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Ferociously Stoned 

Remember when psych rock thrived in S.F.? Of course you don't. You were high. But Comets on Fire will jar more than your memory.

Wednesday, Dec 31 2003
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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?

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).

Chris Gonzalez's decision to bow out soon after the album's completion could have devastated the Comets, but the band traded one excellent drummer for another when Utrillo Belcher stepped into Gonzalez's place. Though he had ostensibly retired from music, Belcher was enticed by the chance to work with his old friend Harmonson. The drummer's circular, Elvin Jones- on-meth style of apocalyptic percussion would lead the band's sound even further into orbit when Comets on Fire started work on its second album, Field Recordings From the Sun.

Returning to Fucking Champs guitarist Tim Green's Louder Studios in San Francisco (where the musicians had mixed and mastered their first record), the band took full advantage of the extra audio tracks and instruments available. Chanting, exotic percussion, bells, banjos, and autoharps all became part of the bizarre tapestry weaved in and around the Comets on Fire vortex as a number of friends and collaborators joined in on the orchestrated chaos. Green recalls having 15 people playing simultaneously in his studio at one point: "They definitely had more of a Sun Ra approach to the songs."

The most influential among these participants was guitarist and fellow Santa Cruz resident Ben Chasney. Playing the flip side of the meditative acid-folk coin he's become known for as the mastermind behind Six Organs of Admittance, the musician contributed some mean "electric destruction guitar" to the album in addition to writing "The Unicorn," a song that features an acoustic improvisation of Chasney's washed-over layers of echo-drenched feedback and sustain.

The final product showed that the band could creatively expand its palette while still delivering an explosive psychedelic punch. Field Recordings opens with a full three minutes of chimes and contemplative ambience before the wailing wall of guitars kicks in like a pack of wasted bikers storming a yoga retreat in Marin. The greater sense of dynamics gave Field Recordings the kind of epic bombast Miller had hoped for: "There was a drive to capture, in the record's contrasts, a mix of beauty and heavenly sounds with real destruction and chaos."

The members' fruitful experience with Chasney during the recording eventually led them to invite him to join the group, though not without some initial miscues. While Comets on Fire channels an intensity that sometimes brings the band close to complete disintegration when performing live, Chasney's early appearances delivered more mayhem than even the band members bargained for. According to a chuckling Miller, the guitarist "had this philosophy about live shows that was all about him attacking the universe and destroying everything around him, metaphysically and spiritually. Forty-five seconds into the set, Chasney would have the guitar he borrowed from me smashed on the ground. He'd be kickin' the guitar in the nuts and crawling up the walls like a rabid dog." Hard to believe, given Chasney's soft-spoken demeanor during our interview, but as he deadpans: "I had to learn to play with other people. Sort of like the step from kindergarten to first grade."

Between the audible combustion heard on the Comets' recordings and the visible volatility of their live performances, one might figure the band destined for early burnout; hell, its very name suggests a brief but brilliant existence. But after witnessing the members' good-humored rapport and genuine camaraderie in person, the current lineup seems perfectly at ease with a commitment to continued musical exploration. The intergalactic psych-rock underground already boasts adventurers in Japan (Ghost, Acid Mothers Temple, and latter-day Boredoms) and the U.K. (Ozric Tentacles, the Heads, and the Bevis Frond); it's high time a band from Northern California entered the fray, carrying on the region's acid-dazed tradition with a leaner, meaner form of mind-blowing mayhem. As Comets on Fire prepares to enter the studio in January to record its third album -- for none other than indie heavyweight Sub Pop -- the outfit looks to further its cosmic-punk legacy and reclaim the freak-rock flag for the Bay Area.

About The Author

Dave Pehling

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