Comets On Fire: Psych Band Harmonizes Its Spheres

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When MAGNET phones Ethan Miller on a Sunday afternoon, we expect to find the ringleader of Bay Area cosmic-rock radicals Comets On Fire strung out on his floor, wasting away in a broken lava-lamp puddle resulting from the previous night’s ’shroom bender. What we don’t expect is to find Miller out shopping at Target.

“Everybody needs paper towels and dog food,” he sheepishly explains.

And everybody needs Comets On Fire to remind us of that startling, life-altering moment when we heard rock ’n’ roll for the first time. The same live-wire shock that jolted Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano bench, Iggy Pop’s bloody torso and Mudhoney’s BigMuff pedal courses through 2002’s Field Recordings Of The Sun and 2004’s Blue Cathedral, modern psych/punk classics that exploded space-rock stereotypes into meteor-shower splatters of noise.

“There’s no attempt to hold back on anything,” says Miller. “We’re trying to turn it into the most incendiary fury we can.”

Comets’ core nucleus is undergoing a period of mutation. This spring saw the release of no fewer than four records from the members’ various extracurricular projects: the self-titled debut by Miller’s Howlin Rain (wherein the guitarist is reborn to boogie like an adopted Allman Brother), Acapulco Roughs (the first release by drummer Utrillo Kushner’s piano-pop persona Colossal Yes), Born On The Fourth Of July (a collection of electronic-noise terror by resident Echoplex expert Noel Harmonson) and, of course, The Sun Awakens (the seventh album of drone/folk meditations by guitarist Ben Chasny’s Six Organs Of Admittance).

It’s also becoming more difficult to distinguish the mothership from its satellites. Comets’ new album, Avatar (Sub Pop), dabbles in the laid-back jams heard on the Howlin Rain album. In elemental terms, Avatar is the sound of Rain cooling Fire: With Harmonson’s Echoplex effects relegated to a background role, Miller’s suicide shriek is laid bare as a surprisingly soulful rasp, while Comets’ usual kamikaze flight path has been rerouted into more controlled ebbs and flows. The magma-rock eruptions on “Dogwood Rust” and “The Swallow’s Eye” are as fearsome as anything in the band’s canon, but the vibe here is less Altamont, more Monterey.

“We watched a lot of documentaries, like one about the making of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and went about it with those techniques of album-making and bringing a whole lot of foundations together architecturally,” says Miller. “Blue Cathedral was like, ‘Let’s hook our trailers up in the trailer park, create a hurricane and see what our little town looks like after that.’ With Avatar, we were like, ‘If we’re going to make an album full of melodies and actual vocals that isn’t just crazed-out Echoplex stuff, let’s make it as perfect as we can get it.’”

In other words: a record that, in a perfect world, your average Target shopper could love.

—Stuart Berman