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.

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.

Graham McGrew


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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.

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