By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Mazinga Phaser is nothing if not ambitious. Exhausted from a day of intense mixing, producer Matt Castille and four of the six band members are slouching in the bedroom of Castille's home studio. Although fatigued, they're talking enthusiastically, riding that final rush that follows a job well done. Phrases like 'massive cultural enlightenment' and 'new psych-rock explosion for the '90s' enter the conversation casually, so it's no surprise when guitarist Wanz Dover announces the title of the debut album they're working on: Cruising in the Neon Glories of the New American Night.
That's a heavy handle, but Cruising--the most ambitious project that has come out of the Metroplex in many years--lives up to it. As grand in scope as an Ayn Rand novel, the album has reference points enough to fill an underground-rock encyclopedia.
It is the work of six young people who looked at rock's past and came back with a glimpse of the future. Dover, lighting engineer Jason Jenkins, Cole Wheeler [bass and French horn], and singer-keyboardist Jessica Nelson are all in their early-to-mid-20s, as are the two absent members: drummer Travis Williams and guitarist Eric Hermeyer, who also takes care of sampling.
As they talk, they reverently mention both obscure bands and better-known names that have influenced the current state of post-post-rock, from the seminal Kraut triumvirate of Can, Neu, and Faust and late-'60s French experimentalists Silver Apples to popular institutions like Pink Floyd and Brian Eno. It's apparent that all the pioneers mentioned--as well as contemporary influences like Spacemen 3, Stereolab, Flaming Lips, and American avant-rockers like Tortoise--have something to offer that will help lift rock out of its present quagmire and propel it into a new, bright future. An underground movement has been bubbling beneath rock's complacency for quite some time now, and Cruising is proof that Mazinga Phaser is the local coconspirator for this revolution.
For a band that is considered by many the premier proponent of the so-called space-rock movement, the label doesn't sit very well with its members. There are already enough hapless apers out there who try to disguise their lack of inspiration or direction with effect pedals and psychedelic light shows. Mazinga Phaser will be the first to dismiss the tag that started out as a joke by ex-Mercury Rev member Paul Baker, who happened to be in the area a couple of years ago and named the local scene 'Texoma Space Rock.'
"It's hard to grow when you've been tagged," Wheeler complains.
"Our music is a melting pot of everything, from punk to rock to hip hop to jazz to gospel," Dover says. "It's all music coming purely from the heart. It's designed to affect you emotionally, and if it doesn't affect you, it doesn't do its job. I'd call it heart music. It's a melting pot of each one's heart."
"A lot of it goes back to tribal rhythms," Jenkins adds. "It is timeless music."
"It's any kind of music that will invite aliens to come down," Nelson says, joking about the common abuse of the space-rock label.
The aliens will have a blast Cruising in the Neon Glories of the New American Night, taking a road trip through the history of underground rock. The opener, "New Journeys to the Edge of ROM," is like a galactic jam between Neu and the 13th Floor Elevators, with Miles Davis circa Bitches Brew sitting in at the end. "Infinity for Now" is a hypnotic bass groove with an ethereal Nelson infinitely repeating the title over a rich wash of acoustic guitar, French horn, and countless sound effects. Think of Astrud Gilberto entertaining the crew of the starship Enterprise while in turbulence. "Katia, My Enchantress" is a minimalist two-finger piano melody surrounded by eerie voices and noises. "Dub Sonic at the Jelly Kaboda" has a rolling, Jah Wobblely bass line with the usual fading horns and treated instruments, and is the best ambient dub piece this side of the Rio Grande. The Alice Coltrane cover, "Govinda Jai Jai," fits naturally into this exquisitely diverse sonic melange.
"Third Arm" is a further foray into jazz, with a Chet Bakerlike tune trying to come out of static and interference. The superb trumpet solos are played by guest Dentonite Carl Poetchke. All the songs are sequenced together by ambient passages and noise, courtesy of producer Matt Castille.
Strangely affecting, awe-inspiring, and exhilarating, Cruising is as dark and intimidating as the future itself; at the same time it's soothing and empowering, creating the feeling that all fears can be conquered. It is a mood elevator that can go from the basement to the penthouse--and back--without warning.
"What we do gives me shivers. It affects me personally," Wheeler says. "We're not trying to lay anything on anyone. Some people call us dark and loud. But a lot of times we are also very quiet and very subtle. Like classical music that has these great crescendos."
"It's a lot of patchwork," Dover says modestly. "Everyone brings something in and then we pile ideas on top of each other. Then the songs get altered with pedals and effects."