Making their home in the rich dirt of France’s Bordeaux region, the trio Mars Red Sky specialize in gorgeously-toned and natural-sounding fuzz that comes on huge and overwhelming, but is rife also with engaging melody and psychedelic flourish. Guitarist Julien Pras (also Calc) is like the non-evil distant cousin of Electric Wizard’s Jus Oborn, the massiveness of his sound and his ability to turn a simple melody into something memorable come across immediately on Mars Red Sky’s self-titled full-length debut (Emergence). Preceded only by a 7” called Curse, the album is going to be the band’s first exposure to most listeners, and I’m hard pressed to think of a finer opening statement. In 39 minutes, Mars Red Sky – Pras, plus bassist Jimmy Kinast and drummer Benoit Busser – affect the kind of perfect laid back atmosphere that Dutch peers Sungrazer have been able to harness, blending Hendrix fuzz, Sabbath riffs, Kyuss’ keen sense of desert sun, Dead Meadow’s subdued melody and a rolling low end groove into a brew both inviting and heavy. Whether it’s Pras‘ sweet, high-pitched croon on “Strong Reflection” or “Way to Rome,” Kinast’s bluesy David Eugene Edwards-style vocal on “Marble Sky” or overdriven tone on “Falls,” the album is a riff worshiper’s dream and easily one of 2011’s best debuts.
They work in a few different modes. The aforementioned “Strong Reflection” opens the album and is one of its strongest tracks, boasting a straightforward structure and setting up the rest of Mars Red Sky’s tonescape. Pras’ vocal works surprisingly well over the guitar and bass, adding a lighter air to the verses, and the chorus, “But when I go upstream/I’ll meet you in a dream/And when I try to land/Please let me hold your hand,” is both sweet and catchy, Busser keeping a steady march underneath and transitioning between parts with capable but not overdone fills. Right away, groove is central to Mars Red Sky. Kinast’s bass plays a large role throughout the album, first filling out the guitar-less verse of “Strong Reflection” and providing heft across the board, but also keeping the flow going during Pras’ solos. The beginning of “Curse” reminds a bit of Colour Haze, but Mars Red Sky eschew airy spontaneous jams in favor of a shuffling groove that’s faster than that of the opener, but loses nothing of the tonal richness. Their adherence to structure throughout the album lends a sense of coherence to the listening experience, a feeling that you don’t mind going where Mars Red Sky take you because you know they’re in control. And they are. That said, the songs strike an excellent balance between the two sides – structured and open – and don’t come off as formulaic or more predictable than they should be.
“Curse” is the shortest track on Mars Red Sky at 4:04, and varies from the other material mostly in its pacing and in substituting the laid back feel of the first track with a more active vibe. The slow unfolding of “Falls” restores the softer touch Mars Red Sky prove so adept at throughout, building ever so slightly to another fuzz-fronted riff exploration, this one the first of the record’s two instrumentals. Kinast hits the wah to cut the bass through underneath Pras’ lead and Busser keeps steady hits on the ride cymbal, and if the purpose of the track – which caps in an undulating, moaning riff and tom hits – is to secure the listener’s full attention and confirm what the first two tracks stated, then it’s a purpose met. The intro to “Way to Rome” echoes Hendrix at his softest, but the song soon takes off on a mid-paced riff-centered groove with another landmark chorus, the stripped-down, “Ride/The dark horse/Through the fire/Through the storm,” reminding of how much can be accomplished when a band has a firm grip on the essentials of songwriting. Pras nails a solo after 2:40 with Kinast again driving home the groove on bass, and before you even realize the song is the album’s centerpiece – and worthy of its placement – you’re hooked by the repeated verse lines, “As we’re sent to die/On our way to Rome,” etc. Hard to pick between “Way to Rome” and “Strong Reflection” for which is the high point of Mars Red Sky, but both make a considerable argument.
Fortunately, Mars Red Sky provide a chance to ponder the issue with the album’s second instrumental, the psychedelically entrancing “Saddle Point.” With a blend of acoustic and far-back electric guitars, the track develops some over the course of its four minutes, but mostly feels like the band giving some respite to their listeners and something coming from a different aesthetic to offset the other material. Doubtless Pras’ time in Calc has helped him hone his poppy craft, and he puts it to excellent use in Mars Red Sky, the band’s accessibility never giving way to something even remotely commercial, instead maximizing the gorgeousness of desert rock while watering down none of the edge. “Marble Sky” thrusts with bass-led blues, splitting in its second half to a somewhat darker riff that’s no less effective for the surprise it represents in its sunny surroundings. Kinast‘s vocal – again, reminiscent of Wovenhand – shows diversity of approach and the ability to write multi-faceted and still-fuzzed songs that have more to offer than just the riffs. As the guitar and the bass come together in the outro to quietly lead into Busser’s beginning of the closer, one is reminded once more of the trio’s ability to structure a song as opposed to just jam out on the riffs until everyone gets tired and moves on (not knocking that approach, just saying it’s not Mars Red Sky’s). “Up the Stairs” reminds of the slow beginning of “Falls,” but is more active all around than that track and finds Busser, Pras and Kinast blending the elements that have made the other tracks so effective into a fitting finish.
It’s one more memorable chorus, one more nod-worthy groove, one more engaging turn, and though by the time “Up the Stairs” arrives, you might already be lost in the wall of fuzz, swirling solos and sleepy melodies, Mars Red Sky is the kind of record that begs repeat listens – the fact that it’s relatively short at 39 minutes also helps this – so it’s not like you won’t be back. As it reaches toward eight minutes as the longest cut on the album, though, “Up the Stairs” satisfies grandly, Pras infusing subtle guitar flourishes in the opening minutes and the band switching back and forth between weighted distortion and charmingly layered verses that play into the overall build. Like the album as a whole, it is absolutely beautiful, and that seems to be what Mars Red Sky were shooting for. Superficially, they aren’t really innovating, but like the best of the new generation of heavy psych, they’ve been able to create an individuality from the influences they mesh, so that the style is fresh nonetheless, and so that their debut is essential listening for any followers of the fuzz.
Tags: Bordeaux, Emergence Music, France, Mars Red Sky