Comets on Fire

Blue Cathedral

(Sub Pop; 2004)

By David M. Goldstein | 18 August 2004

Part of being a music critic involves concocting musical theories and then proceeding to vigorously back them up with flimsy evidence that’s usually no more than a matter of taste. Here’s one for ya: in terms of innovation, rock and roll as we know it peaked in 1970. Surely there have been incredible albums released since then, but just about everything that any aspiring artiste needs to know about the proper building blocks of rawk can be traced to that glorious year and a few years prior. Think about it; The Velvets were effectively finished, The Beatles were broken up, and Led Zeppelin had already begun to unleash their righteous thunder. Has anyone released a better psychedelic pop record than Pet Sounds (1966)? Has anyone ever done more with three chords than The Stooges did with Fun House (1970)? And unless you’re counting Miles’ Live Evil (1970), there has never been a better live rock album than the one Jimi Hendrix made with Band of Gypsies at New York’s Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969. Feel free to poke as many holes into this theory as you like. Perhaps one day I’ll devote an entire article supporting this belief.

A dozen or so listens to Blue Cathedral has me convinced that Comets on Fire probably wouldn’t have too difficult a time agreeing with me here. Had you told me that Blue Cathedral was a 34-year old album unearthed by Lenny Kaye for inclusion on a future Nuggets compilation, I wouldn’t have blinked. This has to do as much with the album’s quality as the fact that every listen immediately calls to mind any number of bands that peaked in the ’68-’70 years, and I’m assuming that Comets on Fire are well aware of this fact. Blue Cathedral offers up a steaming platter rife with the rhythmic propulsion of The MC5, plenty of the wah-pedal that Hendrix had mastered in his final days, the gritty AOR of Blue Cheer and Deep Purple, and even a generous helping of early '70s Zappa, who was arguably a god before he became the patron saint of shit jokes in the '80s. In other words, everything that Homer Simpson listens to when he’s not rocking out to Grand Funk.

As could be expected of a band named Comets on Fire, opener “The Bee and the Crackin’ Egg” makes it immediately clear that subtlety is not the order of the day. We’re immediately thrown a throbbing bassline, a seemingly endless mess of Keith Moon-style drum fills, bracingly loud feedback, and the completely bare-chested, unintelligible vocals of guitarist Ethan Miller, who comes off sounding like the love child of Robert Plant and Ian Gillian (try to imagine he’s singing the chorus to “Highway Star” over any one of the tracks...way fun). Comets on Fire are also notable for using an Echoplex on nearly every song, an old-school device that has the effect of adding ridiculous amounts of echo and delay to the proceedings. The latter instrument seems to be responsible for the '80s Atari game sounds that crop up on roughly half of the tracks; adding a psychedelic spice not unlike the infamous ‘electric jug’ used by the Thirteenth Floor Elevators (best album: 1968's Easter Everywhere).

If you can get through the first minute of “The Bee and the Crackin’ Egg” without turning off your stereo, chances are you’ll enjoy the remainder of Blue Cathedral as nearly every other song proceeds in a similar fashion. The band will quickly introduce a central riff, surround said riff with as many inhuman drum fills and wah-wah licks as possible, and the longer tracks will usually mellow out at some point provided your speakers haven’t already been destroyed. This approach is most effective on album highlight “Whiskey River,” on which the expected chaos gives way to a serene mid-section where the main theme is performed on acoustic guitar and what sounds like a Rhodes. The track unsurprisingly concludes with yet another chaotic portion, this time adding a saxophone to create what’s essentially an homage to Steve Mackay’s bleating on side-B of Fun House.

If there’s a gripe with Blue Cathedral, it stems from the lack of variety amongst its eight tracks, which is more than a little frustrating because when Comets on Fire do opt to dial it down, they’re just as effective. With its cascading organ arpeggios and melodic (!) guitar leads, the instrumental “Pussy Footin’ The Duke” could even be described as pleasant, sounding uncannily like a Frank Zappa tune from the early '70s, and one of the few tracks where it seems like the band had an idea of what the song was going to sound like before they entered the studio. In the Comets’ defense, Blue Cathedral’s second half tweaks the formula to a degree; in particular the organ dirge “Wild Whiskey,” which leads into “Brotherhood of the Harvest,” the requisite creepy, ‘druids around the fire,' acoustic track.

But in true '70s fashion, Comets On Fire have saved the best for last with the ten-minute “Blue Tomb,” a punch-drunk sludgefest calling to mind both Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” and the death throes of a beached whale. The song’s mid-section quiets down to the point where you can actually make out the majority of Ethan Miller’s vocals for once (all about “laying your soul to rest” and “children reborn,” naturally). The introduction to “Blue Tomb” also contains the most satisfyingly classic rock moment on the record: an honest to goodness, perched atop your Marshall stack, Fillmore East circa ‘69, RIFF that’s soon accompanied by a snare drum build and the most crashing-est of inevitable cymbal crashes. Huzzah!

Issues of variety aside, it can’t be argued that Blue Cathedral isn't one hell of an exciting rock record, and 2004’s current bearer of the “unabashed '70s throwback that it’s somehow OK for the indie kids to like” award previously held by Brooklyn’s Dead Meadow. But while that band has yet to make a record comparable to the sludgy majesty of their live show (last year’s Shivering King and Others album suffered from horrendous production), Blue Cathedral practically explodes from the speakers. And had Comets On Fire existed in 1970, they too would have been booked at Bill Graham’s legendary Fillmore East, formerly home to mindblowing psychedelic rock shows, now populated by a bank and a cheesy bar catering to faux hipsters called “Ike.” Comets On Fire would have rocked the living fuck out of the place.