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Artist: Comets on Fire

Album: Avatar

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Aug. 2, 2006

Comets on Fire get to sit in a catbird seat of their own making, surveying the landscape of modern psychedelic rock, and the long-haired, bearded (or peasant-skirted), Arthur-approved free spirits that people it, from way up high. They certainly didn’t resurrect this whole she-bang, but it’s their output and their personnel that have put out its most righteous salvos in the front half of the ‘00s; it’s their influences that have hit the most satisfying touchpoints; it’s their high points that rank among the most memorable moments the movement has produced. They set the scene for how much freaking out is acceptable in an album while still maintaining coherence and chops. Their limited-runs and collaborations have been of impossibly high quality, given the scene’s propensity to shovel out numbered editions of horseshit in a bag. In many ways, they have given their blessing to even the most mershed-out examples of ‘70s rock vogue, and their presence alone makes the existence of said bands not only tolerable, but even welcome. 

Upon realizing that this world is not long for those who dick around, here comes Avatar, their most accomplished and astounding album to date. This can’t be said of very many bands’ fourth studio albums, let alone their second ones. Avid music consumers understand how quickly genres and their bands can burn out on themselves, which is why the discipline and personality of Comets on Fire deserves respect, and how the arc of their releases up to Avatar prepared listeners so adequately for what’s let loose here: accomplished songwriting, virtuoso instrumental interplay, and memorable riffs. It’s epic in a well-defined direction, drawing democratically from what made their brand of chaos so worthwhile in the first place, but never toeing the line into retread. Most notably, the freakouts Comets are known for color the songs this time, not the other way around. 

Since 2004’s Blue Cathedral, Ben Chasny continues to release Six Organs of Admittance material; drummer Utrillo Kushner debuted a solo piano-pop project called Colossal Yes; frontman Ethan Miller represented with bushy side project Howlin’ Rain; electronics guru Noel von Harmonsen continued to fuck with minds solo, using a suitcase full of electronics, presumably heisted from the Hawkwind time capsule. What’s astounding is that on Avatar, nobody’s checking any of what made those projects so stunning at the gate. Kushner splits up vocal duties with Miller on two of the seven tracks, stepping behind the keyboard for each turn, adding soul & sweat to complement Miller’s wide-eyed holler and touched space-talk. What you’re hearing on Avatar is the band in its own words and sounds. Nobody’s leading the pack; no pretense gums up these works. You’re hearing camaraderie in place of control, and while this doesn’t always work out for every band, it’s certainly suiting Comets, who play at a level of musicianship far removed from both amateur hour and the boorish mannerisms of those stuck in the tabs of Guitar Player. Everything flows well, sounds natural and intentional. 

The front half of Avatar consists of three lengthier pieces that build in a bloozy, breezy fashion, played with a rigor missing from earlier efforts but never feeling stodgy or out of place; this is where they worked up to, divining fluid guitar jags in between hustling rhythms, working at that peak level of intensity without boiling over. This formula works particularly well on “Jaybird,” a possible descendent from the same waters that graced Aoxomoxoa some 40 years back. The Comets you know and remember – the twitchy, blown-out amphetamine fest, rears its head in the second half of “The Swallow’s Eye” and for all of the brief, frantic “Holy Teeth.” Its presence is felt with resonating authority. “Sour Smoke” moves the band into a largely instrumental terrain, bouncing along to a groovin’ rhythm akin to “Immigrant Song” trapped in a washing machine. Even at nine minutes, attention fails to flag. Moody ballad “Hatched Upon the Age” closes things out, and it’s the kind of jam that makes you want to go back and relive the whole thing all over again. 

No band of Comets’ ilk has made such connections to modernity, and pulled the past forward into the present with grace and panache enough to make it seem like it never went away in the first place. They’re the grounded, fatherly, constantly surprising yin to Dungen’s flashy yang, able to stare through the green smoke of their existence but pay tribute to its presence all the same. Avatar is the work of a band (remember, this is a band, not one dude with a vision) delivering jolts to the cerebral cortex that will last long after most people forget 2006 and the Native American garb and American Apparel short-shorts draped over its fairly dilated pupils.

By Doug Mosurock

Other Reviews of Comets on Fire

Field Recordings From the Sun

Blue Cathedral

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View all articles by Doug Mosurock

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