(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Recording review - Wax Fang, The Astronaut (2014)

Expanding a stoner masterpiece

The psychoactive duo behind Wax Fang, Scott Carney and Jacob Heustis, laid the groundwork for this concept album when they released the nearly 17 minute mind-expanding excursion of "The Astronaut: Part 1" back in 2010. While not completely idle since then, I get the sense that they may have thought the song was sufficient on its own. It's a stoner masterpiece that takes liberal inspiration from the Pink Floyd catalog and alloys it with a neo-psychedelic expansiveness. Still, while the band passed the time releasing an EP in 2012 and some digital singles last year, this project was percolating in their brains. Their two prong approach builds on the original vision, but refuses to limit the musical sources they draw upon. The net result is a three movement headspace opera with instrumental bridge tracks that contribute to the story. By not putting all of their day-glo eggs in a single basket, Wax Fang makes an artistic impact well beyond mere trippiness. Still, big fans of the first track might pine for a little more of that headiness by the time they get near the end of the album.

The Astronaut should come with a warning sticker, "Warning, that first step is a big one." The track opens with a simple preface that sets up an epic theme, full of art rock pomp. After asserting that motif, the band shows off one of their showpiece moves: a sharp dynamic drop, this time setting up the preface riff again along with the vocals. The quiet setting creates the mood for Carney to begin his story, "The stars don't want to shine on me/ It's just a waste of time and energy." Broken up by short, heavy crunches, it doesn't take long to get straight to the point, "Here I am in space/ I don't want to be here." Carney's voice is brittle and vulnerable as his reluctant astronaut pleas for help. The processional starting riff is back and it evolves into long, singing vibrato notes. The warm distortion creates a nice psychedelic edge. When the inevitable drop-off comes, we're deposited into a staccato bass tension, with spots of anoxia darkness encoded as wisps of backmasked guitar hum. This uneasy calm cues us that we're at cusp of a truly bad trip; disquieting sounds creep in from all directions. Wave after wave hits and the tension rises ever higher. It's like the meltdown section of Pink Floyd's "One of These Days", right before the single distorted line and following scream, but here the moment is prolonged and never hits that cathartic release. Eventually, as the drums pound out an irregular pulse of terror and the fearful thoughts circle, a descending thread of guitar meanders like the drone melody of "The End" by The Doors. It finds a thin reserve of strength and rises into looping raga line. Order is asserted at some level and a plan is coalescing. As we wonder if there is still a chance of success, of escape, the knife edge suspense breaks and a wild tsunami of acid-soaked lead guitar surfs forward. The guitar is overtaken by a wailing sax solo that cuts through the heavy drive. The tune hits warp speed and faces unfathomable mystery. The song finally runs into a choppy close that suggests dominoes falling before grinding to a halt. Yeah, it's epic.

The second track, "The Event Horizon", is a brief bit of experimental noise that sets up the next act, "The Astronaut: Part 2". Instead of falling back into the same headspace as the opening, this track showcases percussion, anchored with a tribal beat of tom and kick. The insistent rhythm partners with a distorted bass and Carney tosses out words as vocal jabs, "Time/ Does/ Not/ Exist." The choppy verses alternate with choruses that are packed with histrionic emotion. The message here is a mix of confrontation and suffering. This sounds much more modern than the initial track; the neo-psychedelic arrangement and busy rhythm foster a more dance-centric form of ego surrender.

If Act II was about pain and defiance, the final installment is all about transcendence. Introduced by the electronic gypsy idyll of "The Singularity", "The Astronaut: Part 3" is not necessarily cheerful, but our astronaut has become astral. "Across the plane of no escape/ Forces of gravity, I've come apart" leads to "Is this really happening/ I feel my body reassembling." The music offers yet another flavor, relying on a solid groove that reminds me of "Del Shannon's "Runaway" dressed up in paisley. As the track builds to its conclusion, our narrator may have been transformed and lifted into a new state, but his sense of loss undercuts his initial wonder. With this finale for The Astronaut, Wax Fang provides a partial resolution that satisfies without trivializing their tale.

All told, the band has done a good job of reinterpreting "2001: A Space Odyssey", adding their own twists. While "The Astronaut: Part 1" hit my sweet spot, I've come to appreciate the band's musical decision not to plow that same ground over. Just as the story evolves, Wax Fang lets the music find the right connection points to support their narrative. It's a worthy ride to infinity and beyond!

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