To look at the grim cover art for the two full-lengths Mos Generator have released since guitarist/vocalist Tony Reed got back together with bassist Scooter Haslip and drummer Shawn Johnson, one might expect rambling, depressive miseries. Their 2012 return, Nomads (review here), on Ripple Music, boasted a cawing black crow on a gravestone silhouetted against a red sky, and though its tones are brighter in beiges and yellows, the trio’s follow-up, Electric Mountain Majesty — which also serves as their Listenable Records debut — features an Adam Burke painting that’s striking and ultimately no less mournful, cavernous skull eyes staring directly at the viewer while a totem eagle drawn on hints at some lost sense of ritual. If that’s the titular majesty that waits on top of the Electric Mountain, we’re boned, however, within the 10 tracks of the album itself one finds a much different picture being crafted by the Port Orchard, Washington, heavy rock specialists, though Electric Mountain Majesty is a bleaker album thematically and in its execution than was Nomads. Well comfortable in his role as auteur, Reed once again engineered, mixed and mastered the album himself, but in so doing seems to have pushed the sense of physical space in the recording much further than the last time out, giving tracks like the bass-heavy “Enter the Fire,” richly grooved “Neon Nightmare” and even the speedier title-track an open-air feel. It’s a bigger sound, but it suits the songs well, and as ever for Mos Generator, it’s the songs themselves that come across as the primary concern.
Whether in Mos Generator, Stone Axe, HeavyPink or any number of the other bands and projects he’s had along the way, Reed‘s genius has always rested in the crafting of memorable, structured songs, and no, I don’t think “genius” is too strong a word. He’s a natural and practiced songwriter, and over Electric Mountain Majesty‘s press-it-to-vinyl 43 minutes, there resound in songs like “Black Magic Mirror,” “Nothing Left but Night” and opener “Beyond the Whip” the kinds of choruses one anticipates from an artist of such accomplishment. The chief distinction is in the character of these songs. In “Nothing Left but Night,” which is the second cut behind “Beyond the Whip,” Reed intones, “You may find me on the edge of the light/But deep inside me there’s nothing left but darkest night.” This after one of the album’s several already-impressive solo sections. It’s a long way from Nomads‘ “I’m a traveler in a cosmic ark,” and more along the lines of some of the sorrowful lyrical ground Stone Axe covered in its heavy ’70s style, leaving an underlying moodier side to what still remain upbeat heavy rock numbers. Maybe Electric Mountain Majesty was to be Mos Generator‘s doom album, and if so, fair enough in their pushing stylistic bounds, but musically, “Beyond the Whip” still shuffles, and “Breaker” and “Electric Mountain Majesty” have a motoring rush, all the more so the latter, that works in contrast to lines like, “You can believe what you want to believe/But we all die in the end/Don’t waste your time trying to save my life/I’m dying now the way I want to,” from “Breaker.” Taken as a whole, it’s hard to decide where the real heaviness on Electric Mountain Majesty lies, in the music or the lyrics.
For its gloomy elements, Electric Mountain Majesty remains an uplifting listen. The trio chemistry between Reed, Haslip and Johnson is tight and fluid, and slower pieces like “Spectres” and “Early Mourning” find them no less comfortable than the speedier tracks, a diversity of approach that saves the album from stagnation and adds to the overarching flow of each side. Perhaps if one wants an example of the two varied impulses at work on Electric Mountain Majesty, the A/B centerpieces “Enter the Fire” and “Electric Mountain Majesty” would work best. The former is ultimately midpaced but unfolds gradually atop a bed of steady background guitar while the bass and drums lead through the verses to the chorus, which finds Reed repeating the title in multiple layers over a full-toned push. The latter — as if offering a counterargument — boasts an insistent chug in its verse and a speedy play on Sabbath‘s “Hole in the Sky” for a melodically engaging hook, slowing some in the midsection but reaching its apex in a furious surge of soloing and riffing just before ending cold. What the two songs have in common is they’re both eminently accessible. Catchy, to put it lightly. They’re among the album’s most resonant inclusions, and help to tie together what might in lesser hands be disparate approaches. I speak as a fan of the band and of Reed‘s work in general, but it seems that neither track has any trouble bridging the gap between the immediacy of “Beyond the Whip” (also the shortest song at 3:08) and the larger low-end sway of “Black Magic Mirror,” congruity emerging through consistency in production and the quality of the songwriting throughout.
Putting these songs in the context of Nomads preceding, maybe what’s happening in cuts like “Early Mourning” and “Breaker” is Mos Generator is meeting head-on what “Lonely One Kenobi” and “Can’t Get Where I Belong” from the last album hinted at emotionally. As Mos Generator continue to transition from a reunited band to a working one, their progression seems to be taking them to places they haven’t yet been. “Black Magic Mirror” is the first half of an effective closing duo rounded out by the forward movement of “Heavy Ritual,” a condensed affirmation of the prior tracks’ perspective and a song that offers some beginning sense of wandering in its instrumental finish that, it seems, probably could’ve jammed out indefinitely, Johnson‘s ride holding the ground for a short solo before returning to steady hi-hat timekeeping. At a little over four minutes, it’s not as grandiose an ending as one might expect from the title, but it meshes well with Electric Mountain Majesty‘s sincere and resonant take. Mos Generator have a different dynamic than they did three years ago, sonically less than in their general point of view, but ultimately their latest work stands more in line with its cover than did its predecessor. It makes for an intriguing duality, since the spirit of the music and songwriting retains such a refreshing, accomplished feel. Electric Mountain Majesty is something new from Mos Generator, and though it succeeds in engaging on the same satisfying level of their past outings — they have been and remain among the upper crust of American heavy rock purveyors — it also takes them to a darker place they haven’t yet been.