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Comets on Fire: so cool, so hot, so misunderstood

One big misconception of comets, the solar variety, is that they are made of fiery gas. Actually, comets are composed mainly of ice. Another misconception is that comets appear suddenly and leave just as suddenly. Actually, they have been orbiting for a long time. They have just been out of our gaze.

We can forgive the Northern California psych-rock band Comets on Fire for giving itself a misnomer. The group might be saying that the comets in question, though made of ice, are (yikes!) on fire, which would be an anomaly, therefore psychedelic. See, one definition of psychedelic is anything that brings forth "a distortion of perception." It follows that any misperception is therefore psychedelic.

If that's true, then there's nothing more psychedelic than the two reviews on Amazon.com about the self-titled second album to come from acid-heavy Comets on Fire. Says Mankey1505, who gave the record five out of five stars: "That is so wild!! The leader of this band (miller) has a dad that teaches...and i have him as my english teacher! weird...He isnt much of a rocker, but apparently his son is. i acutally havn't heard this album or the other album of theirs, so don't take my five stars with much weighted importance...because i'm only guessing on the CD's quality."

Then there's this nonendorsement from a person in Japan who goes by the nickname "Big-Donger." This armchair critic has also reviewed the Annie DVD ("fun cute and bright and sunny for the whole family") and the teeny-bopper film What a Girl Wants ("Miss Amanda Bynes is very photogenic and the camera loves her, she will be a superstar, and not just to teens, just wait till she turns 20 or so").

Next Big-Donger sets his sights on the Comets record: "These are not the Comets I meant to purchase thsi music is truly forgettible wishy washy shallow pop rock. Skip this band altogether, and don't make the same mistake, there are so many bands called Comets out there, don't get the wrong one."

One can see how someone who enjoys watching Lizzie McGuire might be disappointed by his purchase of a Comets on Fire CD, but no one would ever accuse the band of being "wishy washy shallow pop rock."

But alas, Comets on Fire are often misperceived, which has to be frustrating for several reasons. First, being constantly compared to Blue Cheer and High Rise must get a little tiresome, as must all the drug jokes, which I myself have made in this here column. Perhaps worst of all, though, is that this band has been orbiting San Francisco for five years, and is just getting its due as a result of signing to indie big shot Sub Pop. Only now are people beginning to see what's been in front of them for so long.

Comets on Fire formed in 1999, put out two records on Alternative Tentacles, and recently released their first Sub Pop offering, Blue Cathedral, to much critical acclaim. I have been studying this heavy band for a while. I have been especially studying the cute Echoplex twiddler, Noel Harmonson, but that's beside the point.

The Comets' brand of rock is dense, layered, and intricate, all cinched together with a belt of solid blues riffs. The drummer, Utrillo Kushner, leads the procession with loud wallops that alternately ape the melody and cross over it. Then there's Harmonson behind his Echoplex, a groovy replay device through which all the band's music is filtered and spat back out in long eerie staccato.

Some people don't get the Comets' appeal, and some of them have a point. After all, the group isn't reinventing psych-rock. But I'll tell you why this band deserves everything it is getting. There are moments on Blue Cathedral when the music is really good. So good that you stop and think, "Hmm, this is good," right before you stop yourself and say, "Yeah, but it's just another heavy psych-rock Man's Ruin knockoff." Then the noise stops, turns back, and moves in an entirely different direction. The next song comes on and it is even heavier than the one previous, but with an undercurrent of folk rock. In short, this is an album, not a record. With each listen, I notice something I didn't catch before.

The other reason this band deserves the hype became apparent during its 15-minute set last Wednesday at 12 Galaxies. It wasn't one of those magic gigs where the crowd was transfixed, or the band sailed off into an improvised set that could never be duplicated. There have been better Comets shows. But what didn't change was the band itself: scruffy, irreverent, and almost autistic in its focus. Maybe it was my perception of Harmonson, soaking up everyone's playing, tweaking it and then shooting it back out, that made me realize what separates some bands from others: These guys are real musicians; it wafts off them like vapor. A band like the Briefs, which I like, can dress up as mod rock as it wants, but I don't get the feeling the guitarist has ever fallen asleep with a Fender Strat in his bed.

When the Comets had finished and the Fernet had worn off, I brushed past a kid who had come up here from Santa Cruz to see them. He was kvetching to his friend about how the show wasn't what he expected. I was too tired to listen more intently but not surprised at the sentiment -- it was a simple case of misperception, and therefore psychedelic.

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