Last year, the cops shut down the Major Stars show at the Flywheel in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The police seemed almost apologetic. “This is just unusually loud,” I could hear one of them say. No kidding. Wasn’t that the point?
Up to that moment, the Major Stars show had been unbelievably awesome, all three guitarist tap-dancing with multiple effects pedals, vocalist Sandra Barrett wrestling her cord mic to the floor and belting out howls of bluesy rock from a supine position. It was a tiny room, awash in sound waves so dense and 1960s psychedelic you could almost see them twist into rainbows. It was overwhelming, a life-changing experience, the reason you go to rock shows… all clichés, but all stubbornly apt under the circumstances.
Mirror/Messenger, the band’s sixth full-length and first for Drag City, translates that juggernaut assault into one of the year’s most intense and obliterating rock records. It is the second to feature the Major Stars’ current line-up, longtime partners Wayne Rogers and Kate Village augmented by Tom Leonard on third guitar, Dave Dougan on bass and Casey Keenan on drums. As on Synoptikon (but not on earlier records like Distant Effect), Sandra Barrett sings, layering a thick woozy element of 1960s classic rock onto the band’s feedback-crazed assault.
As an instrumental band, the Major Stars were prone to long, improvisatory excursions, with tracks extending well past the 10-minute mark. Now with a vocalist, they have tightened, shortened and more conventionally structured many of their songs. The first three cuts on Mirror/Messenger all hover around the three-minute mark, suitable, at least in terms of length, for radio play. They are also built around the nexus of riff and verse-chorus, more like songs than freeform freakouts. It is as if, by adding a vocalist with a strong 1960s voice (she sounds a bit like Janis Joplin), the band has transformed itself into a more conventional rock band. A loud one. A good one. But still, a recognizable paradigm.
Of these shorter songs, “Portable Freak Factory” is the best and most brutal. Here Barrett’s rich vibrato-laced contralto cuts through head-knocking repetitive riffs and leaves space for staccato, high-pitched guitar duels and dizzying intervals of shred. At the end, she cuts off just before the guitars do leaving the end to that buzzing, subliminal wall of feedback. “East to West”, which kicks off the album’s second half, is nearly as good, slower, almost lyrical with sweet, viscous guitars that will remind you of later Dinosaur Jr. Barrett holds her notes over impossibly long stretches, the guitars building, the drums crashing as the tone just… continues. Obviously singing over three amplified guitars night after night does something to build the lungs.
The album seems to be divided into two halves, with each closing out in a long, heavy crusher, the first “My People”, the second “Mirror/Messenger”. “My People” moves glacially, with sludgy grandeur, over extended bouts of feedback interplay and hard, slack-paced drumming. Barrett is singing here, too, wailing really, about dark streets and dangerous people, but she’s more in the background. The real point is the guitars, all three of them, weaving dirges feedback and using them as launching points for spiraling, otherworldly solos. “Mirror/Messenger” even better, chugging metallic riffs and feedback drone, expansive, rapid fire soloing and crazed, accelerating drumming… all coalescing into a cut that sounds nothing like the 1960s rock that maybe, just possibly inspired it.
There’s nothing wrong with the shorter cuts, but it’s in the extended tracks that you hear the band that closed down the Flywheel, brought the cops and, incidentally, blew a small audience away. Think of the quick ones as a Cliff’s Notes for newcomers. Hook them in with that, and they’ll come around to the real deal sooner or later.