Crack in the Cosmic Riff

Comets on Fire's next-level jam-rock.

Comets on Fire's new long player for Sub Pop, Avatar, is irrevocable evidence that the California-bred quintet, which delivered us two of the most scorching psych-rock albums since Blue Cheer dropped Vincebus Eruptum back in '68, has been officially laid to rest. That's right. Long gone are both the bludgeoning primitivism of the group's self-titled debut from 2000 and the white-light fuzz and radiating feedback of CoF's 2002 landmark Field Recordings From the Sun.

As Comets' grizzled soul shouter 'n' wicked axman Ethan Miller recently explained to me, over the course of its first three discs, the group perfected a novel fusion of "raging three chords with improvised solos over the top" and a blown-out production style that was influenced by such Japanese bruisers as High Rise and Mainliner. But with the 2004 release of Comets' third disc, the transitional Blue Cathedral, this potent formula had run its course.

"After the first couple albums," Miller added, "[Ben] Chasny and I started to get sick of trying to create the heaviest, darkest riffs."

So from January to April of this year, Comets on Fire were cooped up in a San Francisco studio with producer Tim Green mulling over what comes next. And the group's answer is an audacious one, to say the absolute least. Instead of doing what Neanderthal rockers are expected to do—rehash what made 'em great to begin with and eventually drift off to that great stoner-rock heaven in the sky—CoF have made the "fortunate mistake" of getting artsy, serious, and wildly ambitious, as Avatar is the death of a lean, mean psych-punk machine and the birth of a jet-fueled jam band noodling into existence a collection of hyperkinetic blues-rock symphonies packed with jazzy chops, sweeping arrangements, mountain-sized pop hooks, rumbling organ drones, and a verbose lyricism bordering on the abstract. In other words, this seven-track song cycle isn't just Comets' self-indulgent masterwork; it's a bona fide epic reveling in its own bombast.

Of course, CoF's margin for error here is fuckin' enormous. A mutation as radical as this is always a high-risk gamble, and in all honesty, Avatar isn't a flawless gem—self-conscious stabs at evolution never are. But it is a mind-blowing document of a group challenging previously established limits while reclaiming several of the more progressive ideas unique to early-'70s rock. Ideas that were lost for decades because the overwhelming majority of modern musicians who play stoner-rock, grunge, and neo-boogie were reared on punk's love for all things amateur, and they've never been skilled enough (nor articulate enough) to progress beyond incessantly cannibalizing the big, dumb rock of Zep, Sabbath, Grand Funk, and the Cheer (all of which are all just so played out).

With the physical yet agile dialogue of Miller's and Chasny's axes setting the tone, Avatar sees virtuosic interplay trump brute force. Stretches of "Jay Bird" invoke the melancholic, minor-key acid dreams of vintage Haight-Ashbury (Quicksilver and the Jefferson Airplane, to be specific), while the manic swing of such extended workouts as "Dogwood Rust" and "Sour Smoke" make it plainly obvious that the Allmans' heady explorations in Southern blues, classical, and Coltrane-inspired free jazz exert a much greater inspiration on Avatar than the simplistic, pile-driving power chords of "Summertime Blues."

What's more, Noel Von Harmonson's shuddering echoplex contraption, which used to just bury the vocals in reverb, has now become a well-placed accent allowing Miller, who possesses a powerful set of pipes, to carry a melody or two instead of simply screaming his brains out. In fact, he's even crooning intelligible, meaningful lyrics like some whiskey-soaked folk-blues storyteller, which is an idea (Miller called it "poetic lyricism in rave up music") that the band—and drummer, pianist, and lyricist Utrillo Kushner in particular—is intentionally reviving.

Not only has Kushner developed a more frenetic style behind the kit (as the new music demands more rhythmic dexterity and less savage pounding), but he has also become Comets' huge fuckin' X-factor. He composed the ornate, impressionistic wordplay for two of the record's highlights: "Lucifer's Memory" and the Cream-of-baroque closer "Hatched Upon the Age." But more importantly, Kushner has fed the breezy, West Coast singer-songwriter aesthetic of his solo project, Colossal Yes, back into the CoF juggernaut. From soaring harmony work to touches of piano bar cabaret, Avatar is the only modern '70s-rock-informed record that I know of (outside of Royal Trux's seminal Sweet Sixteen and Dungen's Ta Det Lungt) that's subtly infused with a neo–Tin Pan Alley sense of craft. And it's this very development—even when it feels a bit too precious—that clearly distinguishes Comets from the hundreds of mediocre stoner-rock acts out there.

Now I still think Field Recordings From the Sun is CoF's best overall record to date; it's a fuckin' beast. However, the great peaks of Avatar have been forged by a swirling psychedelic jam-rock unit that is far more advanced than the group we've come to know and love. So there's no looking back these days because Comets on Fire have indeed blossomed into something really quite spectacular.

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