Comets on Fire - Avatar (Sub Pop) by Keith Boyd 09.20.06
Santa Cruz is a strange and wonderful place. Visually, it brings together the best that California has to offer. There are mighty redwoods, warped and grasping cypress trees, a jagged, jigsaw puzzle coastline, and fresh-breezy air. Everywhere you look there are gorgeous and funkified Victorian style houses. There are freaky-hip cafes where you can find info and conversation on anything from the latest Central American politics to alien visitations. The people of Santa Cruz seem to revel in this stew of dichotomies. The old and the new. The freakish and the straight. They exude a cheerful, Artful Dodger-ishness in their interactions with you.
Whenever I've visited Santa Cruz, I am always struck by the wild rage of interesting folks I meet. Lesbian anthropologist fire-jugglers, paraplegic lawyer triathletes, tree-hugging dirt-worshiping witches, punk rock Buddhist monks. Its as though every colorful, intelligent and provocative lifestyle has been blown by the wind to this city on a hill, where it swirls into a kaleidoscope of patched-together clothing that the residents don and become. Sure, its a college town. That accounts for some of the energy, but not nearly all. There is something in the land, air, and water that acts as an attractor and generator for the freak impulse. Along with this freak-power, multicolored paradigm, there is a darker side. Santa Cruz has always had a big Neo-Nazi scene, and it tends toward the violent, with attacks on homeless people and various races. There are also darker occult elements in Santa Cruz. Satanism has tapped it's cloven hoof through the woods and various New Age cults have cycled through, leaving in their wake hollowed out and needy people.
Given these drastic juxtapositions and jarring dualities, it only makes sense that Santa Cruz is where the band, Comets on Fire, is from. Their music is a bundle of beautiful constructs and contradictions. Layered and textured yet driving and direct, noisy and dynamic but meditative and engrossing. On their new album, Avatar , they bring it all together and not only burn down the house, they take out the whole block.
Avatar is, simply put, an amazing disk. It comes out of the corner swinging with the track, "Dogwood Rust." The music starts abruptly and almost seems to come on mid-take. This disassociative quality snaps you to attention and gives you the feeling that you've arrived at a party late, opened the door, and the band is wailing away in some supernatural, eternal slipstream. Avatar manages to showcase some "Comets" trademarks (echoplex and percussion-driven freakouts) while bringing forward some new ideas. The first of these is the 1970's stadium rock vibe. Singer Ethan Miller's voice channels equal parts Robert Plant and western character actor Gabby Hayes. The other new element is song structure. While most previous releases have tended toward the impromptu, Avatar has a more defined, song-based approach. These are both excellent developments. The 70's rock is never so bombastic as to recall Styx or Kansas. Rather, it takes those big sounds and uses them as a seasoning. The songs give shape and direction to the chaos, making it all the more effective and devastating. The playing is exceptional throughout. In a complete listen, you hear condensed aspects of punk, folk, ballads, epics, and hard rock. Ethan Miller and Ben Chasny are remarkable guitarists. On several tracks, you get the impression of an autistic Carlos Santana, cranking out John Coltrane licks, while playing along with an acid-soaked Moby Grape.
When the album ends (as abruptly and mid-sentence as it begins) you're left wanting more. The music feels as though it could go on for hours. They hit several peaks where Navajo rhythms collide with Krautrock and Spaghetti Western melodies. Avatar is a wonderful and potent freak-dream of a listen. Comets on Fire indeed!