onto the musical landscape with the reissue of their brilliant self-titled debut on Alternative Tentacles. Their sound on that record was brutally loud, distorted by Echoplex, hypnotic and utterly unlike anything current, except maybe certain metal-leaning psychedelicists, such as Acid Mothers Temple and Circle. The band's second album, Field Recordings from the Sun
(which most people heard first as it came out in 2001), was much the same, except for brief melodic interludes, particularly Ben Chasney's all-acoustic "Unicorn". Now, Comets on Fire have returned with a more complex and fully-developed album than either predecessor -- an album that blends prog, jazz and psyche into the band's volcanic mix.
Blue Cathedral is far more cleanly recorded than any other Comets on Fire record, allowing you to hear clearly, for the first time, the complex structures that underlie the chaos. And whereas the self-titled album was all frenzy, all the time, this one cuts the noise with lyrical breaks. Even "The Bee and the Cracking Egg" -- which promises from its opening bars to be standard Comets on Fire-style hell breaking loose -- contains a breathtakingly melodic guitar break five minutes in. It's like a shaft of light breaking through a thunderhead, transforming both the noise and the sudden quiet into something beautiful.
The liner notes are no help here, but someone is playing organ on Blue Cathedral, a new element that completely alters the band's essence. It's a softer, more melodic sound, and you can hear everyone -- from Ethan Miller on his thunderous, whammy-bar laced guitar, to drummer Utrillo Kushner, to Ben Flashman on bass -- backing off and searching for subtler sounds to accompany it. The organ first emerges on "Pussy Footin' the Duke", a sublimely trippy, psychedelic overture that somehow evokes both classic Yes and "Voodoo Chile" in its cascading rolls of organ trills. Even more strikingly, the 1:45 minute "Organs" pits haunting keyboards -- organs and piano -- against a blues-toned guitar. All atmosphere and meditation, it's one of the disc's most beautiful tracks. There's also a very folk-flavored acoustic guitar cut -- Blue Cathedral's equivalent of "Unicorn" -- called "Wild Whiskey" near the end.
Fans of Comets on Fire's louder, end-of-the-world party sound will favor tracks like "Whiskey River" and, particularly, "Antlers of the Midnight Sun". These cuts rock as hard as anything on the first album, though perhaps because of better recording quality, they have less of the elusive, hard-to-pin-down vibe heard in "Graverobbers" or "All the Way Down".
Still, to my ears, the disc's best tracks -- "The Bee and the Cracking Egg", "Brotherhood of the Harvest" and "Blue Tomb" -- are the ones that combine loud and soft in ways that feel more structured and less seat-of-the-pants improvisational than earlier work. "Brotherhood of the Harvest" is slow and psyche-heavy, with big shining organ tones and crookedly beautiful guitars. Referencing, I think, the British Harvest label that put out Pink Floyd records from Saucerful of Secrets on, it is as lyrically mind-bending as "Echoes" or "One of these Days". Album-closer "Blue Tomb" is the requisite long, slow, jam-driven improvisation, built on a circling guitar riff with endlessly evolving distortion over it. When Miller starts singing about half way through, you notice how hard-rock-into-blues-influenced the track sounds; it's a lot like the twisted classic rock feel of Oneida's "Wild Horses", and it sustains itself effectively over its ten-plus-minute span.
This is great stuff, and a significant advance over both of Comets on Fire's previous albums.