The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic, The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic: Sending out the Exploration Team
As lead guitarist in Monster Magnet from 1993-2010, Ed Mundell contributed to some of the most essential American heavy psych and heavy rock put to tape. Exploratory albums like Superjudge and Dopes to Infinity led to the more straightforward and commercial Powertrip and God Says No, and while the band settled into that aesthetic, Mundell continued to show his affiliation with heavy psych and traditional classic rock ethics in The Atomic Bitchwax, a project he left after releasing two full-lengths and an EP upon relocating to California circa 2004. His tenure would continue for more than half a decade with Monster Magnet and the Bitchwax continued on and have thrived against the expectations of many in his absence, but Mundell began to explore a range of psychedelic jams in the years subsequent, beginning with a track contribution by an instrumental trio called The Formula to the High Volume compilation put out by High Times magazine in ’04. Gradually, this jammy impulse led to the formation of The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic, and toward the end of the last decade, the band began playing out here and there on the West Coast, low key. Shows were jams, basically, with Mundell joined by bassist Collyn McCoy (Trash Titan) and drummer Rick Ferrante (Sasquatch), but sooner or later an album was bound to happen, and when it finally did, Snail’s Matt Lynch stepped in to record at his Mysterious Mammal Studios.
The resulting self-titled full-length (released through the band’s own Orbit Unlimited imprint) is probably too layered with psychedelic effects, backwards guitar, Echoplex, and leads to completely represent The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic’s live show, but at the root of each of the album’s nine tracks is an organic sounding jam that’s simply been built upon. Commonalities exist on songs like “Hello to Oblivion” to early The Atomic Bitchwax, and perhaps that’s to McCoy and Ferrante’s credit as a versatile rhythm section as much as it is to Mundell, who leads with no shortage of twists and turns in his intricate riffing. They are, true to form, a powerful trio, and the album – instrumental but for an intro spoken by the writer Harlan Ellison that appears reprinted on the inside of the gatefold digi-liner – essentially works as a showcase for their chemistry, playing out with immersive, driving psychedelia over the course of just under 55 minutes. Sasquatch guitarist Keith Gibbs appears on second track “Exploration Team,” donating a solo in complement to Mundell, and flourishes of sitar and extra percussion appear on the Eastern-keyed “The Man with a Thousand Names,” but for a good portion of the album, it’s McCoy, Mundell and Ferrante on their own in outer-headspace, the backwards guitar and warm bass tone of intro cut “Unassigned Agent X-27” providing lead-in for “Exploration Team”’s winding riffs and immediately engaging fuzz. As with most of the material on the album, riffs feel plotted out beforehand – that is, for how well McCoy plays off Mundell’s guitar with bass fills, I don’t think he’s hearing this stuff for the first time as though it were made up on the spot in the studio – and changes are positioned well, guitars emerging, receding, making way for the bass and then coming forward again, but the underlying core is organic and working on a time-tested ethic of players in a room playing. Everything else is added around that central idea.
While that goes to deepen the actual listening experience, The UEMG’s Hendrixian jam-ready modus probably would’ve come through no matter what they put on top. Even as he takes an extended, soulful solo in “Get off My World!,” Mundell seems to leave room for the groove Ferrante and McCoy ride, and the result is one of the self-titled’s more engaging moments of laid back heavy psychedelia, produced crisply but not overly clean, and a distinguishing factor between The UEMG and Mundell’s work in his past outfits, the real character of the band emerging even as the track fades into “7000 Years through Time,” and the signature style of winding riffs is revived. Structured into two vinyl sides with cuts both just over 11:40 ending each one, The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic is well symmetrical as an album, whatever spontaneous characteristics it might present, and the band works ably within that sphere. Perhaps after so many years in Magnet, Mundell couldn’t help but give this record a sense of structure, even as comparably off the rails as it might seem on the surface with the difference of approach. Either way, it’s a stronger, richer listen for it, and with “7000 Years through Time” running into the extended “The Third Eye” to end the first half, their cosmic flow is well underway, only moving farther out into the far out with the longer jam, which starts out barn-burner fast, but eases into a slower groove toward the middle to rock a build near the end with some of McCoy’s best basslines of the album, holding the song together in its stillest moments and driving it forward toward the end at its most raucous.
Like a lot of heavy psych, The UEMG present an immersive listen, and with the host of effects swirling around “The Third Eye” and some of the other tracks here, it’s easy to get lost in the album. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think that was the intent, but the shifts in personality that “side B” (in quotes because the album is pressed to CD and I don’t know the status of a vinyl release) presents are worth conscious attention. McCoy continues his strong presence in “Rockets aren’t Cheap Enough” (first premiered here), matching Mundell’s riff with intricate smoothness while Ferrante makes hard rhythms sound easy, moving from toms to cowbell and back in the second half of the song on a dizzying run. Guitar is at the center of the track, but the song is longer than cuts like “Get off My World!” and “7000 Years through Time,” and even more jammed-feeling than what emerged on the first half of The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic, and when “The Man with a Thousand Names” emerges in a fading-in acid wash of backwards guitar and sitar, the effect is trance-inducing unlike anything prior on the record. Best of all, they build on it. It’s not just a blip of an intro to another running jam, but an actual exploration of its own, with sitar from Mundell and McCoy and rich percussion from Ferrante, resulting in a groove distinct from everything else The UEMG have on offer, coming to a complete stop so that the closing duo of “Hello to Oblivion” and “In the Atmosphere Factory” can act as a sky-bound slingshot, first drawing the listener back, back, back, just to touch the ground before being launched into the stratosphere.
As noted, “Hello to Oblivion” might be the most Bitchwax-esque moment on The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic, but it’s hard to argue with that style of riffing and the chemistry between Mundell, McCoy and Ferrante as it plays out over the course of the song, which enacts a build in its bridge that makes the return to the central – that’s not to say “chorus” – riff an act of triumph on the part of the band. Mundell offers some choice shred in the second half while McCoy and Ferrante feed the circular groove behind, distorted noise on top leading the way out and into “In the Atmosphere Factory,” the sweet, slow echo of which is both Floydian and the band’s own, McCoy providing a bed for far-back guitar leads to swell and fade while Ferrante marches out a gradual progression behind. Heavy. Psych. The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic go deeper into the unknown reaches with “In the Atmosphere Factory” than anything else on their self-titled debut, and from the title they gave the jam I’m guessing they know it. That doesn’t change the fact, and as knock-you-upside-the-head-with-these-changes as some of the record has been to this point, I find the contrasting position no less satisfying, Mundell’s solo and rhythm tracks rich with reverb and the three-piece all pushing toward the same lysergic bliss. They get there (how could they not?) and cap The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic with one of its most improv-sounding stretches as regards the lead guitar and how they actually bring about the finish of what’s by then a fine-in-the-big-booty-sense cosmic jam and the record as a whole.
Because the sound at the root of it is so natural, it’s interesting to think of this record as being years in the making, but between Mundell getting this trio together and building up the relationships between the three players, never mind the actual recording and release itself, it was. As such, I can’t help but wonder how The UEMG might approach a follow-up, and if they’d be eager to delve more into the sci-fi thematic or align themselves to a more straightforward modus, perhaps keeping the basic jams at the center and more and more building them into songs, but either way, this debut marks not only a resurgence for Mundell, who hasn’t been heard from on an album in the three years since he departed Monster Magnet, but a rich beginning point for this unit, whose potential is stamped on almost every note they play. Whatever direction they head in, count on a spaced-out result rife with quality grooving and a veritable solar system of solos. That should be plenty for a great start, and sure enough, on The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic, it is.
Tags: California, Ed Mundell, The UEMG, The Ultra Electric Mega Galactic, Unsigned bands