[8 September 2013]
With lavish packaging thanks to a two-ton letterpress—an iconic feature of elegant releases by pioneering Independent Project Records—this compilation from a Los Angeles underground band of the late 1980s begins IPR’s re-launch of its eclectic label. Bruce Licher (Savage Republic, Scenic) created stunning record covers for his label, signing Camper Van Beethoven for its first three albums. Licher also designed my wedding invitations; his hand-fed vintage press, then at the stolid old Nate Starkman building downtown, represented an artistic presence a quarter-century ahead of loft revivals in that industrial district.
Industry churned around IPR’s first band, Licher’s post-punk Savage Republic. Yet label mates, such as Red Temple Spirits, weaved Roky Erickson and Syd Barrett with The Cure and early goth to create a tribal post-psychedelic ambiance that meshed well with the direction Licher and his colleagues took as the grittier experimentation of their own bands merged with a more expansive, or arid, setting. This led to IPR (today in Bishop, California, near the other end of the desert) relocating to the New Age mecca of Sedona, Arizona. There, half of RTS also moved, logically.
First, however, chanting William Faircloth (a 1960s singer who had emigrated from England), fronted Dino Paredes (bass), Thomas Pierek (drums), and Dallas Taylor (guitar). These musicians had stints in post-punk and goth-experimental local bands. Together they recorded two LPs (separately included in this re-issue with glassine wrappers) in cardboard printed covers evoking bold red and sandstone hues of Tibetan iconography. Dancing to Restore an Eclipsed Moon, from 1988, rests on Pierek’s spare percussion. Taylor’s guitar recalls Robert Smith’s mid-1980s Cure patterns, as Paredes’ bass provides an understated foundation. Over this usually unhurried but sporadically restless backing, Faircloth declaims his lyrics of spiritual solace and social unease.
The songs flow well. There may not be much distinction in mood, but as with albums meant to be heard as a whole, the atmosphere wafts along for the first four tracks of the debut. “Dreamings Ending” asserts itself more forcefully, akin to a more up-tempo track from The Cure’s Pornography. Rather than imitating that band, RTS relies on Faircloth’s preference for simpler declamation than Smith’s wails and whoops. This panoramic tone suits the swirl or, more often, the spareness.
RTS favors a mid-tempo pace, allowing it to swoop over a flat terrain of images and sensations. It can roil, as on “Moonlight”, or saunter, as on “Where Merlin Played” or “Exorcism/Waiting for the Sun”. Fans of Julian Cope’s similar explorations of pagan and occluded culture may like these choices, too. Yet, RTS does not employ keyboards, and sticking to the basic guitar-bass-drums lineup (Faircloth is credited for percussion), keeps the band grounded instead of pursuing the space-rock of its forebears.
Still, Pink Floyd’s “The Nile Song” serves as a well-chosen and faithful cover, demonstrating RTS can assert itself, and Fairchild can project himself above his previous, usually softer delivery. This continues with “Lost in Dreaming” and “Light of Christ/This Hollow Ground”. Listeners of stoner rock such as Om might find congenial company on these tracks, which roam the same stark landscape.
At over an hour, Dancing feels as epic as albums by the aforementioned Om. A bonus track, the first version of the colonialist-immigrant conflict related as “New Land” (which had been issued as a benefit for Tibet House) keeps the energy upbeat for the second half of this well-sequenced album. Fairchild doesn’t command the mike, and this may be the album’s one shortcoming. Unlike Robert Smith, Roky Erickson, or Roger Waters, Faircloth remains a more understated presence.
1989’s If Tomorrow I Were Leaving for Lhasa, I Wouldn’t Stay a Minute More may not reflect that city’s politically fraught status under communist rule, but it does reflect the dissatisfaction with one’s existence at the heart of the Buddhist teachings. Faircloth’s songs continue to explore restlessness. The slightly brighter production moves along the album (nearly as long as the first, although supplemented now by two bonus tracks, one another take on “New Land”) but the shinier gloss, and busier instrumentation, for all its accessibility, keeps the first album’s resolute stance of yearning.
Again, the first half of a RTS album sustains a mood. “A Black Rain” opens with more tension, which is needed. Taylor’s guitar finally comes alive in “Meltdown” and “Confusion”; it’s good to have Faircloth back a peppier melody that’s Middle-Eastern tinged (as are some Camper Van Beethoven and Savage Republic material, notably). After the slow burn of “Rainbow’s End”, another appropriate Pink Floyd cover appears in “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”. Roky Erickson’s 13th Floor Elevators, an apparent influence on RTS (if a muted one), had a spirited song in “Rollercoaster”. Dispensing with the electric jug oddness of the original, the band’s perkier take allows the post-punk roots of its instrumentalists to show, creating a sharper version that must have sounded great live. For once, RTS strips off the burnished hue of its tunes to promote more energy.
Bonus track “Exodus from Lhasa” uses effects to create more distance; “New Land” here shimmies in punkier fashion, again a nice surprise. Four 1987 “live demo” recordings are included in early pressings. “Light of Christ” and “Hallowed Ground” either by intent or chance find the vocals phased or lapsed for intriguing alternatives.
Akin to chant or ritual, this hypnotic post-punk conjures a sameness at times that fails to belie its variety and subtlety. Edgy and jittery, RTS’ sound connects to one’s inner state, subject to alteration and mood swings. Red Temple Spirits summons up voices as an electronic shaman.