Cobras and Fire is the second Monster Magnet release of its kind. In 2014, the stalwart New Jersey outfit, very much led by frontman Dave Wyndorf, issued Milking the Stars (review here), a collection of tracks reworked from their original incarnations on 2013’s Last Patrol (review here). “Reimagined” was how the extended title put it, and rightly enough. Subtitled The Mastermind Redux, Cobras and Fire fulfills a similar function in relation to 2010’s Mastermind (review here), taking some of its tracks and reinterpreting them into something new. The difference? The tracks from Mastermind had much further to go to get this weird. I’ll make no bones about not being much of a fan of Monster Magnet‘s original 2010 offering.
While what was their debut on Napalm Records was unarguably their biggest-sounding album, it was overpopulated with filler and played more to what had become the expectation for the band’s material — grandiose lyrical proclamations of cosmic supremacy met with driving hard rock riffing and just a nudge of classic rock influence. It grossly under-served a vision of Monster Magnet that was rooted not in commercial enterprise, but in being so much its own thing that one couldn’t help but buy in. Last Patrol marked a turn toward more psychedelic fare, not trying to recapture what made the band’s earliest work — Spine of God (1991), Superjudge (1993) and Dopes to Infinity (1995) — so pivotal as much as bringing that side of their approach forward for a modern update, and so Milking the Stars was more of an expansion along the same lines. In revisiting cuts from Mastermind and bringing them into the fold of where Monster Magnet are today stylistically as opposed to where they were five years ago, Wyndorf and his studio co-conspirator Phil Caivano (guitar, bass, etc.) basically had to work from the ground up.
Thus, a song like the sleaze-laden opener “She Digs that Hole” bares little resemblance to “Dig that Hole” from Mastermind, on which it’s based. The level of what’s-there-now to what-was-already-there varies throughout, and in the case of instrumentals “The Titan” and “Time Machine,” an essential function came in pulling vocals out entirely from the original tracks, the effect of the songs completely different in expanding a cinematic and atmospheric, emotional breadth, respectively, enriching the listening experience as a whole and deepening the cuts surrounding. But even that isn’t the entire story. Last Patrol was a humbler affair than Mastermind, and that worked much to the record’s benefit, so to find “Hallucination Bomb,” which was all bluster and crash, a nine-minute psychedelic exploration is duly refreshing.
On Cobras and Fire, it follows the organ-laced Baby Woodrose-style garage-rock bouncer “Watch Me Fade” (originally a bonus cut, if you want to talk about reshuffled priorities), which picks up the tempo from the attitude-laden “She Digs that Hole” and the revamped title-track, which is spacious without bring overbearing, and aside from being the point of delivery for the title line, it is a signature moment for the album and a marked triumph in its approach, drummer Bob Pantella (also of The Atomic Bitchwax) holding the rhythm steady as Wyndorf and Caivano space out on guitar and keys and other conjurations-of-swirl. It’s not the most space-rock inclusion — that’s still to come — but as a work of heavy psych it shows that not only can Monster Magnet tap into the lysergic intent that helped establish them as such an influential act worldwide, but that they can do so in a manner that sounds utterly current in its classicism. Calling up from the churn, Wyndorf gives a last-minute touch of humanity to a jam that sounds like it could shoot well over the 10-minute mark, though here it leads into a blissfully quiet rendering of “Gods and Punks,” stripped of its pseudo-anthemic trappings and resting only on the already-there strength of its songwriting.
A subtle build is enacted across “Gods and Punks,” and Wyndorf still takes what he takes because he wants what he wants in the chorus, rest assured, but there’s so much less performance of swagger that, in comparison, the original song seems forced. Here, “Gods and Punks” plays out spaciously over a quiet central guitar figure, casting echoes outward less not in chest-beating dudery but in cleverer turns and more intricate delivery. A fade brings about “The Titan,” the keys and strings of which are, perhaps, Cobras and Fire‘s most blustery moment, and with the thudding kick-drum that begins “When the Planes Fall from the Sky,” Monster Magnet signal a shift into more straightforward fare that does indeed play out, but even that plays out in an engagingly trippy fashion, reverb-soaked and added backing swirl resulting in an affect more nod and less headbang. While there’s no interruption to the overarching flow, “Ball of Confusion” presents another stylistic transition.
Playing off the original by The Temptations, it’s a moment of pure Hawkwindian space rock, the thrust full-on in the drums and bass as Wyndorf rides the forward wave and backs himself in the chorus en route to a freaked-out midsection that leads to an especially victorious final return, a long fade and stretch of sampled wind noise leading to a six-minute take on “Time Machine,” fleshed into piano and guitar interplay and, without vocals, given an introspective feel no less trance-inducing than was the expanse of “Hallucination Bomb.” That makes its quiet finish a perfect lead-in for the Joe Barresi-constructed “I Live Behind the Paradise Machine: Evil Joe Barresi’s Magnet Mash Vol. 1,” the cumbersomely-named mashup closer that takes parts of “I Live Behind the Clouds” and “Paradise” from Last Patrol and puts them together in a track that, even though it doesn’t necessarily draw from Mastermind — that said, there could very well be part of “Time Machine” in there — serves as a completely necessary final statement of just how far out Monster Magnet have gone from the comfortable space in which they resided half a decade ago.
The almost wistful feel of “I Live Behind the Clouds” in lines like “Nothing’s important yet everything is/There ain’t no picture, I just don’t exist” is turned into even more of a cultural critique with the complementary chorus, “Nobody saved no paradise for me,” handed-on gruffer and accompanied by a scathing wash of lead guitar. At nearly nine minutes, it’s second in length only to “Hallucination Bomb,” but no less essential, as noted above, both in the actual listening of Cobras and Fire front to back and in what it means in terms of how wide-open the answer to “What does Monster Magnet sound like?” has become.
One might criticize Cobras and Fire and/or Milking the Stars as revisionist history — and it’s worth noting that I have no idea if anything guitarist Ed Mundell played on the original version of Mastermind is still present in these tracks — but that seems to me to be missing the point. It’s not about rewriting what Monster Magnet has done before. Those records are out, period. It’s about taking something thought of as established and poking it, pushing it, reshaping it into something different. Fucking with it, in other words. It’s about fucking with it, and for an idea as sacrosanct as a finished full-length album, it suits Monster Magnet particularly well to go back and turn expectation on its head. That seems to be something of a specialty these days, and while it makes whatever might come next less predictable, it also makes it more anticipated.