Removed from the cultural context of the ‘60s and ‘70s, modern audiences often miss the true spirit of the early psychedelic movement. People in today’s society see the movement as being dominated by the activities of its members, such as music-making or drug use, and, in so doing, they miss the larger picture. Psychedelia was about more than trippy songs and chemical substances; it was about expanding consciousness, intense experimentation, and, ultimately, total freedom. The majority of people do not understand this concept, so they represent the movement with endeavors such as Pink Floyd laser light shows. However, a select few people, such as the members of Comets on Fire, do have a deep understanding of psychedelia, and they pay tribute to the movement with modern rock masterpieces such as their latest album, Avatar.
The members of Comets on Fire hail from Santa Cruz, California, and they have put out four full-length albums in the past five years. Thanks to these albums, the band has gained a reputation for groovy psychedelic freakouts. On Avatar, they uphold this reputation with wild sections such as those found in the middle of “Jaybird”, which finds a Zeppelinesque riff, experimental noise-guitar leads, furiously pounding drums, and a hyperkinetic echoplex effects unit all competing for attention. Although moments like these are consistent with expectations, many elements of the latest album will be unfamiliar to those who know the Comets’ previous work. The first of these is a softer dynamic, which is evidenced by the tender piano and subdued arrangements of songs like “Lucifer’s Memory” and “Hatched Upon the Age”. The second is a more refined compositional approach. Avatar displays more focused songwriting and more mature arrangements than any previous Comets on Fire album.
After hearing the softer moments of Avatar, some critics might say that the members of Comets on Fire are losing their edge and abandoning their roots. The band members have not dismissed psychedelia; they are simply viewing it through a different lens. They are now channeling the Grateful Dead in addition to Blue Cheer. Those still not convinced that the Comets on Fire still rock as hard as ever need only check out the scorching “Holy Teeth” to be convinced of their error. This song proves that describing Avatar by calling it Comets on Fire’s tamest release is about as helpful as describing Ulysses by saying it makes for easier reading than Finnegan’s Wake.
All in all, Avatar is truly an exceptional record. It contains genuinely surprising music, and, in light of Comets on Fire’s history of experimentation, that is no small feat. The most ardent fans might not favor the new styles of music on Avatar, but they shouldn’t deny that the band executes them with skill and style. At the very least, the band’s quest to incorporate new elements into their sound jives with the old psychedelic ideal of consciousness expansion. In an article in Mojo magazine, band member Noel Harmonson said that the members of Comets on Fire “believe psychedelic rock is the most transcendental music”. On Avatar, they have succeeded in transcending expectations, and that is, in and of itself, quite an accomplishment.