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Entering Comets on Fire's blazing parallel universes

Wednesday, May 31 2006
The concept behind the supergroup is that it's an impressive music personnel package composed of individual heavyweights. Take Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, for example. Or Blind Faith's reconfiguring of members of Cream and Traffic. Then there's, well, Velvet Revolver — not all supergroups are necessarily super-sounding — scavenged from Guns 'n' Roses and Stone Temple Pilots, or Canadian indie stars the New Pornographers. Since the term's coinage in the '60s, the idea of putting together valued name attractions has made for some interesting collaborations.

But what happens when the theory runs in reverse? When a respected band breaks off into individual solo projects — the mothership releases small crafts and the whole is broken up into parts — can the group still come back together cohesively?

The latter is an idea that's kind of like musicians "seeing other people," where needs left unfulfilled by the main partner get satisfied by outside sources. Usually it happens right around the time of a breakup, as with post-hardcore darlings At the Drive In splintering into the arena-touring Mars Volta and that little band that couldn't, Sparta. Rarely, though, does a modern-day rock act spawn/support multiple strong offshoots that in turn strengthen the whole (with the exception of, say, the aforementioned New Pornographers). But such is the case with local acid rockers Comets on Fire — who, while definitely not existing in Audioslave's stratosphere, are still rising stars who've managed, on the upshoot of their success, to include divergent folk/rock acts, without fraying the bonds that keep them together.

When Comets on Fire first sparked heightened critical interest with 2002's Field Recordings From the Sun, they landed on the underground scene like a 10-ton meteorite. The band laid down complex methods of reducing a listener's gray matter to molten liquid, its sophomore record an intense amalgam of squirrelly feedback and sheer volumous bombast infecting contemplative, folky tranquility. Vocals were mangled and purged through an Echoplex, bass lines rumbled like gigantic chainsaws, guitars squealed and squalled across a landscape of discontent, and drum beats hit the rock-bottom reaches of your gut.

As Comets co-founder/frontman Ethan Miller describes the overriding aesthetic of that album, "It's like here's a riff, here's the vocals, and just blaze it as hard as you can for as long as you fucking can until you've mowed down everything." Field Recordings piqued national acclaim as well as a deal with nationally respected indie label Sub Pop, which released the slightly more nuanced, ballsy Blue Cheer odyssey of a follow-up, Blue Cathedral, in 2004 to rave reviews (Pitchfork gave it a rare 8.5 and Rolling Stone's David Fricke called it "the ultimate howl").

Comets' unique intersection of weighty, outer-limit sounds thrust the act into the epicenter of modern acid rock — a genre growing rapidly in ranks as the veins of Japanese noise bands have been increasingly tapped, channeling uncharted sonic agitations sprawling down from psychedelic forbearers. Comets achieve the sublime through constant calamity and are probably one of the best rock acts in the country because of it.

Blazing a new musical path in this way should provide plenty of artistic outlets for the band members. With the exception of perhaps a cover act (such as drummer Utrillo Kushner's Bob Seger tribute, Total BS) or casual side project, you'd think any steam the musicians want to let off would fuel Comets' fire. But not with this collective. Now they're associated with three fully formed, standalone rock/folk entities (and one solo noise CD; see sidebar), each a testament to the members' skills, all highly praiseworthy stuff that both leavens the nexus of bombast at Comets' center and allows that core to gain complexity as it grows.

For guitarist Ben Chasny, Six Organs of Admittance came before Comets, although he's been revered for his work with both. He launched Six Organs in 1998 and has continued working under that moniker through his absorption into Comets in 2003. This month Chasny releases his eighth proper album as Six Organs, The Sun Awakens, a stunning collection of celestial drone and pastoral instrumentals with stormy undertones of distortion. This summer also welcomes two newborn Comets-related entities — Kushner's lite-rocking, melancholy piano jams under Colossal Yes, and Ethan Miller's van-rattlin', classic rock-riffing Howlin' Rain.

That such a sobriety-leveling, hard-touring force as Comets (who took to the road for two years to promote Cathedral) still leaves room for multiple excursions into musical excellence is a testament to the level of songwriters constituting the band. Two months before the upcoming Comets full-length, Avatar, hits the shelves, we entered the atmosphere of Comets' alternate projects to discover just what makes these important stargazers shine, and to decipher if they still orbit the same collective universe. — Jennifer Maerz

For Your Awesome Rocker Uncle

"If you can make something that tries to overpower, cannibalize, and destroy the last artistic accomplishment you made, then you're probably on a good track to doing something daring," Ethan Miller posits as we sit in the sunshine of the Zeitgeist's back patio. We'd spent the early part of the day dropping off gear at Comets' Cesar Chavez Street practice space with John Moloney — part of free-form experimental freaks Sunburned Hand of the Man who also plays drums in Six Organs of Admittance and Miller's debuting band, Howlin' Rain. Miller has the month off from his day job, and so we wile away an afternoon discussing his musical philosophy — in which what you love most must be constantly uprooted and re-understood.

When Miller and bassist Ben Flashman started Comets in Santa Cruz in 1999, the seed for artistic demolition and rebirth was first planted. "We wanted to do something musically that was hurtful to the [standard rock] music we were doing already," he says over a pint of Hoegaarden. "[With] Blue Cathedral we felt we'd gone as far as we could with Field Recordings, and I wanted to have it attack [Field Recordings] by having piano or something soft." For Miller, delivering knockout blows is a concept of the brain over one of brute force.


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