There can be little question that Stranded in Arcadia is not the album that Mars Red Sky set out to make, or at very least that it wasn’t made under the intended conditions. The best laid plan of the forerunning French heavy psych rockers was to do a week of shows in South America before heading north to the California desert to track their second full-length and Listenable Records debut, but the usual visa issues (what my country has against importing quality guitar tone, I’ll never know) kept them in Rio de Janeiro for that week instead, and rather than go home without a record done, they hit Estúdio Superfuzz to put to tape with Gabriel Zander what eventually became the eight-song/45-minute long-player that takes its title from the circumstances of its creation. Stranded in Arcadia sounds better in any case than “stuck in Rio” would have, and speaking as someone who’s become a fan of the band since the 2011 release of their self-titled debut (review here), it’s hard to argue with the results in the finished product. Even from last year’s Be My Guide EP (review here), Stranded in Arcadia marks audible progress in the psychedelic, airy feel from guitarist/vocalist Julien Pras, bassist/vocalist Jimmy Kinast and drummer Matgaz, who makes his proper debut here after first appearing on part of the shorter 2013 release.
What has made Mars Red Sky such an utter joy on the ears to this point has been the smoothness with which they tie that heavy psychedelia to both a melodic sweetness and a huge-tone desert rock groove. Listening to Stranded in Arcadia tracks like “Hovering Satellites” the later “Seen a Ghost” and the ultra-swinging “Holy Mondays,” on which Kinast joins Pras for vocals in the verse only to take the lead for the chorus — something also done on the self-titled’s “Marble Sky,” but achieved more confidently here — I’m glad to find these elements are enhanced if anything, and that while there’s more impact to the tones and the notes seem to land with more of a thud than the prior LP or EP, that comes at no sacrifice of melody. Indeed, on “Join the Race,” Mars Red Sky are their most unabashedly blissful yet, tapping a psych-era Beatles influence for one of Stranded in Arcadia‘s most effective hooks. Those are not in short supply, incidentally. Where the self-titled nestled into the rolling grooves of “Way to Rome,” “Strong Reflection” and the extra dreamy “Up the Stairs,” the second outing seems to build on these accomplishments with the expansive but efficient craft of “Circles,” “Join the Race” and opener and longest track at 8:04 (immediate points) “The Light Beyond,” which explodes from an initial far-off guitar line into otherworldly vocals and elephantine plod, only then to unfold the first of Stranded in Arcadia‘s highlight choruses in tones more weighted but no less patient than one could hope given the band’s work up to this point.
If I seem locked into comparing Stranded in Arcadia with its predecessor releases from Mars Red Sky, perhaps that’s because there’s so little else one might relate in terms of the band’s methods. Mars Red Sky have very quickly, very masterfully become a singular act within heavy psych, and quite frankly there’s nobody else so able to maintain their balance of lush melody, tonal heft, jammy sensibility, memorable songwriting and unmistakable groove. That Stranded in Arcadia held firm to these is triumph enough, but to hear “Hovering Satellites” kick in with Matgaz‘s double-bass drumming and send its quicker roll headfirst into the wide-open chorus easily positions the album among the most satisfying I’ve heard thus far into 2014. An already fervent appreciation deepens as “Hovering Satellites” moves into a wah-soaked guitar-led jam, only to have the instruments drop out as Pras begins a return to the chorus with just his echoing vocals, setting up a build that will play out over the remaining 90-plus seconds. “Holy Mondays” is the shortest of the actual songs here — closer “Beyond the Light” is a two-and-a-half-minute reprieve of “The Light Beyond” — but solidifies around the dually-delivered singing of Kinast and Pras to set in stone a specific point of progression on the part of the band and one I hope they continue to develop going forward, Kinast‘s lower register approach meshing well with Pras‘ higher range, which gets further showcase on the aforementioned chorus of “Join the Race,” which follows.
Presumably, “Join the Race” marks the end of the vinyl’s side A, since it’s where the tracklist and respective runtimes break most evenly in half, and if that’s actually the case, it does so on another underscoring of how far Mars Red Sky have come in their relatively few years, its gorgeous vocal line complemented by insistent push of bass, drums and guitar — a ba-bum-dum that gets more engaging with each repetition — leaving the semi-title-track “Arcadia” to begin side B with an immersive instrumental jam. I imagine on LP it’s a much different experience than the linear CD or digital version, since there’s a necessary break to flip the physical record, but otherwise, “Arcadia” is almost too easy to get lost in. At just under six minutes, it rises from silence to considerable mass, but never loses its swirl or psychedelic presence in a kind of waltz, Pras‘ guitar lead crying out a kind of loneliness that speaks more to the “stranded” side than the paradise of “Arcadia.” A start-stop bassline from Kinast and flowing progression from Matgaz keep “Arcadia” moving into an even airier midsection break, noise echoing in back before the course is resumed, the jam gorgeously executed in what turns out to be fundamental to the momentum of Stranded in Arcadia when one is able to stave off its hypnotic effects. Heavier tone arrives after the 4:30 mark to carry through to the end and snap to consciousness that comes on with the more active shuffle of “Circles.”
Though outshined by some of the flashier hooks on “Hovering Satellites,” “Holy Mondays” or “Seen a Ghost” still to come, “Circles” is nonetheless an example of Mars Red Sky proffering their most swinging grooves, and the stoner rock bounce that ensues in the riff is both classic and distinctly belonging to the band — a signature of sorts. Another effective break sets up a bigger chorus finish, and for the push after “Arcadia” and its relative boogie quotient, “Circles” gives a welcome lead-in for the seven-minute “Seen a Ghost,” which begins with Matgaz‘s drums setting the pattern soon joined by Pras and Kinast. If Mars Red Sky have ever stomped anywhere, if they stomp at all on Stranded in Arcadia, it’s here. The intro teases what’s to come effectively, but when the verse hits with (at least) double-tracked vocals over singular chugging, it seems obvious that the album is reaching its peak. An infectious nod unfolds and is maintained through the verses, the chorus that follows providing a dreamy break from the plodding central riff, soon enough to return. This pattern is repeated a second time and carried into a wah-echo jam that pulls back on the thrust, only to see it return after the wash is cut off announced first by Kinast‘s bass and then built up from there in the last 30 seconds, a last verse squeezing in on the quick before noise carries into the post-script “Beyond the Light” provides to bookend Stranded in Arcadia with its revival of the opener’s guitar line.
It’s a brief enough outro, and definitely more of an ambient setpiece than a standalone single, but it does much to round out the atmosphere of Stranded in Arcadia and give a further sense of realization to the full-length as a whole work. Like the culmination of “Seen a Ghost,” it’s a wash of melodic, open-spaced psychedelia, Matgaz holding down a beat on drums for Pras and Kinast to swirl-out over until all fade out to echoes of what was probably a much longer jam in the studio itself. Mars Red Sky may not have been able to record Stranded in Arcadia as they had aimed, but in both Brazil and upon returning to France where they did some additional recording, they managed to create an album that serves as both a follow-up to their self-titled, a worthy introduction to anyone who may not have heard that debut, and a marked expansion of their already richly creative methods. I don’t mind saying flat out that I consider them to be one of the best and most distinct acts in or out of heavy psychedelia, and for how easy they make their melding of exploratory jams and grounded structures feel — never mind the actual quality of the material itself — I have no doubt that when the end of 2014 arrives, Stranded in Arcadia will be counted as one of its most substantive milestones. One can only hope they feel positive about the experience of making it, because they should. Recommended.