[11 April 2007]
Now, I wasn’t born in time to have caught the ‘60s the first time around, so I didn’t get to wander San Francisco at the height of the psychedelic music scene. I didn’t get to hang out at Haight Ashbury or catch a show at the Fillmore Auditorium during its hey day, when bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead would regularly grace the stage. I’ll never know exactly what those experience were like. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was a lot like listening to the Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound.
The Californian trio—composed of Jefferson Marshall, Charlie Saufley and a fellow who likes to call himself Sunburst 3—proudly display their influences on Ekranoplan. The group’s second record, but first to be widely distributed, the album is filled from start to finish with San Francisco-styled psychedelic jam rock. It’s thickly layered music, with wildly riffing guitars and rumbling drums matched step for step by the bass, with the occasional droning keyboard added to the mix, or a distant classic rock vocal calling out above it all. It’s the kind of music that asks you to just sit back and let it all wash over you. It’s not trying to push the envelope or change the world, it’s just trying to rock. And for the most part, it does.
That’s particularly true of tracks like “Mosquito Lantern” and “Occult Roots” which try for more than just a faithful recreation of the ‘60s sound. These songs feature a more aggressive edge to the Assemble Head’s music not shared by most flower power-era jam bands—something a little more Black Sabbath or the MC5, and a little less the non-threatening vibe of a band like the Grateful Dead. As easy as it to picture the band on stage at the Fillmore, it’s not that hard to think of them at a sold-out stadium show in 1970s Detroit, playing the roll of rock gods to T-shirt-wearing stoner kids who listen to the album in their parents’ basement. As much as this is music for people who like to use the word “groovy”, it could equally appeal to those who prefer terms like “shred” and who spell the word “rock” with an “a” and a “w”.
The common link between the two is drugs. And when it comes to the Assemble Head, it’s for good reason—one gets the distinct impression that Ekranoplan is meant to be a drug-friendly album. (There are signs: if the psychedelic band name or the trippy sweep of the music itself doesn’t convince you, then there’s the design of the album cover, featuring disembodied heads with lasers coming out of their eyes hanging in the air above a futuristic city, with a boiling volcano in the background, the face of a devil appearing in the clouds overhead, and a bigfoot-infested forest filled with snakes in the foreground.) And to be honest, listening to it on drugs might not be such a bad idea (don’t do drugs). Otherwise, the music can seem to drag on a little. Like any jam band, the Assemble Head’s central flaw is that they don’t always know when to stop, letting an uninteresting piece of song go on too long. While they do limit the longest track to just over six minutes (and most are under four), nearly half of the record’s nine tracks are instrumentals, and even the songs that do have vocals tend to also have long stretches of nothing but music (in “Occult Roots”, for instance, it takes more than two minutes for the vocals to first appear in a four minute song). It might not strike fans of the genre as a drawback, but it does limit the record’s appeal—those who find themselves drawn to music by the melody and lyrics will have a harder time falling in love with the band.
Something tells me, though, that the Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound won’t mind that too much. With an album that doesn’t try to hide its influences or reach beyond them, this is a group that doesn’t seem overly concerned with what the reaction to their music will be. These boys play straightforward rock and roll for the fun of it. This isn’t music to be analyzed or scrutinized or listened to too closely. It just is what is—and sometimes that’s good enough.