By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Gaze into skies unseen
"All I can see in this beautiful dream/Is circles of light and they're floating around on me," sings Mazinga Phaser's Jessica Nelson on "A Diamond in Shrink Wrap," the opening song on the band's new album Abandinallhope, and at first blush it seems like business as usual for this standout avant-space band. But wait: unlike much of the genre--where vocals are used more or less as another instrument, valued for the mood they imply rather than any textual content--often you can actually understand what she's saying.
As the wordplay in the title hints, things are not what they immediately seem to be in Mazinga-land. While the band hasn't exactly re-invented themselves, they have returned to Earth a bit, hewing closer to what you might traditionally consider a song and moving away from the overtly kosmiche approach of their first album, the Vas Deferens Organization-produced and -engineered Cruising in the Neon Glories of the New American Night.
Much of the Mazinga familiar from Cruising has survived, however. "Diamond" builds gradually, adding layers of sound, until a scream of heavily processed guitar noise crashes down. At the end, guitars--or something--burst forth with a high-frequency yowl that sounds like a tomcat playing the bagpipes. "Sterno Sky" is a wonderfully dreamy evocation of a twilit landscape where the sky burns with the barely-perceived blue glow of an alcohol fire, punctured by an acidulously twisted guitar solo and sporting an ending straight outta Karlheinz Stockhausen.
But there are other, more conventional notes sounded as well. "Jack Luther" has a crisp and altogether standard bassline that predominates a gently roiling flow of sounds. "Duke and Duchess" is built upon a straight Bo Diddley (!) beat, delivered first by a fuzzed-out guitar and then seconded by the bass. Granted, it sounds like Bo Diddley in a room full of oscilloscopes and effects pedals, but it's still a nod to regular song structure that Cruising didn't even hint at.
This new directness is reinforced by the vocal clarity, where--you'd assume--the most concise summation of the band's ambitions and concerns would be found. Nelson's singing reveals a seeker, looking for knowledge rather than comfort. In "Japanese Space Opera," she looks to a companion not for physical relief, but to "feel your understanding." Later, on "Hot Weird," she announces at the end that she "might want to go inside your head." The trouble with a lot of space rock is that subverting (or abandoning) form isn't the same as touching people or having something to say; with Abandinallhope Mazinga Phaser seems to realize this fundamental truth.