I’ve sat with the new VALIS record, Dark Matter (Small Stone) for a couple days now, ever since I posted the mp3 of opener “Resurrection Sickness” a little while ago, and the only two words I keep going back to for it are “catchy” and “stoned.” Guitarist/vocalist Van Conner, once bassist for Screaming Trees, has outdone himself in stripping away a lot of the spaced-out confusion that pervaded past Small Stone albums, 2004′s Head Full of Pills and the next year’s Champions of Magic, and where those albums had a hazy, heady, tripped out feel, Dark Matter is much closer to the ground — “closer” being the key word there.
Since each track on the album has a remarkably distinct personality, the best way to analyze Dark Matter seems to be one song at a time:
1. “Resurrection Sickness” – The consummate opener; a straightforward rocker with a killer early Sabbath vibe.
2. “Blood on Blood” – Wasn’t expecting the ’80s hard rock gang vocal chorus, but wasn’t necessarily put off by it either. Catchy, bluesy, stoner.
3. “Under Satan’s Will” – The howling guitar line in the chorus makes it a standout. Track is infectious in the vein of latter day The Atomic Bitchwax or what newer Monster Magnet could be.
4. “Grapevine Earthquake” – Another straight-up rocker, and well-placed at that. Cowbell and chugging verse riff do well leading into a chorus that’s more classic solo Ozzy than Sabbath.
5. “Down Like Rain” – A curious album centerpiece and easily the most commercial song on Dark Matter. Masters of Reality/Chris Goss-style vocals are delivered effectively. Hello mid-’90s prime time drama soundtrack.
6. “Hands of Grace” – Atmospheric and bluesy. Anyone remember Jerry Cantrell‘s Degradation Trip? This could have been on there if it had about six more layers of vocals.
7. “Daylight in the Swamps” – “Swamps” is right. Song is full of muddy ’70s rock swagger. Might be the best riff on Dark Matter.
8. “Everyone Sun” – Guitarist/vocalist Patrick Conner (Van‘s brother) takes the lead vocal spot here and sounds so much like former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan that I was completely fooled. Track is mostly acoustic (some synth swirls), Van throws in some vocals to duet. Out of context it might not work, but the electric guitar solo is my favorite of the album.
9. “Battleship” – Brings the good fuzz and closes the album the same way it opened: stoned and catchy. Takes a while to get going but is ultimately worth the trip. The hidden track about drug-seeking behavior among females in a backstage environment is a public service announcement to all.
Van, Patrick, bassist/vocalist Adrian Makins (formerly of Kitty Kitty, with whom VALIS debuted on a split in 1998 put out by Man’s Ruin), and drummer Matt Vandenberg, have succeeded in making his band more straightforward but also keeping some of the psychedelic edge that made them known for something more than their pedigree in the first place. It’s not as dramatic a shift as undergone by Orange Goblin over their years together, but there are clearly changes afoot in the VALIS creative process. So far so good.
[Note: This review was revised on Feb. 26, 2009. Facts were changed. We all came out of it better people on the other side.]
Tags: Bands who hang out with Mark Lanegan, Seattle, Small Stone, Valis