Comets on Fire

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Walking into the Comets on Fire pre-Christmas bash at 12 Galaxies in SF’s Mission District, there’s a slight, although not overwhelming, feel of camaraderie. Here were the boys of the hometown sort, who had muddied their way up from the coast located at the bottom of the Santa Cruz mountains just a few years ago and were now making highly visible, highly praised cosmic dirt rock. Maybe not for the masses, but for a big enough selection of underground rock cognoscenti to make them contenders in the game. What game? I have no idea. But I’m here and the band is milling around and the vibe is like that of a house party.

The band doesn’t actually roll onstage until nearly midnight, leaving openers Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound and Crime in Choir to get everyone geared up. Assemble Head come on against a surge of liquid lights, deftly maneuvered by a female assistant (girlfriend?). She’s literally three feet from the stage and I am reminded of my high school geometry teacher, who did most of his work on one of these same projectors. I get an idea for a video in which the band perform their jams on a projected screen while a stuffy teacher type seems to be manipulating the images. Didn’t say it was a good idea.

The band is heavy into the psych rock fuzz and noise barrage of classic 60s warhorses, but have the painted howl of early Spacemen 3 and there’s a guy making karate motions in front of a Theremin. It’s definitely on the right track, but if we want to qualify something as either “hinged” or “unhinged,” the band are definitely still bolted to the door.

Crime in Choir are a different beast. They come out and immediately jump into about an hour’s worth of saxophone-led, skronky prog-rock. It is totally fascinating and it completely rules. Many people say they sound like Magma, but I haven’t heard Magma. I have heard Soft Machine’s third record, and I can definitely hear that. They jump from tempo to tempo, fall back on these heavy, double-time rhythms and are basically a lean, mean progressive machine. They trim all the unwanted fat away. Nothing is too indulgent or too ridiculous. You can imagine briefly the faint possibility of what it could have been like if punk rock didn’t happen and, although this is impossible, things got better instead of worse.

Comets on Fire, however, provide no such window for reflection. They are distinctly fed on punk’s nihilism and assault, but also born and bred on the classic rock choogle. They are not 3 seconds in and everybody seems to be playing with such intensity and ferociousness that it seems like they were already playing when we got here. Ethan Miller wracks his entire frame when he tilts his head into the mic and screams, not with rage, but with a seeming desire to howl at the moon. He’s John Fogerty and the Sonics’ Gerry Roslie all in one package. The band kick through “Dogwood Rust” and “Sour Smoke” from Avatar. There is so much hair and sweat on the stage, it’s briefly comical. Add in the small amount of room the band have on said stage, throw in Ben Chasny and Ethan Miller’s clashing guitar necks and the setting is ripe for a Keystone Cops sort of mishap. But it doesn’t happen. The only laughs come when Miller tries to coerce Chasny into a Christmas tune. Thoughts come into my head that we are about to get a Six Organs of Admittance-style take on “O Tannenbaum,” but nothing comes up of it. Throughout all of this, drummer Utrillo Kushner is the key. What could be hinged to domesticity becomes unhinged and dead-set on driving through the cosmos thanks to his relentless attack. Sure, the echoplex is in effect during this show, but it’s Kushner who helps bring the group’s vision to life. As the band set off into a Hawkwind, Neu!-like metronomic, encore-free finale, there’s a general unspoken consensus that we’ve all been briefly levitated, maybe just a fraction of an inch, but I swear it happened.

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