Since the release of their self-titled debut in 2007, Radio Moscow have specialized in tight-knit heavy psychedelic blues rock, topped off with the barnburner fretwork of guitarist/vocalist Parker Griggs. In drummer Paul Marrone (also Astra and Psicomagia) and bassist Anthony Meier (also Sacri Monti), Griggs has a rhythm section not only able to stand up to his own playing, but to meet it head on, and their fifth album for Alive Records, Magical Dirt, is all the stronger for it. Radio Moscow‘s last proper studio outing was 2011’s The Great Escape of Leslie Magnafuzz, and it’s always tricky to figure which of the instruments Griggs is handling himself on a given release — he seemed to play everything on 2012’s previously-lost-tracks LP 3 &3 Quarters, originally recorded in 2003 — but the dynamic that Radio Moscow brings to their stage performance is present throughout Magical Dirt‘s 10 tracks and 42 minutes, and they not only live up to the form and intent of their past work in capturing a rush of heavy ’70s swagger and swing, but they push deeper into the command of the elements at work in their sound. Take the second-to-last track, “Before it Burns.” Right around two minutes in, the song shifts gears almost immediately from winding riffs and fleet shuffle into an airy psych jam that stands out maybe most of all for how much on an initial listen you might not even notice it until you’re already halfway through. The reason that’s the case is because Radio Moscow are completely in control of the material by that point in the album, and able to take and put the listener precisely where they want them to be. Eastern scales and percussion that come seemingly out of nowhere would be out of place on so many other records, but on Magical Dirt, pretty much whatever Radio Moscow decide to fit, they fit.
Chiefly, what they fit into these songs is a whole lot of volatility. At any moment, songs like opener “So Alone,” or “These Days,” “Got the Time” or “Rancho Tehama Airport” sound like they could completely come apart, like when you shake the bolts loose on a piece of machinery and the whole thing collapses into a pile of parts, but even at their fastest, Radio Moscow retain control, and while the whole of Magical Dirt retains an organic, live-feeling production, it’s also got clarity enough to showcase just how precise the band is in pulling it all off. Hooks are in steady supply, whether it’s the chorus of the mostly acoustic “Sweet L’il Thing” or the maddeningly catchy instrumental bounce of “Death of a Queen,” which ends playfully following channel-panning leads from Griggs without letting go of the reins. That’s to say nothing of the songwriting at play in side B’s “Gypsy Fast Woman,” which boasts a funkier groove and more blazing solos on top of subtle bass fills and enviable snare work en route to one of Magical Dirt‘s most infectious refrains. “Bridges” is the longest cut at 5:19 and starts the album’s second half with a pullback on tempo compared to the rush of “These Days” before it — a winding section of guitar, bass and drums also seems to recall “Death of a Queen” — but the wealth of wah provides continuity between sides A and B of Magical Dirt and by the time “Bridges” breaks to an acoustic-led blues jam topped with an electric lead in its own second half, you’re either on board for the ride or you’re not going to be. Fortunately, the earlier one-two blues of “So Alone” and boogie in “Rancho Tehama Airport,” which was also released as a pre-album single, also give a clear indication of some of Radio Moscow‘s lysergic tendencies, and by then, the flow is well established. They continue into the layered groove of “Gypsy Fast Woman” without so much as a hiccup for the sidestep in approach.
And again, “Gypsy Fast Woman” does emerge as a highlight of Magical Dirt after repeat listens. It has some stiff competition in that regard from cuts like “Death of a Queen,” “Rancho Tehama Airport” and the bluesy semi-unplugged closer “Stinging,” but if there’s one factor that ties the record to everything Radio Moscow have done to this point no matter who’s been in the lineup, it’s that the sound is dense, comprised of pieced-together layers not overdone, but throwing a lot at the listener and daring them to keep up. Part of what makes their approach so exciting the first several times through is exactly that — the far greater likelihood is that someone who just puts a Radio Moscow album on unsuspecting isn’t going to keep up at all — but Magical Dirt also reinforces the strength in songwriting and performance to back up that initial adrenaline. In some ways, they practice a lost art in tracing a lineage back to classic heavy rock and making that sound modern without losing the soul or vibe, but while the components they use may wind up familiar, any given track on Magical Dirt stands out with enough nuance to support a whole that belongs entirely to Radio Moscow. That is, the songs are more than just exciting. They’re also well composed and varied in mood and approach. And they’re not just layering in seven guitar tracks for no reason. They’re creating an atmosphere. That Radio Moscow can do all this while also nailing blinding rhythmic shifts like they’re nothing and tossing off Hendrixian solos seemingly by the dozen is all the more a testament to the quality of their work. Whatever level you might want to meet them on, they’re already there. As Griggs continues to refine his songwriting, the output only seems to become more accomplished, and Magical Dirt finds Radio Moscow completely at home in the chaos of their own making. Their dynamic at this point — as much as it’s guitar-based, the contributions of Meier and Marrone are not to be understated — is second to none, and when inclined, they can still be explosive, but they keep aware of the need for more than just bombast. Magical Dirt is worth the effort of listening carefully and listening often.