Though I’m still enamored of the Dutch trio’s self-titled debut, which Elektrohasch Schallplatten released late last year, Sungrazer’s full-length follow-up, Mirador, has nonetheless been one of my most anticipated releases for the second half of 2011. The full-bodied, semi-jammed heavy psych purveyed by guitarist/vocalist Rutger Smeets, bassist/backing-vocalist Sander Haagmans and drummer Hans Mulders balanced stoner riffing on the first outing with watery improvisation and a laid back smokiness that’s almost too real to be real. Mirador follows suit. The seven-track offering is consistent with its predecessor in terms of fuzzy heft and general approach, and while there are no radical departures in terms of sound – they returned to Maurice Huyts to record as well – a stylistic development on the part of the band is clearly underway. Their jams range further on Mirador, and while that necessarily comes at the cost of some of the structure that made songs from the first album like “Zero Zero” and “Common Believer” so memorable, Sungrazer maintain those elements in parts, perhaps even surpassing their past achievement on the excellent “Sea” and “Goldstrike,” which feel intricate as well as warm and immediately familiar.
One of the most striking aspects of Mirador – and this was true of the self-titled as well – is that Sungrazer as a unit are not afraid to sound sweet as so much heavy rock is. The three-minute instrumental “Octo,” which follows opener “Wild Goose” shows what could loosely be construed as riffy burl, but in the subdued context of the preceding cut, it’s answering back the energy that seemed to explode in that song’s chorus, Mulders remaining steady on his ride cymbal throughout. Smeets’ vocals match the rich low end from his guitar and Haagmans’ bass on “Wild Goose” and elsewhere across Mirador. The album receives a suitably soft introduction from Mulders’ ride and the guitar fading in, soon joined by Haagmans, and layered vocals show off immediate growth on the part of Smeets, whose time on the road (higher-profile appearances include the Pinkpop and Roadburn festivals and the Elektrohasch “Up in Smoke” tour with Colour Haze and Rotor) since the last release pays off in melodic range and confidence of delivery. For his part, Haagmans plays excellently off Smeets both vocally and instrumentally, using the guitar lines as a launch for fills that seem to spread and contract across the effects-laden soundscape that’s built by the end of “Wild Goose” and solidified on “Octo,” where the fuzz comes to the fore and sets up the return to jamming brought about with the appropriately flowing “Sea.”
At eight minutes and utilizing a structure that harnesses verses and choruses while also playing into an overall build and still finding room for open jamming in the middle, “Sea” is an easy candidate for Mirador’s high point. The atmosphere of the album already set by the opening duo, “Sea” is immersive and the band knows it. After “Mountain Dusk” on the self-titled so carefully tied Sungrazer’s tones to a specific landscape imagery, it’s surprising they’re equally suited to the oceanic expanse and whalesong guitar runs of “Sea”’s midsection, but they are – one wonders whether the next studio outing will carry them skyward to complete a “land, sea, air” trilogy. Haagmans’ naturalistic tone rises to prominence in the mix, and the call and response between he and Smeets in the chorus proves worthy of a first-listen sing-along, and no less so when it returns after the jam and Smeets dons a megaphone. Subtle piano (I think; that could be another layer of effected guitar) adds to the ending’s push, and when you think the song has crested, the last 20 seconds cycle through the riff one more time, and Sungrazer remind that no matter how far they may digress, they’re in complete control. It’s beautiful.
In answering, the five-minute “Goldstrike” has no easy task, but Sungrazer wisely place it at the end of Side A of Mirador nonetheless, mirroring the dynamic between the more expansive “Wild Goose” and “Octo” earlier and keeping the smoothness of transitions from one song to the next paramount (“Octo” wouldn’t have worked to close out the record’s first half, and “Goldstrike” wouldn’t have worked as the second track – plus, the self-titled also had an instrumental second cut and there’s something to be said for the several correlations between the two records apart from the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”). As probably the most straightforward cut on Mirador, “Goldstrike” provides grounding accessibility right where it’s most needed, and keeps the earthy feel of the prior tracks without totally sacrificing the jamming – the ending of the song devolves into a spontaneous exploration led by Smeets, in which Haagmans has just enough time for a few choice runs before the conclusion, in which Mulders cuts out early and lets the ringing notes have the last word. It’s a key difference between the CD and vinyl listening experiences that “Goldstrike” is the centerpiece in the track list of the former and the Side A finale of the latter, but once “Behind” commences unfolding itself, there’s little question where Sungrazer’s emphasis is intended.
“Behind,” at 13:48, is not only Mirador’s longest track, but also the most open structurally. Verses appear throughout, and shades of “Somo” from Sungrazer in Smeets’ vocals add context to the peaceful beginning of the song, and the soft, Colour Haze-style guitars soon bring a pastoral spaciousness to the instrumental stretch. The song is patient and hypnotic almost to the point of sleepiness, but after four minutes, heavier guitar and bass drive the next movement and manage to recapture the attention. Sungrazer have a hard time balancing gradueur with the natural vibe of their sound, but they do it, cycling through quiet/loud parts twice over the course but adding more motion in the song’s second half thanks to tom runs from Mulders that underscore Smeets’ Yawning Man-ish desert hues. It’s the band at their most jam-based, and even though they return to a chorus in the last five minutes of the song and end heavier than not, they’ve sacrificed the clarity of a song like “Goldstrike” or “Sea” and changed the mood of the album. The experiment in shifting focus isn’t wholly unsuccessful – in most listens, the ease with which Mirador plays out won’t have “Behind” raise eyebrows one way or the other – and if Sungrazer are quick to pushing themselves to try new songwriting tactics and this is the result, then they should be well set to refine the process on the next one.
Plus, the last few minutes of “Behind” are genuinely catchy, so even if the distances Smeets, Haagmans and Mulders are journeying prove too far for one’s attention span, they still show a keen ear for crafting rounded material. Mulders begins the mostly-instrumental title track, which despite its Echoplex guitar, repetitive bass, overriding effects and marching snare ghost notes, proves more cohesive than not. Sungrazer aren’t the first band to experiment on the second half of their album, and the first four minutes of “Mirador” provide fluid jamming, but the riffier, vocalized next three – dominated by the guitar in a way much of Mirador is not – shows that the band has not completely abandoned structure or verse/chorus traditionalism. They return to the jam to provide some measure of comedown from the apex of the song, and closer “34 & More,” with guest vocals, lounge-type applause as the solo begins following the second verse and a generally off-the-cuff feel allows Sungrazer to exit Mirador on a more lighthearted note, neither taking themselves too seriously nor indulging any further than they already have. The lines “You’re one of a kind/I like your behind and more,” being the last said on the album, I don’t think anyone’s about to accuse the band of lacking in good nature, myself included. Haagmans’ bass seems to want to hold on longer than it does, but the song caps with class, all three players going out quietly and (roughly) in unison.
Between the self-titled and Mirador which builds on it, the three-piece has very quickly placed itself among the elites in European heavy psychedelia. The melodic consciousness and will for discovering the limits of chemistry between players sets Sungrazer apart from most of their peers, and though there are aspects of their sound taken from recognizable stylistic tropes, Smeets, Haagmans and Mulders succeed completely in assimilating them into an individual presentation. Mirador both confirms the potential the first album announced and the anticipation with which it was met, but more than that, it sets Sungrazer up to make the shift from influenced to influential. There’s a lot about Mirador that is perfect for what it wants to be, and that almost always leads to followers trying to capture some of the same magic.
Tags: Elektrohasch, Sungrazer, The Netherlands