It’s as pure an example of heavy rock as I’ve heard in 2012. Washington trio Mos Generator, having been revitalized by guitarist/vocalist/friend of the site Tony Reed after a few years’ successful run in classic rockers Stone Axe, mark their return with Nomads, a collection of varied but straightforward songs that hearken to classic influences, but ultimately emerge as modern, full and engaging. Tonally weighted in Reed’s guitar and Scooter Haslip’s bass but never veering into stonerly fuzz, the nine songs of Nomads are pointed in their lack of pretense, unabashed in their hooks and balanced in both composition and production. The album, also produced by Reed, sees release via ongoing partnership with Ripple Music, which also deluxe-reissued Mos Generator’s self-titled debut earlier this year (review here) and has reissued Stone Axe material as well, and though Reed is a talented vocalist and guitarist and a skilled engineer – anyone who heard his production on, say, Saint Vitus’ Lillie: F-65 can immediately recognize his sound as comes through on Shawn Johnson’s drums – what’s most at the fore in listening to Nomads is the songwriting. Structurally traditional, cuts like “Can’t Get Where I Belong,” “Lonely One Kenobi” and even the more expansive closer “This is the Gift of Nature” wrap themselves around landmark choruses, classic rock hooks given vital presentation. Contrary to the reds and blacks of the cover art and its memento mori crow, the mood of most of the album is relatively light, and it opens upbeat with a strong trio of infectious cuts in “Cosmic Ark,” “Lonely One Kenobi” and “Torches,” keeping a crisp and clean sound throughout that results in an overarching accessibility for everything that follows, including the penultimate title-track, an acoustic interlude that sets up “This is the Gift of Nature” to round out the proceedings. A vinyl structure is evident with a split between the moodier fourth track “Step Up” and the ‘80s street metal riffing of “Solar Angels,” but the latter works as well as the centerpiece of the Nomads CD, a focal point and standout both in style and substance on Mos Generator’s fifth album (that’s counting 2006’s The Vault Sessions) and their first outing since 2008’s Destroy! The Mos Generator compilation.
As the singer, guitarist, producer and main songwriter, Reed is obviously a focal point on Nomads, and his approach to the revived Mos Generator is no different than it ever has been going back to the self-titled. He writes quality heavy rock songs with pop structures, shifts mood effectively and sets up an overall flow despite each track having a distinct personality of its own. “Cosmic Ark,” however, gets underway with an immediate bounce, and it’s Johnson’s drums and Haslip’s bass carrying across the potent groove as Reed relates lyrics about weedian travel through space and time that actually wind up being the most stoner rock facet of the song, and indeed, the album. It’s kind of a curious track in relation to what’s around it, but as the opener it works both because it’s fun and because of the quality of the hook, which gives way to a short bluesy lead and a subdued section of oohs and aahs that set up some of the variety to come later. At 3:31, it’s a classic radio number, and though “Lonely One Kenobi” was selected as the first single from Nomads (video premiere here) – one expects the referential title had something to do with that – “Cosmic Ark” could easily follow as the next. In the meantime, perhaps “Lonely One Kenobi” is a better representation of the album overall, more grounded lyrically and no less catchy than the opener. Reed seems to be referencing Dio-era Sabbath in the verse, bringing his voice up in the third line in a fashion similar to “Wishing Well” from the Heaven and Hell album, and that’s not the last ‘80s metal nod to come, but the song is undeniably Mos Generator’s own. One of the longer tracks at just over five minutes, its pulse is quick, Johnson working some swing into the drums and playing off the start-stop riff smoothly as Haslip deftly changes with the guitar between the verse groove and the chorus’ more forward-driving chorus, a path through it marked by Johnson’s snare and Reed’s “wan”-esque pronunciation of “one,” showing the basis for the name of the track. Reed takes a solo after the first chorus, and the verse reemerges to set up a second chorus, more hurriedly cadenced in the vocals, and another lead that serves as the outro, and when it’s over, I’m left wondering where that five minutes went because it happened so damned fast.
The first two tracks give Nomads some considerable momentum, and “Torches” keeps it going as a more open verse contrasted by an insistent chorus of “Torches may fade/But their light doesn’t lie,” Reed delivering a highlight performance on vocals over the quick start-stop chug in the guitar and bass while Johnson keeps simple time on the hi-hat and snare. A bluesy solo ensues with a rhythm track underneath, and Reed backs himself on vocals, but like everything before and everything after, though the sound is clean and crisp, “Torches” doesn’t sound overdone or unnatural. It’s just accessible despite its heavy tones and hard-hit drums in a way that few heavy rock albums try to be. “Step Up” shifts the mood somewhat with a sparser opening verse and a slower progression overall, but the chorus remains a consistent strength. To go with the shift in mood, however, a change in structure brings about a break at the halfway point following the second chorus. Haslip plugs away at a bassline that also recalls Heaven and Hell – this time the song “Heaven and Hell,” though that’s hardly the only place that bassline has ever been used – and soon the song unfolds into a different chorus that delivers the title line and moves into a raging solo from Reed before returning to the “Step up/Get with it/You better find a way” chorus and fading out on it. I don’t know where the split in sides is on vinyl, but on the CD, it moves right on to the Judas Priest cover “Solar Angels,” the first 40 seconds of which are dedicated to an instrumental chugging guitar line that brings to mind two images – the night, and the street. It’s the kind of riff that Bible of the Devil would turn into a whole song, or that Lord Fowl worked into their “Streets of Evermore” (also coincidentally the fifth track on their Moon Queen album; review here), and were it not so crisply produced, Reed’s verse, the effect on his vocals, would be ready for that 8-track player you picked up at the garage sale. At its heart, “Solar Angels” is a good time. Another shift in mood from the song in front of it, there’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek in the presentation – that is, they know they’re going over the top and they seem to be enjoying it – but the song winds up being an immediate favorite for the atmosphere it presents, different from anything else on Nomads, however classically metal the following “For Your Blood” also happens to be.
Now, Nomads is never really aggressive, despite being heavy. It’s not an angry-sounding record. It grooves, and it’s got punch to it, but even “For Your Blood,” the early parts of which are about as close as the album comes, is still more swagger than rage, particularly once it gets to the chorus, which shifts from some of the ultra-forward guitars and brings up Reed’s layered vocals while paying off the tension built in the verse. Johnson throws in a few quick double-kicks, and as Reed takes his solo later into the track, Haslip fills out the low end with some righteous finger work, setting up the ensuing “Can’t Get Where I Belong” to return to the big-chorus mentality of Nomads first several cuts, layers of self-harmonizing adding to the already prevalent melodic sensibility without necessarily taking away from the heavy rock push or the pacing, which allows for a bit of sway without sounding languid. Like the rest of Mos Generator’s work here, “Can’t Get Where I Belong” is well balanced, and it flows easily into the acoustic title-track, echoing and more ethereal but still sub-psychedelic (at least in comparison to what Reed brought to his HeavyPink project), which in turn moves after a minute to the 7:29 “This is the Gift of Nature,” the longest cut on Nomads in runtime and title both and a suitable finish for an album of memorable lines and exquisitely crafted verses and choruses. Mos Generator do not abandon structure in the longer format – the song remains a song – but after two cycles through a verse and title-delivering chorus, they shift into a bridge that seems to bring Nomads full-circle in talking about leaving the earth and taking flight across the universe (perhaps that flight would happen in some kind of “Cosmic Ark”), slowing eventually to the quiet beginning of a build that brings them, via a solo section, back to the verse and to a closing chorus no less rousing than any that preceded it and finally culminating in warm amplifier hum that fades subtly to silence. I’ve said in the past that I can’t even really feign impartiality when it comes to this band or the majority of Reed’s work – it’s debatable, I suppose, as to whether or not anyone’s ever really impartial about anything, but a debate for a different time – but the return of Mos Generator strikes a chord with its straightforwardness, its lack of bullshit and its engaging songwriting. The performances of Reed, Haslip and Johnson are all more than worthy of the “reunion,” but really, it’s the whole that those parts serve that’s the highlight of Nomads, and the album is that much stronger for the fact that the players realize it. Hooks for miles and grooves for longer than that, Nomads is a heavy rocker’s chorus-loaded paradise.
Tags: Mos Generator, Mos Generator Nomads, Nomads, Port Orchard, Ripple Music, Washington