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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Recording review - The Myrrors, Arena Negra (2015)

Rich psychedelic details lurk below the desert surface


The desert is a potent symbol. It can be unwelcoming and dangerous even as its solitude can be cleansing. In Michelangelo Antonioni’s jaundiced commentary on late 1960’s counterculture, Zabriskie Point (1970), the desert was a haven offering the possibility of a new start. The Myrrors may be from Arizona, not Death Valley, but their desert psychedelia reflects Antonioni’s sense, taking inspiration from the beauty and surreal feelings found in such a stark environment. Their new release, Arena Negra, captures those facets along with the majesty of wide open spaces and vivid backdrops. The music itself is timeless; free jazz and avant garde contributions keep it from being strictly anchored in the retro golden age of head music, but it avoids the intellectual gamesmanship that often accompanies those approaches.

The album opens with the expansive title track. The twelve minute run time gives The Myrrors plenty of room to slowly ease into the song and develop the feel. It’s fitting that the pensive bass motif at the start evokes Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”, which turned up in Zabriskie Point, albeit under a different name. This intro section, with the bassline supporting the sun glare shimmer of violin and flute drone, taps into the mystery of the desert, especially when the unintelligible chanted vocals join in. The dreamy haze slips away when the drums finally punch their way to the front to drive up the intensity. The band slips into a Velvet Underground guitar raga mode, where they tread the same ground repeatedly, layering in all kinds of noise and subtleties without really moving very far from the initial groove. Guitar dominates as the music turns in on itself, but the flute adds a chaotic flutter, like lizards gazing impassively through heat waves of distortion. The song hangs in that dervish whirl without respite until the last minute and a half, when it gradually retreats from the climax to fall back to the sleepy sway that still lies at the root. Then, it fades like consciousness surrendering to anesthesia before finally winking out.

Just as their music wanders without getting completely lost, The Myrrors have passed through their own twists and eddies. They started during high school, recording a 2008 demo that would take another five years to find a wider audience. By that point, the band had drifted apart with college plans and finding their way into adulthood. Against expectations, they’ve come back together, comfortably falling into old habits but their scope has grown to incorporate world music and a mix of other influences.

Dome House Music” shows off that maturity. Like “Arena Negra”, it starts slow with a meditative repetition, but there’s also a rhythmic complexity that drives the song. The piece is in nine, but the emphasis on the last two beats pulls it off balance, always lurching forward. The track builds inexorably, collecting a buzz of horns that swirl in free jazz riffing and smear together to create a thick wall of tone. When the drums and horns drop away near the end, it’s relief. Nothing of the relentless chaos and tension is left but the resonant hum of guitar, which slowly fades away before the remaining twenty-odd seconds has fully elapsed. Even though “Dome House Music” doesn't conjure a direct set of images, its oppressive sound taps into the darker danger of the badlands, suggesting disorientation and dehydration.

Arena Negra packs a lot into a mere four tunes, but it's a full length release, not an EP. Just as the expanse of the great outdoors is impossible to capture with point and click camera, pop length songs are too short for The Myrrors to paint some of the sonic pictures they want to convey. Instead, they give long play pieces like "The Forward Path" space to evolve and find their way forward. Dewey Bunnell (America) may have said, "In the desert, you can remember your name," in "A Horse With No Name", but The Myrrors don't just find themselves, they discover all kinds of hidden dimensions.

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