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S.T. Mikael

Mind of Fire

(Subliminal Sounds; US: 8 Jan 2008; UK: 10 Dec 2007)

There’s a certain unwritten rule in rock music: if you open your album with a song of over nine minutes length, it shouldn’t just be good; it should be untouchably epic. Surely Mercury Rev realized this when beginning their sophomore record with “Meth of a Rockette’s Kick”, an utterly glorious, shimmering psychedelic beauty, balancing jazz swirls and pure white noise in equal measure. Krautrock favorites Can got it right as well: the title track on Future Days may take nearly four minutes to get started, but the haunting melodic line more than rewards the listener’s patience.


And then there’s “My Dream”, the opener to S.T. Mikael’s first release after 11 reclusive years. The bended double-guitar riff tries with all its might to replicate Pink Floyd circa 1973; Mikael sings of “purple lights of knowledge” and monsters released from one’s soul, clumsily steering clear of any semblance of a coherent vocal melody. The song soon drifts into a galloping rhythm reminiscent of Zeppelin’s “Achille’s Last Stand”, the perfect backdrop for Mikael’s dreadfully amelodic fuzz-guitar jamming. As if fashioning himself the anti-Tom Verlaine, Mikael’s solos are devoid of any memorable substance. Indeed, the press release describes the record as “a fantastic voyage that is so mind-twisting and soul-swirling” that it “makes your brain start thinking in those pebble-splash-pond-mind circular expanding waveforms that reveal the password to tomorrow.” As far as I can tell, this puzzling description refers to the fact that the instruments often pan from speaker to speaker in a distinctly gimmicky manner that must have truly blown minds at the dawn of stereophonic recording in the late ‘50s


Clearly, Mikael is harboring a burning desire to create music as wildly psychedelic (forgive the overuse of this word), trippy, and utterly enormous as that of his heroes. With Reine Fiske and Fredrik Björling of Dungen fame on the album, this should be a given. Hell, he even announces his goals quite openly on a spoken interlude: “Crazy ideas. Dissolving time. Free expression. Getting crazy.” Yet somehow, the symphony of wah-wah pedals and organ timbres sounds more gimmicky than “crazy” or mind-expanding, the obvious aural interpretation of song titles like “Wizdom”, “Into Your Mind”, and “Gyrax”. The latter is among the album’s few highlights, with its truly mesmerizing guitar riff and jungle flute effects. The song typifies a common problem on the album: Mikael rarely manages to marry his instrumental grooves to equally engaging vocal melodies. As any jamband-hater can understand, the line between ‘groove’ and ‘song” is terribly wide. “Wizdom” is an even more directionless endeavor, especially considering its seven-minute length. Mikael’s rambling vocals are as melodically incoherent as ever here, and clash quite painfully with the Funkadelic-esque wah guitar. His vocals are difficult to swallow on much of the album, and this coming from a guy with Tom Waits and Joanna Newsom at the top of his Last.fm charts. Mikael, on the other hand, does not have an inherently untraditional voice; he merely has a penchant for irritating over-singing, rarely holding a note steady. Unsurprisingly, the guitar solo again mistakes pure wankery for excitement.


And yet, amid the mess, it’s not all bad. “Into Your Mind” does not stray much from Mikael’s usual bag of tricks, but its infectious falsetto refrain and vaguely Caribbean percussion render it the indisputable high point of the album. And why? Simply because the song nurses a legitimately groovy melody that ebbs, flows, and advances, rather than stagnating into indulgent soloing.


Halfway through the record, Mikael quite literally speaks to the listener in a track as misleading as it is unexpected. “I want to thank you for buying this CD and managing to go through the first part of it, and now I feel that I have to explain certain things for you,” announces the musician in a distinct accent, soon crediting the album’s musicians for successfully “capturing my dreams and visions on recorded sound.” The interlude functions as an introduction to the album’s nine “bonus tracks”, which essentially form S.T. Mikael’s solo album. “There have been times when I’ve been alone a lot,” he explains. “And my music has been played by myself alone, in recordings plunging to the depths of my bedroom dreams. So, I have decided to take you on a travelogue through different moods and soundscapes with the help of my sounds from yesteryears.”


Unfortunately, this “travelogue” is another missed opportunity: stripped of his endless studio trickery and session musicians, Mikael is somehow even more self-indulgent and musically uninviting. “Did You Feel” features Mikael moaning about “microcosmic contacts” atop some rather drab acoustic guitar arpeggios. “Organ Prelude” is as quick and unmemorable as its title suggests (though the same title and description could be applied to “Stroll on Stumblin’ Street” or “Organ Mission of Love”).


Quite simply, the entire nine-track suite proves one thing: S.T. Mikael doesn’t realize that aimless lo-fi noodling and messing around does not constitute a “travelogue through different moods and soundscapes.” It does, however, demonstrate Mind of Fire’s failure to live up to its pretensions of cosmic bliss. This is all the more distressing considering the 11 years it took for the album’s arrival.  Perhaps in another decade or so, Mikael will release an album in which memorable songwriting is favored over psychedelic pandering.

Rating:

Zach Schonfeld is a writer and former associate editor for PopMatters and a reporter for Newsweek. Previously, he was an editorial fellow at The Atlantic Wire and graduated from Wesleyan University, birthplace of Das Racist, MGMT, and the nineteenth-century respiration calorimeter, where he served as the editor of Wesleying, a popular student-life blog. In his spare time, he enjoys visiting presidential birthplaces and teaching his dog to tweet. In addition to PopMatters, his writing has appeared online at Rolling Stone, TIME, Consequence of Sound, The Nation, USA Today College, The Columbia Journalism Review, The Rumpus, Paste Magazine, and the Hartford Courant. He can be reached at zschonfeld(at)gmail(dot)com or on Twitter @zzzzaaaacccchhh.


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