By Dennis Cook
Comets On Fire, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Magik Markers :: 08.30.05 :: Blue Lagoon :: Santa Cruz, CA
The sign next to the stage read:
Caution – Dance Area
Watch your step. Floor may be slippery or uneven.
In other words, a space custom-built for the pagan rock incantation of the Magik Markers, Comets On Fire, and Sunburned Hand of the Man. All hard energy and boundary-less exploration, the triple bill made good on Sunburned Hand member Paul Labrecque's pronouncement on the sidewalk before the gig that there would be "balls of white light - pure fucking beauty - crashing through the air."
Comets On Fire
Standing in the blast zone of the hobbled together stage, you could feel that light sear away the banality and domestication of so much music today. These are not bands you'll find chillin' with Carson Daly on TRL, or even rubbing shoulders with the recently anointed Arcade Fire or Sufjan Stevens on public radio. Like all purifying flames, they are a touch terrifying. But nothing that cleanses us from ear hole to shivering epidermis ever arrives without a good initial scare. Like Leonard Cohen said, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."
Do Prophets Speak In Rhymes?
What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
The conjuring began with the wailing weirdness of the Magik Markers. I was unfamiliar with them before this night, but the members of the Comets and Hand told me to check out their set. My momma didn't raise no fool, so when some of the most high powered, enlightened musicos around tell me to tune in, I'm there with rabbit ears on.
Magik Markers by Julie Showers
Somewhere between a ghost dance and the DT's, the Markers serve up real punk rock. Not the codified, lockstep of modern punk, but something eviscerating, a disquiet child born of Patti Smith's "Babelogue" – blistering, primal, wisely rambling. You couldn't call what they did "songs" in any traditional sense. It was here and now it's gone – the way of all flesh, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
For just three people, they make quite a racket - using breaths as beats, strangling guitars unwholesomely, pigtails flopping wildly in the will-o-wisp light as bare feet surf effects pedals. There's more than a hint of apocalyptic madness. Instead of numbed-out consumer bliss in these last days, they've opted for something a bit more confrontational. They will not go quietly into this sweet night. Bless them for that.
Count Your Fingers Before Exiting
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What hand dare seize the fire?
Like a rush of water through a mental aqueduct, Vermon's Sunburned Hand of the Man flows so smoothly that you only know you're drowning when the water fills your lungs. Don't worry. They'll lean in and blow you full of life again, leaving you at the edge just long enough to shake you up.
Sunburned Hand of the Man
Often the Hand is a massive noisemaker made up of a dozen or more, but this tour of the Western states was a downsized seven souls. Before their set, several of them expressed their ambivalence about their recent transformation into a rock band. At one point there were five electric guitars moaning simultaneously, so rock it may be, but a kind drunk on ether and mushroom dreams, a wobbly-legged behemoth belching laughter and strange cheer to a rhythmic cadence akin to Can's Jaki Leibzeit, Spike Jones, and Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera. This is Joy Division where the first word is neither ironic nor sunny.
Our host, The Drifter, chanted, "Oh shit, it's that time of the night. Make love to your family. Make love to your wife. Make love to a pistol. Make love to a knife." He offered this creepy pronouncement with the same pearly grin Bertolt Brecht might have shined as he slapped audiences around in Berlin.
Sunburned Hand of the Man
Gourds were tapped, brass buttons depressed (and then cheered up), and a gold disco guitar picked up at Cheap Trick's garage sale bent into strange positions. Like all Sunburned outings, this was unique. They enter in without expectations, so any honest listener should do the same. All preconceptions should be left behind so you arrive unburdened and open to dip of their lick. What the past two years have taught me is they'll always give you ample grist for your mill, but don't expect it to taste the same twice. In Santa Cruz, they harvested husks from the Stooges' free jazz tangents, Sabbath's "The Wizard" minus the blues, and a transformative x-factor inherent to all their work.
Mark Twain used to say that once you know the rules you are free to break them. Doing it consciously rather than by accident is a huge difference. Sunburned Hand don't reject melody, musicianship, and composition. In fact, they are superb players with agile, informed minds, but they choose not to bow before more traditional forms of expression. For them, the moment is all, and the unencumbered exploration of it is paramount. Improvisation is rarely so beefy or amusing, and whatever set of standards they're working from, well, it's getting the job done.
The Fire Next Time
And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?
Poor traumatized fishes. As Comets On Fire cranked up their stardust-powered hurdy gurdy, I watched the inhabitants of the bar-side aquarium seek shelter in corral reefs and plastic seaweed forests, multicolor food flakes spinning in liquid space as they jetted frantically from the overthruster guitar waves crashing against the glass. It's a fear factor embedded in the Comets that produces similar responses from human beings. More than once, I've seen folks physically shrink during the opening notes of their last album, Blue Cathedral. Live, the amplitude is increased three-fold, and the bodies pressed in at The Blue Lagoon twitched just like the fish, except some of their faces held a beatific glow, happy to be cleansed and cracked open, sweat dripping from their frontal lobes.
Comets On Fire
In a nutshell, they sound like an arm-in-arm square dance between Japan's High Rise or Boris, vintage Spirit, and a Pink Floyd that included both Syd Barrett and David Gilmour. Heavy? Yes indeedy. Scary? Lots of the time. Heady? That one you can count on.
Noel Harmonson coaxed blistered black magic from a tower of Echoplexes, discreet bits locked in infinite tape loops sparring with the real-time machinations of bassist Ben Flashman and the viscous guitars of Ben Chasney (Six Organs of Admittance) and Ethan Miller (also on lead vocals). Chasney, in particular, seems to be sooooo into it, a far cry from his frequently effete artiness in Six Organs. Several times the entire band turned to face drummer Utrillo Belcher, heads and shoulders hunkered down, working into things thickly immediate yet ever just out of reach, a buzz you cannot fully name or reproduce in any other setting.
Comets On Fire
I'm still not convinced that Miller sings the same words each time. So distorted, so manipulated and moved are the vocals that almost anything might enter in. Mostly what comes out is a propulsive roar understood more by heart and body than by head. Some numbers bear a resemblance to their studio versions but in a ghostly way. They're clearly not into recreating anything. Perhaps they stick closer to a template than Sunburned Hand or the Magik Markers, but what they do within those margins makes them kindred spirits.
Before the evening got rolling, Ethan Miller compared this line-up to the tour where Faith No More, Guns N' Roses, and Metallica played together. Though the scale is a bit off in several regards, it's pretty bloody apt: three bands with heads full of ideas and the raw power to realize a bunch of them - three collectively inspired units with just enough healthy disrespect for anything that's come before to be truly dangerous. May you burn brightly, you jugglers of white light and pure fucking beauty.
All poetic quotations above from William Blake. May he forgive the usage by a lesser scribe.
JamBase | Santa Cruz
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