Comets on Fire Avatar

[Sub Pop; 2006]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: noise, experimental rock
Others: Hair Police, Flaherty-Corsano, Mike Shiflet, Tony Conrad

"Live well and with love friends. May your times be good ones." Comets on Fire have been scrawling this benediction in their liner notes for a few years now, but too many of their listeners and critics have been ignoring it. For all of their turbocharged psychedelia and echoplexed moon howling, this Bay Area fivesome's last three widely released full-lengths — this one, Blue Cathedral, and Field Recordings from the Sun — have, in their most passionate moments, clamored for Emerson's transcendence and the Apostle Paul's peace that surpasseth all understanding. Even at the heights of their bombast and ridiculousness, Comets' records escape cock-strumming, knuckle-dragging boys' club ungainliness, and not because these dudes are too smart for that or too self-aware or too obtuse, but because they want everything, to hash out the awesome and shitty aspects of being an American white dude living under the auspice of an empire's impending decline, and then to cast all of those questions into oblivion. Comets make rock music that leaves no stone unturned, that values incoherence and mythic arc equally.

While Avatar is, by this definition, a typical Comets on Fire album, it abandons the free-form volcanic activity that's acted as the beginning and end of casual listeners' engagements with the group's previous releases. We can no longer point to brainstorms of scuzz and fuzz to pad our arguments for Comets as schlong-slapping dude-ists or rock's saviors; whatever your take on the band, Avatar asks you to reconsider it as the men behind it flail and fly through sublimely-structured songs, honest-to-the-gods compositions that fall somewhere between the best stuff by Procol Harum (drummer Utrillo Kushner's favorite band) and the eye-of-the-storm jams on The Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East.

That's not to say that these guys have simmered down or started moseying down the path to making their own American Beauty. If anything, the formalist approach gives the band more range: laid back passages are more watery and seductive, scorching blowouts more gratifying and sincere. There's more variety in each players' musical language as well, making for the band's most dynamic songs yet. "Lucifer's Memory" asks frontman Ethan Miller to sing (as opposed to wailing into the void) in unison with a hard-drinking piano melody and wistful organ accompaniment during its verse, then forces him to gut his soul during its climax, and tuneful firework show grandiose and baroque enough to make a lyric like "Goodbye to the century" work. Elsewhere, guitars and electronics wiggle between abnegating fuck-noise and fresh air ambience over a gun smoke groove in "Jay Bird," while instrumental "Sour Smoke" country fries John Cale and Terry Riley's Church of Anthrax.

If there's anything to lament about Avatar, it's that its moves towards accessibility, narrative, and more diverse pastures probably won't help to broaden Comets' fanbase. Grow as they might, it doesn't look like Comets on Fire have it in them to make The Album of a Generation; instead they'll journey further into classic rock's backwoods and bring about even more unlikely stylistic collisions. As long as they peddle absurdity as profundity and vice versa, folks are going to read Comets as cartoons, throwbacks, or worse. But that's okay for a band that wishes its listeners good times and happy hearts; music this earnest lights candles in its listeners' souls instead of setting off massive explosions. What so many peg as pulverizing and powerful is really quite graceful.

1. Dogwood Rust
2. Jay Bird
3. Lucifer's Memory
4. The Swallow's Eye
5. Holy Teeth
6. Sour Smoke
7. Hatched Upon the Age