Comets on Fire
omets on Fire have been underground rock’s best big-dick band since 2001; all of the psycho-sexual analysis about boys and their huge, noisy guitars, their missionary drum beatings, and their ritualistic raping/pillaging/chest-thumping: all true. K-K-K-K-Katmandu or bust, motherfuckers.
If that all makes the Comets sound like he-man simpletons—fine. The best part about early Comets records is that they were unabashedly so. It takes a lot of focus and commitment to unrelentingly spoil and sack. Their moments of relative bliss seemed at best post-coital—at worst they gave off that “it’s quiet—tooooo quiet” feeling. 2004’s Blue Cathedral incorporated enough rumblin’ tumblin’ keyboard runs and peaceful vistas to suggest that the Comets were cooling, but they still seemed more unruly than unsatisfied.
Avatar, then, is the breaking point, the album on which our heroes truly forfeit their reputation as hands-down-their-pants rock mongoloids. A power ballad called “Lucifer’s Memory” tips the scales, and there’s no turning back. Write your own “November Rain” and it’s impossible to return as a baby-eating cockroach dweller. This seems, if nothing else, like a wise career move: One can only mine the negative space between “TV Eye” and, well, “TV Eye” for so long.
The change in approach isn’t as disruptive as it originally appears. Whereas Comets were once amplifying the noisiest bits of “Dark Star,” they’re now amplifying the entirety. Five of Avatar’s seven tracks feature vocals prominently, and where front-mutant Ethan Miller previously gargled light years of reverb, he now lassos his voice into a passable classic rock facility, pouting and preening the verses and roiling a sandpaper screech for the climax. Miller is surprisingly on-key and controlled throughout, his gruff wail tethered to the chords, masculine but not unfeeling.
At the center of this new focus, unfairly lost in the coming-to-a-hipster-near-you “they changed!” tempest, is not only some pretty worthwhile songwriting, but what are unquestionably the most nuanced and skillful compositions the Comets have ever conceived. Quivering prisms, gathered moss, motorik tension all mole their way into the strata; where once was a short, brutish master now lies a patient captain. “Dogwood Rust” opens abruptly with a cruising, confident rhythm section literally ripping the reins from the busybody guitar squiggles. “Jaybird” shares the beatnik flavor, albeit more responsibly, reaching its long arms towards 60’s psychedelia. Their pop sensibilities refined, the Comets finally have an apex to shoot for. “The Swallow’s Eye” almost gets there, too, its sinewy, echoed vocals swept aside by an unrelenting guitar current.
The bluesy numbers—the haughtily straightforward “Lucifer’s Memory” and the closing “Hatched Upon the Age”—are such forceful departures that they’re likely to see most of Avatar’s ink, but they’re easily the album’s least consequential songs, even if they’re the most immediately fulfilling. Despite “Hatched”’s hellish six-string burrowing, there’s little room for progression: these are big, manly classic rock songs, and this is about as well as anyone can imagine Comets playing them.
It is, instead, the band’s shimmering, addled mastery that propels the album, their arrangements more complex, their pop crate-digging more subtle. Avatar shows Comets capable of a level of sophistication and skill previously unconsidered. Their inner rock beasts may be screaming for Bob Seger, but a push toward their druggier, blustery work could yield the loutish classic they’ve been threatening for half a decade. Caked, muscular, sunburnt psychedelia: The blueprint’s been laid.