Monster Magnet: Cobras and Fire (The Mastermind Redux)

Monster Magnet re-imagine one of their existing albums for the second time in two years, playing up the psychedelia without sacrificing the heaviness.
Monster Magnet
Cobras and Fire

Last time we heard from Monster Magnet they were remaking their 2013 album The Last Patrol as if it had been recorded in 1968. Milking the Stars turned up the band’s psychedelic tendencies, changed recording techniques, and even found the band creating entirely new songs. Just over a year later, Cobras and Fire gives a similar treatment to the band’s previous studio album, 2010’s Mastermind. This time around, there’s no ‘60s conceit to the project, although the band’s meandering psychedelic side is once again the overwhelming focus of the project.

You wouldn’t know it from the first two tracks of Cobras and Fire, though. The album opens with “She Digs That Hole”, which recasts the song “Dig That Hole” as something completely different. “Dig That Hole” was a slow-build rocker with lyrics about reality TV, pill-popping, and vacant-eyed American consumerism. “She Digs That Hole” takes the same song and brightens it up sonically with clean electric guitar in the verses, then changes the lyrics into a ridiculously heightened sex fantasy involving a girlfriend who regularly brings other women into the bedroom.

With lyrics like, “On a mountain of poon / by the light of the moon” and “So have a baby / And make her just like you / And then maybe / We’ll have something to do / When I come back here / In 18 years!” the song is impossible to take seriously, but it rocks hard. Similarly, “Watch Me Fade”, a bonus track on the original Mastermind, is mostly the same song except for adding a prominent Farfisa organ part. The Farfisa has a similar effect to the clean guitar on “She Digs That Hole”, in that it’s a relatively small change that brightens the song considerably.

Once the band gets to the new version of “Mastermind”, though, everything starts to stretch out. The first take of the song was a five-minute slab of sludge rock. This version retains the basic riff of the song and the lyrcs. But it lasts six and a half minutes, adds an organ part, and throws in an extended jam at the end with a false fade out that goes completely quiet for about five seconds before the jam fades back in for a final 45 seconds. “Hallucination Bomb” began its life as the heavy, fuzzed out five and a half minute opener of Mastermind. Here, the fuzz and crunch is traded for strings and a sitar tone and the lyrics are tweaked to emphasize the hallucinations.

Oh, and the song goes on for over nine minutes as the guitars trade licks and the rhythm section just lays on the hard rock groove. Surprisingly, Monster Magnet manages to make this very long jam session work for over seven minutes before it starts to become tiresome. And despite the bulk of the album containing songs that extend single ideas for over six minutes, it’s a breezy listen.

Maybe a listener just has to be on the band’s wavelength for Cobras and Fire to be this effective. Dave Wyndorf and company have had mined a very specific style that incorporates influences from early ‘70s heavy metal, ‘60s psychedelic rock, and science fiction and fantasy settings into a heavy, heavy hard rock sound. Extended pysch-rock jams aren’t going to be for everyone. But Wyndorf’s lyrical and vocal swagger, the band’s command of riffs, and especially their head-bobbing grooves keep Monster Magnet entertaining even when they’re pushing the boundaries of song length.

The seven-minute “Gods and Punks” drifts along, using (almost) the same lyrics and melody as the original, but tamping down the intensity (no drums) and letting a spacey guitar solo dominate the back half of the track. “Time Machine” is an interesting experiment that takes one of Mastermind’s most affecting songs lyrically (about a stranded and depressed time traveler) and turning it into an instrumental. Fortunately, the instrumental bed of the song is strong enough to hold up to this treatment, but it’s one of the few tracks on the album that seems like a legitimate step down from the original. Most are worthwhile reimaginings of the Mastermind versions.

The two most audacious songs on the album both come near the end. I’m not sure anybody was hankering for a seven and a half-minute hard rock cover of the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” (which, from its title alone, already sounds like a Monster Magnet song) but the band’s take on the song is certainly not unwelcome. If nothing else, it’s nice to hear a voice other than Wyndorf’s on backing vocals here. It’s a nice little bonus for longtime fans that that backing voice belongs to original, long-departed Monster Magnet drummer/vocalist Tim Cronin. This is a high energy take on the song that lets bassist Jim Baglino shine as much as the guitarists, and the arrangement could easily pass for a Monster Magnet original if it wasn’t for the lyrics being close, but not close enough to Wyndorf’s usual style.

Then there’s the closer “I Live Behind the Paradise Machine”, which finds mixer Joe Barresi doing a remix that combines elements from several different Monster Magnet tracks into one spacey nine-minute piece. It’s weird, but Barresi clearly knows the band inside and out, because the track fits right in with all the other extended takes on the album.

While it’s a bit unusual for a rock band to do a remix album (let alone its own remix album) Monster Magnet, with their penchant for spaciness and psychedelia, seems uniquely suited to the task. Technically, this is called “The Mastermind Redux” but it essentially serves the same purpose as a remix album. These alternate takes expand and recontextualize the songs without purporting to be an improvement on the original tracks. It’s probably a little late in Monster Magnet’s career to see them gaining a new audience with an album like this, but their existing fans should be quite pleased by the results of Cobras and Fire.

RATING 7 / 10