WaterWays, Sons of Alpha Centauri, Hotel Wrecking City Traders Split LP: An Intercontinental Tapestry of Tone

A three-way split released in gorgeous 180 gram LP (limited to 500), with each of its participants represented in a different primary color – red for Californian desert rockers WaterWays, blue for UK prog instrumentalists Sons of Alpha Centauri and yellow for Australian brotherly noise rock duo Hotel Wrecking City Traders – the latest Bro Fidelity Records is every bit as intricate and lush in its psychedelia as its Alexander von Wieding artwork. The three bands display distinct personalities between them and as WaterWays come first with side A all to themselves and twice as much material as either Sons of Alpha Centauri or Hotel Wrecking City Traders, they’re obviously meant as a focal point. No wonder, given the band’s lineup. WaterWays boasts in its ranks guitarist Gary Arce of Yawning Man, bassist/vocalist Mario Lalli and drummer Tony Tornay (both of Fatso Jetson) and vocalist Abby Travis, who in the past has collaborated with the likes of Masters of Reality and Eagles of Death Metal, so if they come first of the three acts represented here, at least they earned it via pedigree. It’s also not the first time Hotel Wrecking City Traders – who also run Bro Fidelity Records – have sought to highlight Gary Arce’s work. The band collaborated with Arce on a 2011 collaborative 12” (review here). And as WaterWays’ first release was a late-2010 split with Yawning Sons, which is Arce’s pan-oceanic collaboration with Sons of Alpha Centauri, he would seem to be the figure tying everything together on this split, particularly as his influence has bled into the work of Ben and Toby Matthews of Hotel Wrecking City Traders on their contribution here, the 9:37 closer “Pulmo Victus.” Before them, on side B, Sons of Alpha Centauri dig deep into their archives to unearth the 8:48 track “27,” from an early recording session, and of course on side A, WaterWays take their time unfolding four songs of textured dune-minded psych, Lalli and Tornay’s well-honed chemistry underscoring Arce’s expansive tone and Travis’ sweetly melodic vocals.

Travis is joined vocally — presumably by Lalli — by low-register rhythmic singing on opener “Piece of You,” playing up a progressive feel early into the split. “Piece of You,” “Queen,” “The Blacksmith” and “WaterWays” are all relatively short, none touching five minutes, and they play out with more structure to them than one is necessarily used to in the often jam-minded context of Arce’s work. The guitarist in no small part defines any band he touches. His tone is inimitable and unmistakable, and for the most part, though it’s not what Yawning Man usually traffics in, he does well with the material, which still feels and sounds open despite having set verses and choruses. He’s hardly caged here – there’s still plenty of room in these songs for him to wander as he will, and even Yawning Man’s freest material doesn’t linger time-wise – but it’s Travis’ vocals that wind up characterizing much of what separates WaterWays from the slew of other Arce projects. She’s got just enough quirk in her voice to make “Piece of You” stand alongside the Palm Desert tradition of weird explorations while still injecting a soulful breathiness into “Queen,” somewhat ironically jarring the listener back to the sandy ground with the punctuated line, “You’re fucking high.” “Queen” has a Western march in its snare from Tornay and Lalli has no problem keeping up and setting the melody on bass while Arce emits echoes of what seems like an eternal lead. It would be the highlight of WaterWays’ section of the split but for “The Blacksmith,” which has “hey-ya, hey-ya” backing vocals behind Travis reminiscent of but not caricaturing Native American chants and the band’s most engaging chorus here. By contrast, the eponymous “WaterWays” offers “lalala”s and an introductory progression that reminds strikingly of Geto Boys’ “Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta,” which left an impression as a featured track in the movie Office Space. Sonic coincidence most likely, and the song moves away to a drum-led section with Tornay setting the course on his toms, but the vocals here seem like an afterthought added once the instrumental progression was set, and the repeated line, “Go the waterways,” falls short of the lullaby it seems to be reaching to be, its pacing just a little too quick to soothe in its four-minute course. Crash cymbals toward the end and layered vocals don’t exactly help in that regard either, though the song remains undeniably infectious.

“27” starts side B with a quiet introduction, thoughtful as Sons of Alpha Centauri have proven time and again they have the capacity to be without sacrificing a progressive sensibility or a kind of space rocking feel. There’s an overarching build to the near-nine-minute course that has ebbs and flows within, and though nowhere near as lavish sonically as WaterWays, the British band show that even at their most formative points, they had a sense of structure to coincide with the riffy crunch that arrives shortly before three and a half minutes into this song. A slowed down Karma to Burn influence shouldn’t be much of a surprise given the numerical title, but Sons of Alpha Centauri make it their own as well, with a kind of start-stop jangling build in the guitar and bass that leads them through the next phase of the song, driving toward extra percussion and a semi-jam that doesn’t so much wander as methodically, patiently transition between the softer movement and the louder one to come. A build precedes payoff, naturally, and though the production doesn’t really allow for an explosion of volume, the dynamic is palpable as Sons of Alpha Centauri release the tension they’ve spent the last seven minutes accruing. Hotel Wrecking City Traders are somewhat less concerned with a build but their “Pulmo Victus” proves some of their most interesting work to date nonetheless, a Pelican-esque low end rumble fading in at the start of the song and remaining there for the duration. Ben’s drums sound at times like they’re biting their way through, but the song is engaging in its deviance from the band’s bombast, and though it’s not like Toby is ringing out reverb desert tones, the methods through which they seem now to be able to convey a relaxed but still heavy atmosphere could easily be traced back to Arce or Yawning Man, and so the influence is pervasive nonetheless. There are quick cuts in the aforementioned rumble that give “Pulmo Victus” an experimental vibe as Toby and Ben seem to set the track atop a foundation in perpetual motion, but it’s not off-putting and something you might not even notice on a non-headphone listen.  There are hints of directionality around the 8:20 mark, like Hotel Wrecking City Traders are about to let the song take off, but even with Ben’s snare fills around 8:45, the guitar stays relatively subdued and cuts when the snare says to cut, letting the rumble fade out just as it faded, marching down the other side of the extended, hypnotizing plateau. “Pulmo Victus” succeeds though in that there’s nothing to really expect of it that it doesn’t deliver. If both WaterWays and Sons of Alpha Centauri had been working in a single style and HWCT defied that, it would be one thing, but the celebration here is of open-minded creativity, and so the Aussie duo’s exploration is no less engaging than anything before it. These three acts, from three continents, sharing elements between them, collaborating, and coming together for a release like this split is special in itself, but more to the point, the LP comprises a widely varied 35 minutes that by the end of it leaves one wanting more from all involved parties. Perhaps a three-band collaboration is the next step?

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