I’m sure the members of Tia Carrera (not to be confused with actress/rocker Tia Carrere) are sick of being saddled with the “retro” label in nearly every review. But it’s hard not to expound on the band’s antiquated tendencies. Not because Tia Carrera has made a career out of long, swirling jams that would’ve been as welcome at the Fillmore in 1970 as they are today; no, I’m leaving the band’s wah-riddled solos, meandering bass lines, and seismic drumming out of this. It’s because of the band’s ethos. The members are dedicated to making music something it hasn’t been in decades: fun and interesting.
Let’s start with this EP’s packaging, which shows Tia Carrera to be a hell of a lot sharper than most other groups. Whether or not they’ve read Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, the band clearly understands that the medium is the message. Heaven/Hell‘s cover is an eye-catcher, but more intrigue waits inside: The liner notes and the text on the disc’s surface are backward. That doesn’t mean much musically, but anyone who wants to decipher this prose must stand in front of a mirror. What was the last band that actually made you do something besides shell out money or clap at predetermined intervals? I only wish Peter Grant was still alive to negotiate an unlimited packaging budget for the boys; can you imagine scratch and sniff LPs?
If you do, in fact, track down a mirror, you’ll learn that the entire EP (it’s about a half-hour long) was recorded on one reel of one-inch tape. That means there were no overdubs, do-overs, or pitch corrections involved in its creation. It also means the band is exposed, warts and all, as the members’ infectious enthusiasm reveals itself in their playing.
Drummer Erik Conn and bassist Jamey Simms (filling in for a touring Andrew Duplantis) — together comprising one of the more formidable-sounding rhythm sections today — paint the ideal backdrop for some of Jason Morales’s most expressive guitar playing to date. There is a moment near the midsection of the EP’s first cut, “Heaven,” when Morales abandons delay-assisted chordal repetition for a tasty passage of face-melting shred, and then it’s gone, just as our appetites have been whetted. This same artistic restraint exhibits itself throughout Heaven/Hell.
That song is unlike anything I’ve heard from Tia Carrera. Previously it seemed as though each member was free to improvise his portion of the performance as long as the group eventually coalesced at a series of transcendent moments of musical harmony, but “Heaven” finds the band sounding like a well-tied braid. Here, Tia Carrera sounds more contrived than ever, and I can’t help but love it.
But that song’s natural foil, “Hell,” is my favorite. It’s undeniably darker and more akin to the band’s previous work, but what impresses me most is the band’s willingness to take chances. After a decidedly quiet passage that finds Morales’s guitar sweeping left to right and back several times, the band executes a perfect transition into one of its bounciest rhythms to date. This new beat ushers in one of the most delectable solos since Clapton was competing with Yahweh for followers. And with the comparatively brief fireworks display that is “End of Tape,” the band proves it is possible to create a concept album without drifting off on the river Styx.
I’m presupposing here, but I don’t believe the members of Tia Carrera are the least bit interested in making a dime off of Heaven/Hell, nor do I believe they’re seeking radio play or a Grammy nod. But in continuing to make truly exciting music, they’ve earned something more precious than bullets or gold-plated Gramophones: unwavering respect from their fans.