So isolate we shall: Choogle is a debauched form of white-boy boogie, after white-boy boogie drank too much Old Crow and fell asleep on his deck, listening to Grand Funk Railroad. Choogle has a nasty sunburn and a hangover, but he's still ready to party, and he makes frequent appearances on the Assemble Head's new album of voraciously freaky psychedelia, Ekranoplan. Released on the venerable Tee Pee label, AHISS's sophomore record occasionally out-Comets the Comets on Fire, ripping through Stooges-style thuggery, the fried garage-pop of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, dusty Neil Young melancholy, and a bit of Jim Morrison's goofball apocalyptics.
The album roars out of the gate with the title track, which features a wigged-out theremin over wailing guitars and a vibrado-laden keyboard. Vocalist Charlie Saufley howls incomprehensibly about ... "Fuckin' relationships, man," suggests reedy guitarist Jefferson Marshall. Saufley corrects him: "No, it's all pretty visual," and Lardas counters, "It's not all Star Trek jokes, is it?"
Hopefully not, but Assemble Head does look to old sci-fi ("the cheap kind," notes Saufley) for aesthetic guidance. "There was a great period of sci-fi in the late '60s that was pretty dystopian," says the frontman. "There's all these cautionary tales of what happens when you go nuts, when mankind goes nuts. Which is all obviously pretty relevant today. But then it offers a way out." This kind of torrid psych music certainly sounds, at its best, like mankind going nuts. "Occult Roots," for example, gives the marching orders for a drugged-up zombie army, with a commanding twin-guitar riff giving way to squalling chaos as the monsters cut loose on Main Street.
It's not all mutant insurrection on Ekranoplan, though. "We were having soft rock moments," says Saufly, admitting a love of David Crosby and Fleetwood Mac that informed the album's quieter songs. "The Morning Maiden" is a spacey, half-time choogler that's decadent and warm, with gentle acoustic guitar giving way to dire electro-jamming and lamenting, last-man-on-Earth ooh-ooh-oohs. "I love the idea of being on a cavernous space freighter, plunging into the sun and collapsing under the weight of gravity," says Saufley, summing up the album's general vibe. "Imagine you're alone, and [our band's] along and we're playing you a gig our last glorious supper on this giant abandoned space freighter, just before we're ripped asunder in the gravity of giant planets. That's what we're going for."
Visions of apocalypse are never far from any good California artist's mind, and it's not just the looming threat of a game-over earthquake that darkens brows. We're living at the ass-end of the country, where the American ideal is pushed to all its absurd limits, and looking around you get a good picture of what the end will look like: airbrushed, feng shui'd, nourished by organic produce and strawberry-flavored cocaine. It's not pretty, but it's fun to make art from. Sixties-revivalist bands like AHISS and Comets take pleasure in soundtracking the meltdown, making backward-gazing, portentous, raucously bummed-out music with a West Coast angle and a fiercely positive view of contemporary songwriting capabilities. The music also takes an ironic delight in going over the top, in the sheer idiot pleasure of riding the snake like Jim Morrison in the Mohave.
"What I love about what's happening with a lot of our kindred spirits," says Saufley, "is [how] the bands have struck the balance between having a sense of humor about ourselves, which I think San Francisco generally seems to lack, and actually being serious and aspirational about art; trying to create something really genuine and spiritually informed that's still a little tongue-in-cheek."
This band probably wouldn't exist if hadn't been for the first Comets on Fire record. After being introduced by Saufley to Comet's Blue Oyster Cult-meets-Funhouse monster Transmissions From the Sun, Marshall says his belief in good music was reaffirmed. "That record, without overstating the case ... was super-validating," he says. "It made me want to play music again." Comets seem to be losing steam lately, so it's nice to see that if the torch needs passing, they've created their own successors. The Rapture is on, and we need all the documenters we can get.