Before we get to any question of whether Mondo Drag‘s third album, The Occultation of Light (also their second release on RidingEasy), is the band’s best work, or how it shows them progressing or any of this or that, the first thing to say about it is that it is easily their most accurate LP to-date. What the hell does that mean? Well, their 2009 debut, New Rituals (review here), had no shortage of neo-psych charm, but was formative and didn’t really portray the full breadth of what their sound has become. That’s not taking away from it; the band’s circumstances changed. Recorded in 2012, their 2015 sophomore outing, Mondo Drag (review here), was captured prior to a move from Davenport, Iowa, to Oakland, California, and featured a short-lived incarnation of the band which, by the time the record came out, already had traded its rhythm section for the current one with bassist Andrew O’Neil and drummer Ventura Garcia.
I won’t take away from that album either — it was among my favorites of last year — but as the eight tracks of The Occultation of Light were recorded last year, by Phil Manley (Trans Am, Wooden Shjips), as they were recorded live to tape, and as they were tracked just after the band got off tour, their current lineup of Garcia, O’Neal, guitarists Jake Sheley and Nolan Girard (also synth) and keyboardist/vocalist John Gamino intact, there can be little question that the band’s third offering is their most accurate portrayal yet of where they actually are in their growth, their songwriting and their collective performance.
I won’t say that makes it like a debut, since they’re definitely benefiting here from the several years this lineup has played together and the experience from the two prior LPs, but for what it’s worth, they seem to be in a good place, and their sound is fresh even as it plays off classic ideas throughout the winding opener “Initiation” and the transprogrified “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”-style roll of “Out of Sight.” More even than the self-titled, vintage progressive rock plays a role in Mondo Drag‘s sound here, whether that comes in the twists, underlying shuffle and key solo of the opener or the synth flourish in the subsequent track and the organ/drum lead-in for “Rising Omen,” which should be a highlight for anyone who has missed underrated King Crimson disciples Hypnos 69 as it unfurls a groove languid enough to make it totally natural when Gamino enters for the first verse and half the song is already over.
As much about atmosphere as its later energetic uptick, “Rising Omen” builds as it goes, but remains patient enough so that the immediacy of Garcia‘s bouncing snare at the start of “Incendiary Procession” is a direct contradiction, and one clearly enacted on purpose. Met by keys/synth for a lead in the first half and a noteworthy stretch of chases and stops in the second, it’s an instrumental finish to The Occultation of Light‘s first half that shows diversity in songwriting for exactly how plotted it is in comparison to the cut preceding, which seemed intended as more of a showcase for the band’s psychedelic side and foundation in a natural writing process.
That side will come up again throughout “The Eye” and “In Your Head (Part I & II)” and the near-eight-minute “Dying Light” on side B before “Ride the Sky” (not a Lucifer’s Friend cover) wraps the album, but what’s even more striking about The Occultation of Light‘s back end is how fluidly one piece transitions into the next. Particularly among the first three tracks — “Dying Light” ends cold and “Ride the Sky” picks up from there; not lacking flow, but not shifting immediately one into the other — there are no discernible seams. Also instrumental save for some Hawkwindy spoken word later on, “The Eye” starts with “Moonchild”-style minimalism and from there looses a rich, not-at-all-haphazard psychedelic push, organ and guitar intertwining late en route to the crashing start of “In Your Head (Part I & II),” which starts intense but mellows presumably as it shifts between its two component parts (there’s a stop beat and then all is chill), allowing space for some ethereal verses as it moves toward the end, which “Dying Light” meets quickly with a tense measure of amp noise before exploding into its full vibrancy.
The longest track included at 7:52, it’s also rife with movement throughout, shifting smoothly between its parts early on, riding a choice bassline as it moves toward its middle and building to a full-on prog freakout by about five minutes in, only to end on a line of guitars, keys, bass and drums, the band hitting into a swing riff and bringing it to a quick end before “Ride the Sky” takes hold. Probably not fair to call the shorter piece an afterthought, as its boogieing blend of organ and guitar helps reground The Occultation of Light in its final moments, but it’s obviously not at all geared toward the same kind of expanse as the rest of the side before it.
This too is clearly a purposeful move on the band’s part, since as they’re giving listeners this most accurate glimpse at who they are sonically, that persona they establish here is nothing if not cognizant of the choices it’s making. While it’s only hitting a year after their preceding album, The Occultation of Light is a long time coming from Mondo Drag, and while it builds on what they’ve done before and particularly the progressive stylizations were taking hold with the self-titled, it also finds a core part of their identity in that process of moving forward. It feels like an arrival, but I wouldn’t bet on the band staying put for too long, creatively-speaking.