The Machine and Sungrazer have a lot in common. Both are three-piece bands. Both hail from the Netherlands. Both are signed to Elekrohasch, and both specialize in a densely-fuzzed kind of heavy psych, born out of a healthy affection for Fu Manchu-via-Colour Haze tube-bursting idolatry. They share parts but not the whole of an aesthetic in this, and both represent a jam-minded outgrowth of the European underground, even as they continue to craft memorable songs in balance with an open feel. For The Machine, who come from Rotterdam, their 2012 full-length, Calmer than You Are (review here), unveiled a distinct progression in their sound, taking the vibes of their three prior offerings and solidifying them into something more completely the band’s own, moving past some of the Colour Haze-ing and into a guitar-led groovefest, varying in its drive but never without movement. Released a few months earlier, Sungrazer‘s 2011 sophomore outing, Mirador (review here), was as brilliant as it was dreamy. A follow-up to their also-stellar self-titled debut, it build on the ultra-warm tonality of the first album and pushed further into a sunny, jammed laconic semi-consciousness, keeping a sense of exploration in songs that even through that remained catchy and engaging, not at all indulgent sounding where they shouldn’t have been. It’s not necessarily surprising that the two acts would team up for a tour, which they did earlier this year, calling it “Strikes and Gutters” in keeping with The Machine‘s fetish for The Big Lebowski, but that the up-and-comers would unite for a split release to mark the occasion was something of a bonus. Issued by Elektrohasch, The Machine and Sungrazer‘s The Machine & Sungrazer split arrives both as vinyl and CD with three tracks from each act that showcase both what they share in terms of approach and some of the key differences between, totaling a comfortable 47-minute long-player rife with some of the best next-gen heavy psych Europe has to offer.
Guitarist/vocalist David Eering of The Machine recorded both bands at his Studio De Zolder, so there’s a consistency of sound between the two that most splits don’t have, allowing for a complete flow across the tracks even as the CD changes between The Machine and Sungrazer at the halfway point. Both bands open big, with The Machine taking the kind of riff that High on Fire seemed to use to construct the entirety of The Art of Self Defense and riding it for more than 10 minutes of chugging splendor. Following a sample of the moon landing (“The Eagle has landed”), Eering begins the track on guitar to announce said riff and is soon joined by a booming bass glissando from Hans van Heemst and drum crash from Davy Boogaard – the course is immediately set. Some riffs are enough to carry a song, and presented as hugely as this one is, it pretty much does, Eering topping with some echoing vocals and a numerical chorus line “10-56-69” reminiscent of “5 & 4” from Calmer than You Are without being redundant of it. An extended fuzzy solo break provides some change as Boogaard’s steady snare holds the piece together, and when they return to the central riff, it sounds even bigger than before, devolving into noise and feedback to close out the last minute-plus. This leads to the surprising rush of the 2:31 “Not Only,” which showcases a punkish side that does most of the work in distinguishing The Machine from their psychedelic peers. A strong hook pokes through on the quick as the song races past in two verses and choruses, a solo and a heads-down pummeling outro, and the trio find some contextual middle ground between the two atmospheres on the ensuing “Slipface,” dialing back on the pace but keeping the extended form of the opener and the chorus-minded vibe of the second cut. A solid stoner rocker, it reinforces the analog-type warmth in Eering’s recording and opens to a jammier feel as feedback is underscored by van Heemst’s bass and Boogaard’s drums, setting up a wah-heavy solo that moves into an instrumental jam that persists for the duration of the song, abandoning the structure in favor of psychedelic exploration, but hinting at it enough instrumentally to give a sense that The Machine haven’t lost sight of their departure point. They end quietly with a sweet drone and some effects noise, making way for the big drum crash that opens Sungrazer’s “Dopo.”
Here’s where that consistency of sound really matters. By recording both acts at the same studio, Eering was able to see that Sungrazer sounded distinct from The Machine, but that they didn’t undercut the momentum already built throughout the first three tracks. That both bands share thick fuzz and big drum sounds goes a long way in making that work, and Sungrazer’s “Dopo” isn’t just a big riff and airy psychedelic wash, it’s also directly in conversation with The Machine’s “Awe,” which opened their half of the split. That’s not to understate the size of its riff, though, nor the effectiveness of its groove, since when Sungrazer decide to solidify around a part, they mean business. “Dopo” opens from its initial progression to a more spacious verse, bassist Sander Haagmans keeping the rhythm of the first riff going as the Rutger Smeets’ guitars space out, the vocals enter and Hans Mulders’ drums move to a quieter vibe. They pick back up from the bassline and go back to the intro riff, which then gets topped with an emergent psychedelic wash of guitar lead, then make their way through another languid verse and, in turn, through the heavier part again, adding flourish through a few changes and rounding out the last minute with gorgeous vocal layering and a more driving groove. Haagmans moves to the fore on “Yo La Tengo,” with a prominent bass riff that leads the way through the song while Smeets complements with Yawning Man-style guitar, gradually coming together around a launch line before three minutes of the total 8:16, Mulders also moving to a more straightforward crash progression. Sungrazer are really, really good at this kind of smoothness and making such changes sound natural, and their patience pays dividends on “Yo La Tengo,” which is both hypnotic and progressive, giving way to a consuming bass fuzz and vocal in its latter half, the guitar coming in and going out on sweet lead lines before finishing with a part that’s equally payoff and outro, but still fitting with the overarching laid back feel of the song. Closer “Flow through a Good Story” – the shortest of Sungrazer’s three at 7:07 – reminds of some of the more resonant choruses of Sungrazer’s self-titled, casting off some of the spaciousness of the preceding “Yo La Tengo” in favor of a more boogieing earthbound take. They work just as well in that sphere, as it happens, and manage to still evoke a psychedelic feel in the midsection, from which they return to the chorus and end by crashing and ringing out much the same as The Machine did on “Slipface.”
Splits are usually a dubious proposition. Sometimes you get a cool track or two from one or both of the bands, or more if there’s more, but sometimes what you wind up with is a collection of non-album throwaways that sound mismatched and ill-fitting. Whatever aspects of aesthetic Sungrazer and The Machine share and however they may differ – if you want to take a respective poll of the personality variances between them, compare “Not Only” with “Yo La Tengo” more than “Awe” to “Dopo” – they complement each other exceedingly well on this split, and the quality of the material both present makes The Machine & Sungrazer a treasure from two bands who have found their sonic paths and are beginning to refine their sound with a real sense of creative will. For a heavy psych head who may have encountered one or the other band, or who want to take an opportunity to get introduced to both, or who has followed each since their debut – audience experience level doesn’t really matter – this is a rare split that’s well worth chasing down.