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When Miller and bassist Ben Flashman started Comets in Santa Cruz in 1999, the seed for artistic demolition and rebirth was first planted. "We wanted to do something musically that was hurtful to the [standard rock] music we were doing already," he says over a pint of Hoegaarden. "[With] Blue Cathedral we felt we'd gone as far as we could with Field Recordings, and I wanted to have it attack [Field Recordings] by having piano or something soft." For Miller, delivering knockout blows is a concept of the brain over one of brute force.
And so from this theory Howlin' Rain was conceived, with drummer Moloney and childhood pal Ian Gradek (bass, banjo) pulled into the fold for a lightening-quick rehearsal/recording session. If Comets' work is a dense planet of space rock in constant upheaval, Rain is grounded in the salt of the earth. It's a ramblin' man-style ride into a world Miller alternately calls "van rock," something "your awesome rocker uncle would dig," and tunes "you can listen to sitting around in the hot tub drinking beers." In short, Miller craved a respite from the severe pummeling his music usually produces. "I wanted it to sound like pulp novels as opposed to Shakespeare," he explains. This meant making a record that's more populist in concept, though not necessarily pop.
Listen to Howlin' Rain's recently released, eponymous debut on Birdman Records and you can hear a loosening of the reigns of Miller's role in Comets. His guitar riffs still froth into a frenzy, and long codas unfold onto the horizon with ecstatic, rumbling feedback, but clarity reigns over chaos. "The Hanging Heart" is especially dramatic, rolling into a finale of electrical storms, but it also breaks into an ebullient chorus of vocals toward the end. Comets sax player Tim Daly's wail and myriad horn sections cascade through the rock arrangements with golden summertime sentiment breaking up insect-swarm intensity. Those looking for the sack of boulders to the skull will be disarmed here; Howlin' Rain shows at its base a reverence for classic rock simplicity.
Colossal Yes performs Sunday, June 11, at Fernwood Resort in Big Sur as part of the "Three Days of Summer" festival. Admission is $50 for all three days; call (831) 667-2422 or visit www.fernwoodbigsur.com for more info.
Six Organs of Admittance's new album, The Sun Awakens, is out June 13.
Miller takes five from the feral in Howlin' Rain, mostly due to a 360 in his listening habits. A week after we chat, a package from the frontman arrives in the mail furthering this point. After I asked for clues to his current musical inspirations, Miller sends 16 burned CDs of his favorite dollar-bin acquisitions, none of which includes fractured noise terrorists that have come up as Comets' forbears in the past. Instead, there are four pages of Miller's handwritten "liner notes" detailing the music enclosed, a lot of which focuses on harmonic songwriters, spanning from obscure British versions of Crosby, Stills & Nash-style outfits to Buddy Guy, to Steely Dan's first LP and Terry Reid, to other acts referencing Cream, David Crosby, and the Grateful Dead. It's as if all those years of acid casualty carnage has caused Miller to mellow into a slightly more sentimental songwriter.
Howlin' Rain may be Miller's most accessible work, but there's still a roughness to the tracks. Neither the vocals nor the guitar parts are too clean, and there's a driving, live-in-the-studio vibe to the overall aesthetic. "I wanted to make sure it sounded like the pop songs were lying in the mud, and flying around the river with the logs and debris and shit," Miller explains, snacking on nuts from the bar. He describes a "groovy music" backbone littered with guitar solos relics of his instantaneous outbursts in Comets that he won't leave behind. "I like showing what that landscape looks like getting fucking littered with napalm and tearing shit up," he says with a scruffy grin.
The idea of a menacing record is a compelling one for this Northern California native. He appreciates the work of the Allman Brothers' Eat a Peach or the Grateful Dead's Anthem of the Sun, but would rather give that approach fangs than simply wax nostalgic for a retro sound. "I wanted to make a beautiful record [that still] maintains threat. That's something that [Ben] Chasny and I have talked about a lot, where his problem with the Grateful Dead is that there is no threat," Miller says. "When there's threat to the listener, you can't let down your guard, and it keeps you way more engaged."
The most striking element of Howlin' Rain implies more peace than peril, however it's Miller's voice. After years of wicked distortion in Comets, his vocals ring loud and clear as this wine- and whiskey-throated yowler can get. His words tumble forth finely frayed at the edges, with a delivery that can lay things down as sweetly 'n' heavy as Terry Reid or Faces-era Rod Stewart. "My two main assets are the way that I can sing and my lyric-writing, and those are two things controlled by someone else [Echoplex manipulator Noel von Harmonson] in Comets," Miller admits. "Up to this point he's totally destroyed it. It's like, fuck, I worked just as hard and long as anybody to write those lyrics for the Comets records ... which is fine, though, because [the distortion] totally works for Comets." Miller's words gain clarity and content in this new outfit which has carried over into the upcoming Comets record. Avatarturns the vocal distortion down a couple notches to shift Miller's wails between gale forces and distinct song narration.