The Major Stars: Mirror/Messenger

Long mainstays of Boston's improv scene, guitar-crazed Major Stars bust out brutal riffage, behemoth 1960s grooves and blues-y female-centric vocals.

The Major Stars


Label: Drag City
US Release Date: 2007-11-20
UK Release Date: 2007-11-19

Last year, the cops shut down the Major Stars show at the Flywheel in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The police seemed almost apologetic. "This is just unusually loud," I could hear one of them say. No kidding. Wasn't that the point?

Up to that moment, the Major Stars show had been unbelievably awesome, all three guitarist tap-dancing with multiple effects pedals, vocalist Sandra Barrett wrestling her cord mic to the floor and belting out howls of bluesy rock from a supine position. It was a tiny room, awash in sound waves so dense and 1960s psychedelic you could almost see them twist into rainbows. It was overwhelming, a life-changing experience, the reason you go to rock shows... all clichés, but all stubbornly apt under the circumstances.

Mirror/Messenger, the band's sixth full-length and first for Drag City, translates that juggernaut assault into one of the year's most intense and obliterating rock records. It is the second to feature the Major Stars' current line-up, longtime partners Wayne Rogers and Kate Village augmented by Tom Leonard on third guitar, Dave Dougan on bass and Casey Keenan on drums. As on Synoptikon (but not on earlier records like Distant Effect), Sandra Barrett sings, layering a thick woozy element of 1960s classic rock onto the band's feedback-crazed assault.

As an instrumental band, the Major Stars were prone to long, improvisatory excursions, with tracks extending well past the 10-minute mark. Now with a vocalist, they have tightened, shortened and more conventionally structured many of their songs. The first three cuts on Mirror/Messenger all hover around the three-minute mark, suitable, at least in terms of length, for radio play. They are also built around the nexus of riff and verse-chorus, more like songs than freeform freakouts. It is as if, by adding a vocalist with a strong 1960s voice (she sounds a bit like Janis Joplin), the band has transformed itself into a more conventional rock band. A loud one. A good one. But still, a recognizable paradigm.

Of these shorter songs, "Portable Freak Factory" is the best and most brutal. Here Barrett's rich vibrato-laced contralto cuts through head-knocking repetitive riffs and leaves space for staccato, high-pitched guitar duels and dizzying intervals of shred. At the end, she cuts off just before the guitars do leaving the end to that buzzing, subliminal wall of feedback. "East to West", which kicks off the album's second half, is nearly as good, slower, almost lyrical with sweet, viscous guitars that will remind you of later Dinosaur Jr. Barrett holds her notes over impossibly long stretches, the guitars building, the drums crashing as the tone just... continues. Obviously singing over three amplified guitars night after night does something to build the lungs.

The album seems to be divided into two halves, with each closing out in a long, heavy crusher, the first "My People", the second "Mirror/Messenger". "My People" moves glacially, with sludgy grandeur, over extended bouts of feedback interplay and hard, slack-paced drumming. Barrett is singing here, too, wailing really, about dark streets and dangerous people, but she's more in the background. The real point is the guitars, all three of them, weaving dirges feedback and using them as launching points for spiraling, otherworldly solos. "Mirror/Messenger" even better, chugging metallic riffs and feedback drone, expansive, rapid fire soloing and crazed, accelerating drumming... all coalescing into a cut that sounds nothing like the 1960s rock that maybe, just possibly inspired it.

There's nothing wrong with the shorter cuts, but it's in the extended tracks that you hear the band that closed down the Flywheel, brought the cops and, incidentally, blew a small audience away. Think of the quick ones as a Cliff's Notes for newcomers. Hook them in with that, and they'll come around to the real deal sooner or later.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.