Mars Red Sky showed with last year’s split/collaboration EP with French countrymen Year of No Light that although their prior self-titled debut was typified by sweet melodies, memorable progressions, and a dense low end presented with a warm, laid back feel, that was by no means the extent of the trio’s breadth. That album (review here) was among 2011’s most pleasant surprises, and even though the aforementioned Green Rune White Totem split (more on it here) inevitably expanded the band’s reach, that expansion never seemed to come at the sacrifice of the elements that gave the full-length its lasting appeal. Admittedly, it’s a record I still put on, so when it comes to Mars Red Sky’s proper follow-up, the new Be My Guide EP, I’m glad to find the case is much the same as with the split – there’s growth evident, but neither have they abandoned what worked so well about their first outing. The EP, released vinyl-only as the first catalog number for the band’s own Mars Red Sound imprint, is four tracks of gorgeous, fuzzed-out heavy psychedelia that clock in just under 27 minutes.
The LP is presented with due symmetry, each of the two sides featuring two tracks, the first a new cut with the lineup of Julien Pras (guitar/vocals), Jimmy Kinast (bass) and Matgaz (drums) and the second a departure from the form and process. On side A, that comes in the shape of the seven-minute “Seen a Ghost,” which was recorded with previous drummer Benoît Busser in a separate session from the other three cuts on Be My Guide, and closing out side B, it’s “Stranger” a cover of 17 Hippies‘ “Ton Étrangère” with lyrics translated into English. Both “Seen a Ghost” — which it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume was put to tape earlier than the other three, since it was obviously done before Busser was no longer in the band — and “Stranger” mark a musical shift, not so much away from the bliss-through-simplicity fuzzy bounce of “Be My Guide” or the wah swirl that takes hold in side B opener “Clean White Hands,” but definitely moving with those pieces to someplace they haven’t gone before.
That’s not to say “Be My Guide” and “Clean White Hands” don’t also show growth in Mars Red Sky‘s songwriting methods or the general atmosphere those methods create. Far from it. In “Be My Guide,” a quick drum fill opens to immediate mid-paced fuzz engagement, thickening and moving smoothly into a verse the cadence of which proves no less a hook than the fluid chorus. Thick, wah’ed out and topped by Pras‘ ambience-ready vocals, the simple lines, “Amber, anger, be my guide,” leave a lasting impression even as the tone behind them comes forward thicker and slower leading to a resuming of pace in an instrumental break with a wah solo from Pras backed by the rolling groove fostered by Kinast and Matgaz. The latter, as the newest member of the band, seems to have had no trouble fitting in, if “Be My Guide” is anything to judge by, and similar to their carry-you-with-it flow between “Strong Reflection” and “Curse” leading off the self-titled, the opening title-track of Be My Guide makes an inviting impression that’s hard to ignore and all but impossible to refuse.
It’s worth noting though that Be My Guide isn’t a full-length, despite its everybody-come-along tendencies, and that the goals it’s working toward are different. You could probably listen to “Be My Guide,” the song, right into “Seen a Ghost” without thinking twice about it, but once the full stomp of the second track takes hold after the circular groove of the introduction, it’s apparent that the band aren’t just nestling themselves into a formula. Pras echoes deep in the mix behind his guitar and Kinast‘s bass, but after about a minute and a half, they jump into a sudden start-stop cadence that meets with overlaying psychedelic layers of vocals, the stark rhythmic chug of the verse standing in striking contrast to the fullness of “Be My Guide” before it and “Clean White Hands” to follow on the EP’s second side. What the songs have in common — and why it still works — is tone and groove, so that when “Seen a Ghost” moves into its dreamy midsection, although more than just the drummer has changed, the track never stops making sense.
Once again the verse picks up, and Mars Red Sky seem to enjoy toying with the stomp and meeting that with a likewise shift in lyrical approach, filling the space that the music occupies elsewhere with words. Where a verse to the opener looked like “See her/In a field of plaster/Early morning ride,” in “Seen a Ghost,” one hears, “Attack my brain, release my mind/Enhance the screaming of bleeding heart/For everyone to hear wherever they are.” Longer and more compact lines, still sweetly-delivered, mean more prominent vocals. The instruments still find room to breathe, however, in the post-verse break. With no chorus to speak of — those starts and stops are plenty catchy — it’s that instrumental psych part offering the answer back to the rhythmic march, and it’s longer the second time around, leading to a final reprise of the verse in the last minute that satisfies all the more for how Kinast reintroduces the progression and Pras’ layered singing.
Starting side B, “Clean White Hands” comes on with a bluesier riff and more open progression in its riff, backing off some of the insistence of “Seen a Ghost” and building a wash of gorgeous lead guitar tone over an initial bassline not wholly dissimilar from “Way to Rome” from the self-titled. Not arguing with it. Matgaz meets the languid groove head on, and punctuates a quieter verse with hard-hit snare while Pras‘ vocals echo behind, keeping a consistent beat as Pras and Kinast click on a fuller sound for the chorus. Here, Mars Red Sky seem wholly in their element, and “Clean White Hands,” which is longer than “Be My Guide” by nearly two full minutes, has room for jammier instrumental exploration that the trio puts to good use, Pras‘ guitar ringing out ethereal lines as Kinast and Matgaz hold down the beat before quieting even further for return to the verse in the second half that makes the chorus seem all the louder by comparison. Its appeal isn’t as immediate as “Be My Guide,” but “Clean White Hands” proves to be no dip in quality and it’s a prime example of the band developing their songwriting style for its balance of familiar structures and weighted grooves with a feeling of purposeful meandering.
“Ton Étrangère” opened the Berlin collective 17 Hippies‘ 2011 album, Phantom Songs, though with considerably fewer hippies on board, Mars Red Sky give it a considerable rearrangement. Not only more viscous, thicker and slower, than the original, “Stranger” as it appears on Be My Guide also translates the lyrics to English from French and takes the prior folkish sensibilities, banjo, zither, etc., to someplace far more vague. The rumble below Pras‘ vocals and the lullaby guitar line that marks the verse’s sway are darker in their mood and the chorus “Let me be your stranger/From the heart to the page” has a kind of unsettling feel at the ultra-sleepy pace. A wah solo leads to a quieter verse with less low end similar to post-break “Clean White Hands,” but the context is different, even if the methods are similar. They end big, but still solemn — a wash of wah metered out with bass and drum culmination — Kinast keeping the line consistent while Matgaz signals the final movement and Pras seems to bask in the glow his guitar has created.
If “Seen a Ghost” and “Stranger” are testing the waters for an expansion of Mars Red Sky‘s sound, then I’d call them successful, each for its own reasons. Where “Be My Guide” and “Clean White Hands” affirm the modus the trio established on their debut and assure that a creative evolution of that is underway as well, “Seen a Ghost” and “Stranger” speak to a bolder will on the part of the band to foray to unknown grounds. Even if “Seen a Ghost” is older, it’s where and how the track is presented that allows it to demonstrate these properties, and with “Stranger,” Mars Red Sky show that on an atmospheric level they’re not limited to open desert vibing. Because they manage to strike this balance in under half an hour and because they maintain the sun-baked warmth of tone, Be My Guide is a fitting response to the establishing facets of Mars Red Sky‘s previous full-length (have I mentioned it yet?) and I find after repeat listening that I’m all the more hopeful for how these experiments and developments might play out over the course of their next LP.