Photo by J. Bennett

“I think there’s something to be said for great volumes,”
says Ethan Miller. “When the volume is great enough, sound gets inside
your body. There’s a connection there that goes a little bit beyond normal
music appreciation, when we’re talking about invading the body. You don’t want
air pollution getting in your body — if you see a sewer, you don’t want that
getting inside your body. If you see rats, you don’t want that shit getting
in there! But all kinds of music, all the time, is getting in and messing with
your system, messing with your whole body. It’s kind of fucked up — but it can
be beautiful in the right situation.”

Few currently operational rock bands are as adept at the ol’ body
invasion as Miller’s Comets on Fire, a troupe of Bay Area–based musicians whose
epic multifrequency groove-riding super-rock has to be heard to be felt to be
believed to be appreciated. It’s one thing when your ears are left ringing after
a live show; it’s another when your body feels as though it’s been reassembled
into some new fleshbuzzing configuration, as can happen at a Comets on Fire

Experiencing this band last year in a nearly empty converted bank
building in Pomona was like being confronted by the gale force of Grandmother
Nature — like swimming in the surf, spotting a gigantic wave 100 feet out headed
your way, realizing you may be in trouble, but then, at a deeper level, for
a deep-time split second, being awestruck by the size and shape and scope, the
sheer beauty-in-magnitude the wave represents. Comets on Fire have found a way
to inhabit-embody-amplify that in-the-face-of-gorgeous-disaster moment: to stretch
it out, to build in it, to find space within it to live. In Pomona last year,
jaws dropped, legs jellied, minds blanked, beer steins rattled and fell off
tables onto the floor. The band played on, marvelously oblivious.

Comets on Fire was formed by guitarist-vocalist and

UC Santa Cruz literature major Miller in the late ’90s. The band’s first album,
recorded in 2000 and ’01, now available through Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles
label, was raw, haywire post-hardcore rock with a scuzzed-up psychedelic trim,
notable for its volume level, its mode of attack, and Noel Harmonson’s use of
oscillators and vintage tape Echoplex. Usually you had to go to Japan to get
this kind of mind-body pummeling, and Miller does cop to the influence of Tokyo’s
High Rise as an inspiration.

“When you first heard a High Rise record, you heard them
doing something that had always been totally wrong to do, which is to record
the shit way too fuckin’ loud so that it totally blurred out, so that it sounds
like your speakers have been destroyed when you listen to it. When you hear
that, you’re like, Fuck! That is the sound of what hearing a rock band
live is like. You can’t comprehend everything, you can’t hear all the details,
it’s blown out, it’s too loud, you’ve got ears stuffed full of toilet paper
and you’re not hearing a lot, but it’s just pounding your chest, and things
seem like they’re gonna shake off the shelves. Every time I was recording something
and it was blown out, I was like, Oh, that’s bad. But when you hear High Rise,
it’s like, Fuck, man, that’s the ticket! Now we’re talkin’!”

Miller laughs, then continues, “It’s just another great moment
for overcoming taboo and personal stupidity. Sometimes you realize how stupid
you are, how quickly you’ll get in line when you see one, no matter what’s at
the end of it.”

With the band’s second album, 2002’s perfectly titled Field
Recordings From the Sun
(Ba Da Bing!), a more striking Comets sound emerged.
Drummer Utrillo Belcher had joined the band, and feted Six Organs of Admittance
psychedelic folk guitarist Ben Chasny appeared on several tracks, contributing
both his customary quiet acoustic intricacy and some very un–Six Organs electric-guitar

“I’ve always played rock music and folk music,” says
Chasny nonchalantly. “It’s just a balance — I have to do both of them.
Folk music for me is a time to sit down and be quiet and listen; rock music
should be loud, with a lot of things happening.”

The band’s new lineup had a certain cosmic inevitability to it:
Miller, Chasny and Belcher and bassist Ben Flashman all grew up in or around
the Northern California forest town of Eureka. Flashman and Miller have been
friends since childhood; Chasny and Belcher were a bit older, which, as Miller
notes, “means decades” in a small-town high school. When Belcher was
18, he hightailed it out of Eureka, settling in the Bay Area and playing in
band after band.

“It never really worked out,” he chuckles. “Ruined
a bunch of friendships. I like playing music, but I can’t really be in a band.
So I stopped playing drums almost completely, just did some home recordings,
got mellow, hung out with my wife.”

In the meantime, Chasny had relocated to Santa Cruz and become
friends with the Comets crew. With original drummer Chris Gonzales out of the
picture, Belcher was lured back behind the drum kit for another go.

“I think Ben Flashman and Noel and I carried on our original
intent, our particular sounds,” says Miller, “but Chasny and Utrillo
had a massive effect on changing the sound. Field Recordings was recorded
four-five-six weeks after they joined the band, and although Chasny wasn’t a
full-time member, he still had a big effect.”

After Field Recordings’ release, the band toured across
the continent with Massachusetts psychedelic-art-funk shamanists Sunburned Hand
of the Man, and Chasny became a full-on member while continuing his Six Organs
career. Miller joined Harmonson, Flashman, Belcher and Chasny up in the Bay
Area, Comets signed to Sub Pop, and the band set about recording the astonishing
Blue Cathedral, released this past summer. The multitextured monolithic-riff
turbo-thruster numbers, acoustic-guitar interludes, oscillator sound-scramblage,
Stooges’ Fun House–esque horn squawk and Miller’s echoed moonhowl are
all still there, but so are weird piano-driven boogies (written by closet Procol
Harum nut Belcher) and wide-vista, deep-horizon starcore jams.

“We left the gate open,” says Miller. “We’d been
together for a few years, we were homing in on a little broader, wilier artistic
ambitions. For the first two records, I did most of the songwriting, riff writing,
general shape of things. On Blue Cathedral, Chasny and Utrillo both had
a seriously heavy hand in writing stuff from the ground up. We’ve managed to
make real artistic progression. At least if people are like, ‘I don’t like them
anymore,’ it’s because we’re too different from what they originally may have
hoped for.”

When Comets first started, their fans consisted largely of psych
nerds, mostly dudes. “It’s rad that those kinds of bros fall in love with
some sort of underground music they found,” says Miller, “but you’re
like, ‘Fuck, is this gonna be our only kind of audience?’ Our audiences have
evened out now — a good mix of guys and girls. There may be a punk rocker over
here, or a biker over there, or a librarian, hippies that come for the jam aspect.
It’s not like playing in the Rollins Band and having to look at sweaty 17-year-old
dudes every night, where you hate your audience, they sort of love and hate
you. It’s just people trying to catch a good time, just getting off work, just
like we are when we go to shows.”

Does the volume really contribute to a good time for


“Our volumes are cranked pretty high, but my Twin Reverb
probably isn’t cranked up all that much more than some alt-country band. We
just play loud. Utrillo’s blood is flying off his hands, beer’s flying
around, Noel’s headbanging . . . It’s quite a racket. I can feel it — I can
feel the low frequencies, and sometimes the high frequencies between my guitar
and Noel’s oscillator, I can feel that rattling my teeth, too. It rattles your
bones around, you can feel the kick drums altering the beat of your heart.

“There’s these beautiful drones that are getting inside,
making vibrations inside your body. It’s this crazy unification process between
the audience members and the music — or the music and the players, for that

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