Comets on Fire is the band Wolfmother wishes it had the balls to be. Instead, those Aussies take the easy route of appealing to teenage boys in their Zeppelin phase, hipsters who wish they could grow a ‘fro as cool as the lead singer’s, and baby boomer dudes who won’t accept their age and always secretly got a little bit hard when Robert Plant wore those shirts that bared his chest. Certainly both bands draw from the same well of ’60s psych-rock. But where the Wolfies stay shallow, capitalizing on that sound’s poppier, “rock ‘n’ roll” moments, the Comets plunge deep, back beyond the obvious, into Zep’s weirder, darker moments and the realm where you remember that Pink Floyd got its name from two southern bluesmen.
To say that Avatar isn’t as difficult as the Comets’ Blue Cathedral isn’t a dig on the new album. Sure, it might not start as harshly as Cathedral‘s “The Bee and the Cracking End,” but put “Dogwood Rust” on in mixed company and you’re still going to get about half of the people putting fingers in their ears. The song is propelled by a repetitive ascending bass line until, after false power chord ending at the four-minute mark, it becomes more drum driven. The lyrics, as with most songs on the album, sound like lead singer Ethan Miller has ingested some kind of hallucinogenic and is describing its effects on how the landscape looks around him. “Jay Bird” follows suit, with vague references to canyons and hillsides fading out to the sounds of birds chirping.
The first three notes of “Lucifer’s Memory” sound like the Comets are about to launch into Hendrix’s version of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Instead, they drop down into a boozy, bloozy piano ballad the house band in some juke joint in Opelousas or Clarksdale might crank out as its last song before closing time. Miller a couple of times shouts “Let it bleed!” summoning up the Stones’ devilish contribution to the ’60s sound. “The Swallow’s Eye” starts more ethereal, like it might turn into a Kinski track, before grounding itself back in rootsy riffs. “Hole Teeth” is the fastest guitars get on Avatar, approaching almost punk speed.
“Soup Smoke” has the guitars take a backing role to an anxious, tribal, rollicking organ line. The song recalls parts of Zep’s “Wanton Song,” “Trampled Under Foot,” and “In My Time of Dying.” “Hatched Upon the Ape,” the album’s closer, is most successful in melding the Comets sonic fireworks with engaging tunesmithery. After a few listens, you’ll find yourself singing along with the title, even if you can’t figure out what in the hell it means.
About a year ago I was at a staff retreat with the fellow teachers I work with and, music snob that I am, tended to hog the stereo. I tried to stick to playing stuff that was nonabrasive. My one mistake was forgetting that Neutral Milk Hotel’s On Avery Island, mostly filled with fun, fuzzy pop creations, ends with a ten-minute noise drone track. Only a few minutes into it, cries of “Is this music?” began to arise. Those complainers would likely react the same way to Comets on Fire’s New-Weird-America-meets-Old-Weird-America, haunting reverb rock. Bet they’d love Wolfmother, though.
“Dogwood Rust” MP3