COMETS ON FIRE: HATCHED UPON THE AGE

 
Juxtapositions of wildly different things are a really important tool to wake us up and move us away from the blob of homogenous shit out there. It might not always come together but you don't get anywhere if you don't fuck up.
-Noel Von Harmonson
 

Avatar

One can hear all these disparate currents flowing together on last year's phenomenal Avatar. Despite hailing from the San Francisco region, Comets has rarely echoed any of their exploratory rock ancestors but on their fourth album they allowed in a few gentle reverberations from the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, and Moby Grape. Something like the perception shifting mojo of the late '60s infuses things, especially the slower cuts which they all refer to as "piano jams." While one hesitates to call anything less than a year old a classic, Avatar has all the makings of a record that'll be well regarded for decades to come.

"We dedicated ourselves to the process of refining our music this time," says Miller. "The first album had no refinement. We literally put those riffs together in one day and by the end of the afternoon we were drunk, sittin' there with a tape in our hand. With Field Recordings, we got the stuff together with little time before the studio. In fact, a lot of those songs have become more refined, even if the jams are actually longer and more open-ended live. For Avatar, we basically stopped playing live last year and just worked on refining the new songs. We've always tried to do something different for each record and this was a technique we hadn't tried yet – nailing the songs before we went into the studio."

Chasny continues, "We definitely spent more time on this record than any in the past. We were writing for months, meticulously taking parts out and putting them in. It was pretty ridiculous really. The recording process itself was much longer than before. We took our time with it, and I'm glad we did. It's an internal process. You're looking inside yourself. [Studio work] is an extremely abstract concept. That's why it's important to concentrate on the music. I never really think about people listening to it. It's just important to make a good record."


Comets On Fire
Opener "Dogwood Rust" is like something hurtled from space that lands smack dab on your head. Like "The Bee and The Cracking Egg," which starts the previous album, you're immersed in their world before you can even take a breath. Miller says, "I have a natural instinct to put an intro or warm-up but I think that's a bad instinct. I like the way Blue Cathedral and Avatar open up. You drop the needle and here we go!"

However, the abrupt start to "Dogwood Rust" was an accident. "Everyone thought it sounded like it began in the middle of the song. It really wasn't meant to," explains Miller. "We talked about doing a quick fade-up or something to ease it but in mixing we just forgot. It's a happy accident, a rough edge that ends up being a defining moment. Nine out of ten of the best moments on any great record are happy accidents. In the digital age, I think a lot of musicians don't let this stuff happen. It's easier to get the perfect take with digital tools. With tape rolling you keep more of what happens. You don't strive for perfection so much as the essence of what you had in mind."

On the "piano jams," Kushner comments, "Blue Cathedral was the first time I had a couple keyboard songs. I think we might have even been hard up for material or something [laughs]. It was a little scary. I'm always at home making up little songs, and some of its best that it doesn't get out in the world." Bassist Ben Flashman says, "Utrillo wrote those songs and presented them to us. He asked us to participate in honing them into Comets songs. I think we treaded a bit more lightly than we would on a raging guitar song, but just because we thought it was appropriate."


Noel Von Harmonson - Comets On Fire
The most striking of these piano-oriented pieces is "Lucifer's Memory," which comes off like some lost, extra golden Procol Harum masterpiece. Miller says, "[Utrillo] certainly qualifies as obsessed with Procol Harum. His favorite everything is in Procol Harum – favorite drummer, favorite lyricist, etc. When Utrillo came into the band during Field Recordings he was already obsessed with Procol Harum. We'd heard a little bit but no one else really understood it. Now, here we are recording Avatar and everybody is into Procol Harum. You start investigating after you have that bond and trust. When you know somebody's mind and respect the way it works, you start seeing this band makes great jams that feel loose and freewheeling but everything is so architecturally perfect and beautiful. Just the most majestic songs."

It wasn't until after they'd settled on the album's title that they became aware that the word "avatar" was associated with online gaming and social activities. "None of us are ever in chat rooms or any of that bullshit. Then someone brought it up and we found out it has modern Internet connotations," says a disdainful Chasny. "We were thinking more of the Hindu gods but that's cool. I've been joking that our next record should be called Emoticon. We're really not that much of a throwback but it just never occurred to us."

A reoccurring theme in reviews for Avatar is how the band has mellowed. Critics cite the increased clarity of the vocals this time around as well as the piano material. To a one, Comets reject this idea completely. Flashman barks, "Whoever writes the one-sheet says it's more accessible and everyone runs with that [laughs]. I have the feeling that half the people who review it never even listen to the record." Von Harmonson adds, "It's a pretty linear path. Record to record we've always tried to do something different. If you were paying attention you would have seen this record coming."

"No matter how well you can hear the vocals, even on the piano jams, Comets is not really sing-a-long music," says Miller. "Utrillo and I write the lyrics in a fairly abstract, esoteric way. Also, when I sing, I don't often do straight, repeating vocal melodies. I do a more free-form thing. The places we draw inspiration from often come out sounding nothing like the inspiration. Like, I got a lot of vocal ideas on Avatar from Steely Dan and CSN. What I produced harmony-wise is nothing like them because those guys are geniuses. I was just trying to get the harmonies into the proper pitch. The more I try to do with my singing the more I learn of the millions of ways there are to fuck it up [laughs]."


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