Though the position of “instrumental riffers from West Virginia” has been filled to varying degrees of figurative and literal permanence by Karma to Burn, with a more subtle touch and laid back groove, Beckley’s four-piece Seven Planets make a solid case with their self-titled sophomore outing. Residing somewhere between Clutch’s pocketed-rhythm-section grooving and the sweetly honed tonality of My Sleeping Karma, what stands Seven Planets out is their looking to the European sphere for influence as few American acts seem to want to do, for better or worse. That’s not to say a few songs on Seven Planets aren’t recognizably derived from Clutch tunes – “Maish Done Wrung Me Out” and “Prime Mover” are striking in that regard and even initial the drumbeat of opener “Up on High” is suggestive of the Maryland band’s self-titled outing – but Seven Planets do well to both keep this homage forward and conscious-feeling (for the most part) while still putting their own stamp on the work within the album’s eight component tracks. Ten-minute second cut, “Objects in Space,” which is by far the longest on the 36-minute release (do they get points for putting the longest song second, rather than first? Yeah, alright), wants nothing either for patience or natural feel, the production smoothing the dual-guitars of Jim Way and Leonard Hanks – the latter of whom also recorded, mixed and mastered the album – without sacrificing depth of tone. Together with drummer Ben Pitt and bassist Mike Williams, the guitars keep a humility to the jams that works well in their favor, following 2008’s also-self-released Flight of the Ostrich with a purposefully heady vibe that never quite loses its direction entirely, no matter how far into the psychedelic stratosphere it may go. They may not be exactly innovating either in their grooves or spaced-out flourish, but for a band to self-release an instrumental album in a full jewel case these days, to hire Alexander Von Wieding (Larman Clamor, Karma to Burn, on and on) to do their artwork and really give it a push in more than just a, “Hey we got a Bandcamp” kind of way – though the album is also on Bandcamp – shows dedication on the part of the band to their own cause and warrants deeper consideration than just, “It sounds like this and this, check it out.”
Additions like organ, extra percussion and backwards guitar bring out a burgeoning sense of complexity on “Up on High,” “Maish Done Wrung Me Out” or the penultimate “Locus,” but on closer “Lamont Starfield,” it’s Robot Hive/Exodus-era Clutch start-stops just waiting for the vocals. Way and Hanks, however familiar the base they’re working from, do leave room for plenty of dynamic interplay, and whether it’s a shared bluesy lead, as on that song, or the earlier, Ween-style swirling of “Maish Done Wrung Me Out,” and Williams (presumably no relation to the EyeHateGod vocalist with whom he shares a name) delivers a standout performance on bass, so whatever else the album has working for or against it, it has a secret weapon in Williams. That’s true at least until “9th Time,” on which he comes forward to drive the initial progression while Way and Hanks echo out behind, at which point his presence and performance are undeniable. Pitt’s drumming leans a bit on the snare, but does so interestingly enough that it doesn’t feel so much like a crutch as much as the march is just a major factor in his favor. When the guitars pick up the lead in “9th Time,” Pitt is right there alongside, opening up a straightforward beat on his hi-hat to push the adrenaline of the track forward. Williams seems to disappear for a time, but returns with a striking fill toward the end, and though there’s a quick machine sample before the following cut, “Circuit,” begins, the atmosphere remains laid back despite the inorganic interruption. Pacing-wise, Seven Planets do well to keep mostly in the middle, allowing the songs to retain their sense of structure while keeping an exploratory vibe about them, which “Circuit” certainly has despite its open coolness. That song is more their own, and though they put timed volume swells and shifts into it, “Prime Mover” nonetheless returns them distinctly to the Pulaski Skyway, which though it’s less theirs entirely, nonetheless gives the rhythm section a chance to shine, which it seems to relish, particularly in the case of Williams.
And as “Locus” seems to be driven back to the My Sleeping Karma side of Seven Planets’ dreamy take on heavy psychedelia, the mere fact that the band put in enough thought to juxtapose the one side of their sound immediately with the other speaks to the potential in their second full-length. “Locus” ends with the same backwards guitar and bass that began it, moving back one last time into the organ-inclusive earth rocking of “Lamont Starfield.” With the acknowledgement that I’ve said it 10 times already, I’ll add specifically concerning the closer that when Seven Planets decides it’s time to kick into some Clutch, they know exactly how to do it. The funk in Williams’ bass and Hanks’ and Way’s guitars feels sincere, and they bring a sense of instrumental build to their finale that fills the space vocals might otherwise go. Near the very end of “Lamont Starfield,” someone clicks on to say something really quick – I can’t tell if it’s “’Kay?” or “Clear?” or something like that, but it’s that quick – and then the track amp-buzzes into a quick fade. There are a few unhinged moments throughout Seven Planets during which the band seems to let go of their idea of what they want the songs to be – “Objects in Space” is one, “Circuit” another – and they do well to make the most of them, putting them next to the more straightforward, traceable groovers like “Maish Done Wrung Me Out” or “Prime Mover.” The album isn’t short on charm, however, it’s just that its charm will be geared more toward those who have a better sense of where Seven Planets are coming from and can better appreciate the course the album takes. For me, it’s derivative, but not without merit. I care less that a band reinvents the wheel (or at least reinvents the cliché for being original in a hyperbolic sense) than I do that a band gets a kick out of what they’re doing and carries that across, whatever it might actually sound like. With the instrumental chemistry they present and the stylistic foundation they’ve set here, Seven Planets have given themselves the opportunity to fuse the varying sides of their sound into a cohesive, funky, heavy psychedelic whole entirely their own. I’ll be interested to hear next time around where the process takes them.
Tags: Beckley, Seven Planets, Unsigned bands, West Virginia