“Slave Cylinder” opens with a nod to Sabbath’s “N.I.B.,” and from there, Cosmic Priestess — the second album from Tia Carrera on Small Stone Records — only gets trippier. The Austin, Texas, trio made their label debut in 2009 with The Quintessential, and while that album felt especially geared toward transposing their live sound to plastic, Cosmic Priestess seems more of a studio effort. Of course, the band relies heavily on improvisation throughout the four extended instrumental jams that make up the new collection, but it’s a different entity, a different spirit driving them throughout. Doubtless it was recorded live, the three of them in a single room, but the clean sound is thick with bass and rich classic rock drumming, and relies less on feedback to fill empty space than did The Quintessential. It’s less just about the noise and more about the interaction among players.
At least I think it is. Entirely possible I have my head up my ass and Cosmic Priestess is nothing more than three dudes ripping out good vibes for upwards of 30 minutes at a clip. Whatever the case, Tia Carrera not only manage to capture the excitement and immediacy of the best of heavy and/or stoner rock, but they do so now based on concrete ideas of what they want each piece of music to accomplish. “Slave Cylinder” wraps with the three-piece — Erik Conn (drums), Andrew Duplantis (bass) and Jason Morales (guitar) – coming together to drive home a central riff, before “Sand, Stone and Pearl” opens wide into electric piano and sustained notes from Morales. The heady psychedelia is a change from the opener, and shows Tia Carrera have more to their sound than simple jam-band pseudo-jazz crescendos or pointless noodling. Duplantis’ bass marches in time with Conn’s drumming even as it offers counterpoints to it, and as the 15-minute track plays out, it’s all the more evidence of the band’s growing chemistry and self-awareness. They’re not without their lost moments – which you expect in a live/jam setting and so aren’t out of place here – but the overall flow of Cosmic Priestess is encompassing. “Sand, Stone and Pearl” is twice as long as the opener, and in turn, “Saturn Missile Battery” is more than twice as long as it (Tia Carrera then pulls back to the eight-minute range to finish). In a way, it feels like the album is growing around you while you listen.
Massive and expansive, “Saturn Missile Battery” probably could have been released on its own and no one would have blinked or thought it out of place for Tia Carrera, who seem to be headed in the single-track-full-length direction one way or the other. Both “Slave Cylinder” and “Sand, Stone and Pearl” had a slight build structure to them, but “Saturn Missile Battery” opens strong with soloing from Morales and heavy hits from Conn. It’s not until after 10 minutes in that there’s anything that could resemble a break in the action, and even then Duplantis seems to step further into the mix to ground the Morales’ leads. It would be hard for Cosmic Priestess to work at all without “Saturn Missile Battery” as its highlight, since if you can get down with the idea of a heavy jam band doing their thing for extended periods of time, it almost goes without saying that the longer the better, barring any glaring screw-ups, which probably wouldn’t have made it on the album anyway. Indeed Tia Carrera’s latest plays out in this fashion, the guitar giving way following some slowed-down crashes in the end to let Duplantis take the reins for one of the stoniest moments on the record. Again, the inevitable highlight.
Initially, I didn’t understand the impulse to include “A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing” as the finale to Cosmic Priestess – which is certainly long enough already without it — thinking there was no way it couldn’t be a comedown after “Saturn Missile Battery,” but Morales gives his best performance on guitar, and the tightness of play between him, Conn and Duplantis is enough to answer any questions that might arise. It does sound like it wasn’t completely improvised, but six minutes in, as Conn hesitates to change to the hi-hat to better complement Morales, it becomes apparent that at least part of the arrangement is off-the-cuff. That kind of spontaneity is rampant throughout Cosmic Priestess, and if their goal was to further establish themselves as a band not only able to capture their live sound, but to expand on it in the studio, then these four songs prove Tia Carrera was totally successful in that regard. The unstructured nature of the jams is never going to appeal universally, but as a show of rampant creative spirit, Cosmic Priestess soars even as it hypnotizes. You can sit and analyze every move Tia Carrera make, or you can zone out and be carried by the music, and either way be satisfied.Austin, Small Stone, Texas, Tia Carrera