A military-base-colored 1989 Ford Club Wagon rounds the soft corner at the foot of Griffith Park in Los Angeles: Steely Dan on the stereo; Comets On Fire vocalist/guitarist Ethan Miller at the wheel. Bassist Ben Flashman, guitarist Ben Chasny, Echo Electronics wizard Noel Von Harmonson and drummer Utrillo (pronounced oo-Tree-oh) Kushner in the back. A 12-pack of (regrettably) Republican beer stashed behind the seat. Kushner produces a magnum of Russian red from his rucksack. In an impressive display of prestidigitation, half of it disappears down his neck almost instantly.
“Dude, is that a DILF?”
The Comets are high above the Griffith Park Observatory now, within Jai Alai-chucking distance of the Hollywood sign. Kushner’s pants are around his ankles, naked ass crack to the breeze. The Bens—Chas and Flash—seem alternately amused and embarrassed by his behavior, though they readily admit that public urination is (occasionally) a cross we all have to bear. Chas keeps watch for small children and/or their parents—or anyone, for that matter, who might come around the bend at any moment, their idyllic Saturday afternoon hike in The Hills violated by the harrowing sight of a free-balling, booze-soaked maniac in a gaudy Hawaiian shirt and No Pants. “Family time,” Miller says, urging Utrillo to close up shop. A helicopter materializes from the clouds overhead. Harmonson laughs, takes a pull on his (non-Republican) beer, and waits for The Fuzz to arrive.
Is that freedom rock, man? Well… why not?
Harnessing the most crucial elements of freeform classic rock, AM gold, and the never-ending, occasionally psychotropic possibilities of their combined instrumentation, Comets On Fire have returned with their fourth full-length recording to date. Avatar—the seven-song, 46-minute follow-up to the band’s critically lauded 2004 Sub Pop debut, Blue Cathedral—is like that long-lost psych-gem from 1973 that the janitor found under a trapdoor at Electric Ladyland, only without all the dust and, like, tape degeneration. Recorded in the shadow of a chicken farm at Prairie Sun Studios in Cotati, California (Tom Waits recorded Bone Machine there, dude) with Fucking Champs guitarist and perennial studio sorcerer Tim Green (Melvins, Pearls & Brass, etc.), Avatar is a Hammond-enhanced journey to the center of the riff that basks in the fuzzy outer limits of rock’s myriad extrapolations before swooping down, hawk-like, for the long slow goodbye. Whereas Blue Cathedral reveled in the reverb-soaked pleasures of lysergic garage freakouts, feedback witchery, and action-rock improv, Avatar is the result of nine months of fastidious planning, each glorious note and honeyed melody carefully coaxed to its harmonic ideal. The Comets still improvise—and “freak out”—of course (in fact, the new songs are already being reworked in real time when the band plays live), but when you hear the beatific piano ballad “Lucifer’s Memory” and euphoric closer “Hatched Upon the Age,” you’ll understand why Avatar had to be laid to tape just so. It is, in a word (okay, three), totally fucking sweet.
In the years since the release of Blue Cathedral, the Comets’ achievements—both together and individually—have been many: The band performed live demonstrations both foreign and domestic (with the likes of Growing, Wolf Eyes, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.), recorded split LPs with Burning Star Core, upended Arthurfest in Los Angeles, and received an invitation (from Mudhoney, no less) to play this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in the UK. Meanwhile, Chas re-affirmed his status as a fully ordained folk champion with the release of Six Organs Of Admittance’s School of the Flower (its successor is already on the way); Ethan joined forces with John Moloney of Sunburned Hand of the Man to record the forthcoming Howlin’ Rain album; Utrillo got his Bill Fay/Procol Harum on with Colossal Yes, and Noel went temporarily solo (and totally batshit) with Noel Von Harmonson’s Born on the Fourth Of July.
Collectively, they are the Comets. As always, the Comets are:
Ethan Miller: guitar, vox
Ben Chasny: guitar
Ben Flashman: bass
Noel Harmonson: Echo Electronics, drums
Utrillo Kushner: drums, piano