By Kevin Hainey"We’re all kind of interested to see how the press are going to react to our new direction, but then again, that’s just what you need to do when the press get hold of you — sit back and watch — because they do whatever they want.”
Noel Harmonson, the echo-electronics processing wizard who treats and adds atmosphere to the heavy psychedelic rock sounds of Comets on Fire, is concerned about the opinions of music critics because so many rushed in to support and praise this Oakland- and San Francisco-based band’s last opus, 2004’s Blue Cathedral. But where that album stuck its balls to the wall in a hellfire of raging retro-rock incineration, the five-piece’s latest, Avatar, often prefers to calmly smoke a cigarillo while propping its snakeskin boots up on the fence between tenderness and brawn.
Much like the image the band’s name brings to mind, Comets on Fire like to keep forging ahead, blazing new trails in their wake, and it’s safe to assume their fans will be open enough to embrace these changes, even if the notoriously fickle and single-minded music critics out there decide to opine otherwise.
"Every record’s been different than the record before, and that’s the only thing that’s kind of intentional, just us wanting to move in different directions,” says Harmonson. "We incorporated a lot more of Utrillo [Kushner’s] piano, just because that’s kind of what we started doing. We weren’t really feeling like we needed to write a new handful of totally raging rock songs because we’ve kind of done that a few times. The piano thing was introduced on Blue Cathedral, and we had a few new ones, and some of the other guitar-oriented songs [on Avatar] are just a little more earthy. The guitars are clean on a lot of songs on this record, it’s just like a weird direction. We knew we wanted to move in a different direction. I don’t know if we knew it was going to turn out the way it did, but it’s really representative of what we’ve been jamming the last two years.”
Their fourth full-length since forming in Santa Cruz in 1999, Avatar is not only a bold step in a new direction, but their most meticulously composed creative statement to date, effectively widening their sonic and songwriting palettes while keeping the heart and soul of the band (hard psychedelic rock riff-fests peppered with ’60s garage and ’70s prog influences) vitally intact. All things considered, Avatar took some time to create.
"We work really slow. On the one hand because we’re critics [of] ourselves and each other, we’re all five bullshit detectors to a degree, so in one way it sort of distils everything that we write, while on the other hand it also slows down the process a lot,” says Harmonson. "Furthermore, we operate as almost a total democracy, like a five-person equal playing field situation where people will write parts and bring them in, but rarely does anybody bring a song in and have it written start to finish. It’ll never stay that way; it always goes through some sort of overhaul through changes. We didn’t want to rush anything, but we’re also all working day jobs, so it’s not like we’re spending five days a week of the last two years just messing around with songs.”
Avatar’s stellar results were well worth the hard work. "Everybody loves it so far. Or at least they’re telling us that.”