By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Blame the weed, the water, or the freewheeling liberal attitudes found in the Bay Area: Our little corner of the globe has fostered more than its fair share of left-field musical movements in the last 40-odd years. But of all the outsider genres to thrive in Northern California (thrash metal, turntablism, avant-electronic composition, to name a few), no style has become more intrinsically linked to the region than the psychedelic soundtrack that served as a mind-altering sonic lubricant during the Summer of Love.
It's difficult to look beyond the drippy nostalgia, bloated hippie conglomerates, and subsequent decades of dull noodling and crapulent tunes now associated with the era's flagship bands, but for a brief moment, acts like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane managed to capture the '60s zeitgeist of social upheaval and brain-scorching drugs through the freaked-out, lysergic visions of their early albums.
Equally important (and arguably more influential) were the fringe groups that indulged in the copious acid and musical freedoms of those heady times without toeing the peace-and-love party line. San Jose thugs the Chocolate Watchband and the Count Five applied heavy studio effects to their snarling Stones/Yardbirds-style rave-ups, while S.F. power trio Blue Cheer bludgeoned hippies into enlightenment with ear-shattering feedback and a mudslide of sludgy riffs. On the other end of the spectrum, pioneering synthesizer geeks Beaver & Krause lent their sci-fi Moog squiggles to such heavyweights as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Doors, yet still found the time to record their own electronic space exploration. Who's carrying that torch now?
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Though the cosmic onslaught of psych-punk madmen Comets on Fire pushes the noise envelope well past the limits of the band's '60s forebears, the outfit fully embraces the same liberated (and liberating) audio alchemy behind the psychedelic era's most enduring moments. In its quest to commune with the ancient spirits of distortion and chaos, the group conducts experiments in unorthodox (some would say downright retarded) recording methods and subjects valuable vintage equipment to unholy abuse that would make even the most toasted old-school acid rocker cringe.
It all started a few years ago, when, with open minds and a clear-eyed intent to get out of their skulls, these musicians took a smoke-hazed journey down the road of excess, one paved with dodgy analog electronics and corrosive guitar riffs. What they ended up with was a psychotropic sound that massages the listener's third eye open with one hand while delivering a teeth-rattling uppercut with the other. Where many early psychedelic acts tried to create the aural equivalent of the LSD experience with their long, strange sonic trips, Comets on Fire favors an intense psychic-blast approach more akin to the brief, sometimes harrowing 15-minute "businessman's high" of DMT, a drug that '60s philosopher and astral traveler Alan Watts compared to "being fired out of the nozzle of an atomic cannon."
In mid-2000, guitarist Ethan Miller and bassist Ben Flashman were feeling the constraints of their Santa Cruz-based hard-rock group Philistine Tent Revival (likened to a "psychedelic ZZ Top" by Miller), so the pair hooked up with friend and powerhouse drummer Chris Gonzalez for what was initially conceived as a weekend project to blow off steam. Fueled by shotgunned beers, swigs of peppermint schnapps, and various high-octane illicit substances, the trio achieved a delusional state of mind that freed the unhinged jam sessions of expectations, inhibitions, and prescribed production techniques.
Recording the drums with thrift-store microphones run through cheap distortion pedals and pinning the helpless meters of their abused four-track into the red, Miller and company let the noisy fruit of their fractured brains plop out fully formed, recording their howling meltdowns in one or two takes. Even after the high wore off, everyone involved could hear that something special was happening.
"The first day we were saying, 'This is kicking ass! We should keep doing this,'" Miller recalls during a group interview. "So we ditched our other band. It was too good! When you've got the thing you're trying to do with music just shitting and barking out of you, you've gotta run with that."
Though he wasn't around for the first two weekend sessions, Noel Harmonson (a current member of neo-no-wave mutants the Lowdown) was the guy who got the call when the boys decided they wanted to do something equally deranged with Miller's vocals. Having built a self-admitted "reputation around Santa Cruz for being a kind of weirdo music jerk," Harmonson fell in with the warped no-fi aesthetic. And he owned an Echoplex.
"In separate sessions, we recorded Ethan singing through the Echoplex for messed-up, reverberating vocals," Harmonson remembers. "This was when I began to experiment with what has become known as the 'shitstorm' sound." Distorting the vocals to the brink of unintelligible noise, the old tape-delay effect brought the band's already abrasive psych-punk to a remote crossroads where blood-and-puke power rock meets endorphin-releasing sonic vistas. Harmonson was invited to join the group as its resident effects-manipulator and knob-twiddler, and Comets on Fire amassed a pile of cassettes containing an album's worth of songs.
An über-limited vinyl pressing of the band's self-released debut garnered a strong underground buzz. The furious attack of the group's fuzzed-out punk destruction alone would have had most garage-rock fans soiling themselves, but the otherworldly lunacy of Miller's effects-laden screaming elevated the recording to a mind-bending apex reminiscent of Hawkwind's most stupefying interplanetary rampages. Word spread, and the blistering record quickly sold out, becoming an instant collectible (it's currently going for $50 on eBay).