The first track on Mondo Drag’s new LP, Occultation of the Light, is called “Initiation”, and its opening moments brought to mind the final song of The Doors’ studio output – that is, of course, “Riders on the Storm”. Superficially, some similarities are obvious, beginning with a whisper-quiet combination of an electric organ motif and some very graceful cymbal strokes, but I think that a broader aesthetic connection prevails, in that this song – and in fact this album – conjures up The Lizard King himself by virtue of its being a rather shamanistic work. Some heavy psych bands bring to the mind’s eye visions of the outermost reaches of time and space, others evoke hazy sunshine and vibrant shrubbery, but Mondo Drag is of the ilk that puts its listener beneath the endlessly star-pocked night sky, and dangerously close to the pyres of some ancient, totemistic desert ceremony.
“Initiation” is built on a wonderful 6/8 groove – in other words, a DUM dum dum DUM dum dum – and I don’t know if too many bands have ever used that time signature so effectively and efficiently. Left alone, the continual surge on the accented 1 and 4 counts builds up a throbbing, hypnotic pulse, which is deliberate if not slow. Yet when they want to, Mondo Drag can cook with butter, and before you know it that same careful pulse has accelerated into something far more frantic, far more explosive. But wait, there’s more – after the solos they change the whole damn thing to a 5/4! It’s wizardry of the highest order.
But let’s talk about those solos before we move on, because they are anything but the unfortunate filler that jammy solos can easily be. This first song alone has a handful of great solos, all with purpose and all contributing to a completely believable final product. There are two consecutive guitar solos: one uses a slide to create vast, sweeping sounds that are as wide as the desert horizon, while the 2nd jumps right up out of nowhere like flames leaping up from the top of a suddenly incensed campfire, and then launches into some rather gnarly phrygian incantations. If we are paying attention, by the time get to the keyboard solo we will have noticed that that 6/8 groove has been building and building in intensity, and just when it’s about to erupt they launch into that aforementioned 5/4, for another (!) guitar solo.
Yes, on paper it sounds like too much soloing, but I can’t say enough about how good this band is at capturing the feeling of a live performance, even on a studio recording. Such a lengthy procession of solos typically makes far more sense if you’re in a live audience (and preferably stoned), watching a band get themselves further and further down the rabbit hole, yet it’s very difficult to retain that same interest when it’s on a studio album – there’s nothing to look at, it’s not as loud, there’s not that wonderful sense of improvisation and spontaneity, and your chances for a contact high are far lower. Yet Mondo Drag pulls it off; this song dragged me along for its entirety, which speaks volumes not simply for the competence of individual soloists, but even more for their ability to play together as a single unit, constantly and amorphously using collective shifts in volume, tempo, and tonality to keep things interesting throughout.
Man I gotta stop doing this, spending 4 whole paragraphs talking about 1 song and then realizing there’s a whole seven-eighths of the album I still need to talk about. Well, here goes nothing:
- If you don’t hear the riff on “Out of Sight” and think of Black Sabbath’s “A National Acrobat”, you deserve to die.
- “Rising Omen” has an awesome church procession opening which is but one of many instances throughout the album at which keyboardist John Gamino shows a seemingly endless trick bag of styles and sounds.
- “Incendiary Procession” is the proggy instrumental, a la Focus, of the album. Like any good proggy instrumental, it straddles some weird line between gimmicky and epic, but hey, it’s fun. Gamino does the whole John Lord thing at the very end, and it works.
- “The Eye” is a slow, spacey, stone-crawl of a song that eventually ends up as another frantic fire-dance. I was reminded very strongly of some of the more atmospheric passages on Pink Floyd’s sadly undersung soundtrack to the film “More”.
- “In Your Head” is a two-parter. The first has some nice boogie to it, and shows the band once more using its 6/8 secret weapon to wonderful effect. The second half is one loooooong exhale of a monster bong rip.
- When I heard “Dying Light” for the first time I figured it was the album closer because this song gets fucking HEAVY by the end. The bulk of the song is a slow-moving lament, but the last 3 of its almost 8 minutes are all climax. I also gotta give it to drummer Ventura Garcia on this one, because even when the song grooves on a swinging triplet feel, he plays these completely straight fills and shouldn’t fit at all BUT DO.
- “Ride The Sky” might be an unexpected ender (“Dying Light” left some big shoes to fill), but it’s a good ender nonetheless. It’s a fun song, and it rollicks. Why the hell not!?
Most of us think a certain band is good because their albums are good – we like an album, so we decide we like a band. Makes perfect sense, but for us hard determinists the order that things happen isn’t so important, and I feel like this is a good occasion to switch the order around. What the hell am I saying? Well, you might say that Mondo Drag is a good band because they make good albums, but I am here to say that Mondo Drag makes good albums because they are a good band. They play together impeccably well, and on top of that each individual member seems to have a wide and varied arsenal at his disposal. While this album does perpetually retain that shamanistic image of naked fire-dancers in the desert that I got from the first song, it never once begins to feel repetitive or uninteresting. A rewarding listen from start to finish, and a very well executed addition to the heavy psych pantheon.
Occultation of the Light was released on February 26 by the ever-awesome Easy Rider Records. Go here to get your own damn copy.