Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound might sound like the name of a strange cult, or a hippie collective (if there’s a difference between those two choices), but what Manzanita, the band’s third album for Tee Pee Records, proves is that it’s an institution. This is the term that has presented itself to me lately when faced with a certain type of jam-heavy psychedelic band. Assemble Head has instituted a solid sound and stuck with it. You might think that when using “jam” or “psych” to describe a band, it would indicate that the musicians search for far out sounds or experiment in some way — or at the very least, improvise. But today’s psych band is shackled to tradition. What tends to occur, and Assemble Head is no exception, is that a few previous examples of the genre get hewn together to forge a “unique” take on the standard sound and the band stays in that comfort zone. Don’t mess with the trademark.
Now this isn’t to say that the band isn’t good at what it does, or that the album isn’t good. But at this point, mid-tempo spacerock is really middle of the road, and there’s a market glut of likeminded acts. Maybe these guys know that no one really likes a wanky jam band — your audience will pigeonhole you, so to stay cohesive, you keep it safe. Give each song a little guitar freak out, some gnarly organs, but stay on the path most trodden.
Manzanita opens up full tilt and pretty much stays there for its entire forty-something minutes. “L.A. Sacrifice” has rollicking organs, busy bass, and nice raw guitar chords. The interplay among the instruments sounds great and creates a seamless comfort, like a shag carpet, for each brooding track. Though Charlie Saufley’s lead vocals are strong, they are constantly downplayed on the album, muddled in dampness, until whatever melody he sings all but disappears. Though, as the first track notes, Assemble Head incorporates the girth of an old LA band, their sound is ultimately more in line with the band’s native San Francisco, like a thickened, flatter Jefferson Airplane or Moby Grape.
The second song, “(Gone) ‘Round the Corner”, attempts a sonic shift. The full picture onslaught falls back in favor of a single note guitar lick and rockabilly one/two drums that delve into a country-tinged moaner. It’s like they dial back the stoner rock for a moment, to call up a contemporary take on Byrds country rock (think Beachwood Sparks). But each song on the album begins like in the same way, with a slight shift in sound, only to drown itself in the thick mess of reverb that overlays every instrument, in particular the vocals. “Slithery Thing” could be a power-pop song until the band edges out any texture. On “Green Meadow Slowdown”, the vocals are almost clean for a time, and it turns out that Saufley has that mournful drawl of “Under the Bridge” era Anthony Keidis, but you wouldn’t know that. The reverb cannot be resisted. And thus all of the catchy elements, the beautiful guitar licks, the touches of unforgettable melodes, deaden into a swampy mess of déjà vu.
If the band scaled back a bit, they would be clear compatriots of other San Francisco drone denizens, Wooden Shjips. But Assemble Head, true to the cultish name, layers over all the subtlety with a soup of California rock tropes. Assemble Head tries to change it up. These guys mean well. The songs begin brighter or utilize different piano sounds. But the safe territory constantly beckons, where everyone can band together, huddled in the warmth of reverb and blanketed chords. In the end, Manzanita is literally a solid album, a block from start to finish, leaving nothing to catch hold of. If you want thick-legged, long haired, knowledgable rock and roll, here you go. It won’t hurt you. But it won’t blow your mind either. You might not even remember it after listening to it, even if you’re not stoned.