[17 July 2014]
In what could easily be billed as a match made in modern psychedelic rock heaven, the 2012 Roadburn Festival pairing of Earthless’s rhythm section with the guitar slingers J Mascis and Graham Clise of Heavy Blanket was, by all reports, something to behold. With the release of that night’s recording as In a Dutch Haze, those who weren’t there that April night in Tilburg can now judge for themselves.
To measure the success of a jam session is a daunting task. The parameters of success are different than with a composed work, and require a different kind of empathy and listening from both players and audience. Because of the rhythm section of Mario Rubalcaba and Mike Eginton, In a Dutch Haze has a baseline level that few all-star jams ever even reach. Their work in Earthless is without peer in the psychedelic rock genre. Both live and on record they move as one mind in two bodies, with an almost preternatural sense of give and take and with a supple, elastic, responsiveness. Like the greatest dancers, they support each other’s leaps and spins while returning, time and again, to perfect unison motion. Whether supporting Earthless bandmate Isaiah Mitchell or in this case a couple of Heavy Blanketeers, they ensure a safe landing from the furthest flights of fancy.
Mascis and Clise, like the rhythm section, have an easy rapport from their work together in Witch and Heavy Blanket. Even though their roles may be different in those groups, the empathy and understanding of bandmates is apparent from the get-go. Their tones are separate and distinct. Though it isn’t clear exactly which is which from the record, they don’t step in each other’s footprints nor bleed into each other’s clearly delineated space.
However, the understanding Rubalcaba and Eginton reached with Mitchell over a decade is not the understanding they have with Mascis and Clise on this album. Nor could it be. They’ve learned to let Mitchell fly, but also how to keep him from turning into Icarus. Unfortunately, there’s no time to learn the subtle nods and rhythmic callbacks that would work with the Heavy Blanket guitarists. Once flight is achieved it’s fire up the boosters or let it crash. They’re too good to let it fail.
It all starts so well. The slow build is immaculate, with all involved feeling each other out, listening and reacting as ideas are presented and discarded before an approach is settled on. Tones are tested, adjustments made. It’s the pre-launch checklist, when mission control still has everything in hand. The first firing goes well. The initial burn is optimal, everything releases beautifully. Band and audience are one, and it’s all systems go. For at least the first 10 minutes this is a once in a lifetime kind of jam, a dreamed of pick-up session of masters of their crafts.
But this isn’t 10 or 15 minutes long. It’s an hour. An hour of free-form exploration that inevitably goes off course and has no chance of reaching its destination, assuming one was ever planned for in the first place. Mascis and Clise have plenty of ideas and the skill to execute them, though it sounds that perhaps they hadn’t told each other where those ideas led. Far too often both seem to want to be the trailblazer, and though their sympathies keep them together enough to never fall into a cacophonous clatter, the tension it sometimes brings isn’t a positive one. A few times the rhythm kings are able to assert themselves. Rubalcaba gets insistent around the 23-minute mark with a steady pulse and a series of cymbal crashes, and with the help of Eginton’s repeated bass figure is able to bluntly force the guitarists to regroup. It’s a role he plays in Earthless as well, though with a much greater subtlety than he’s able to display here.
That is the crux of the problem with In a Dutch Haze. It’s far too blunt, with no room for nuance. There are whole sections of magical, transcendent music. Everyone is far too talented for it not to burst forth, over and over again. Alas, it also has too much dross around the gold to hold together over repeated listens. It may in truth have been a magical night, a wondrous show to see. But I guess you had to be there.