The Flying Eyes, Lowlands: Wicked Deeds

With a couple European tours under their belt and a resulting sense of being in full command of their sound, Baltimore four-piece The Flying Eyes make a return with their Kickstarter-funded third album, Lowlands. Released on Noisolution Records, Lowlands doesn’t so much comprise a departure from the ground the band covered on their sophomore outing, 2011’s engaging Done So Wrong (review here), or even for that matter the roots from which they sprung on their 2010 EP compilation that served as their self-titled full-length debut (review here) — formative though that last seems in hindsight — as an arrival at a point of mastery for those ideas that bleeds into nearly every stretch of the record’s 44 minutes. Aligned to producer Rob Girardi (Arbouretum, Double Dagger, etc.) with a clean, dynamic mix from Chris “Frenchie” Smith, to say The Flying Eyes have never sounded better doesn’t really capture what’s working so well throughout Lowlands. They’ve never sounded so in control, or so assured of their approach. Whether that’s a result of working with Girardi or of their road time is ultimately secondary, the fact remains that The Flying Eyes have come of age as a band and that Lowlands makes for one of the best flowing heavy psych LPs I’ve heard yet in 2013. Its fuzz is rich and dense in the guitars of Adam Bufano and Will Kelly (the latter also vocals) and bass of Mac Hewitt, and drummer Elias Schutzman continues to provide able leadership for grooves, whether it’s the ’70s heavy-style rock of “Rolling Thunder” or the semi-grunge acoustic/electric blend of “Comfort Machine.” Whatever else is driving this material, The Flying Eyes have definitely — and perhaps unsurprisingly — taken some measure of influence from the modern European scene in which they’ve immersed themselves several times over. Flourishes of Mars Red Sky-style wah and fuzz show themselves throughout, winding up both in the airier leads of the aforementioned “Comfort Machine” and in the initial unfolding mid-paced comfort groove of opener “Long Gone,” Schutzman‘s snare also sharing some sonic commonality, either by coincidence or intent.

Moods vary within a consistent psychedelic atmosphere, and more than they ever have to date, Kelly‘s vocals have a grounding effect on the material. Like the rest of the instruments on Lowlands, his voice is more his own, having overcome some of the Jim Morrison-isms that showed up on the band’s earlier works to arrive at a natural, bluesy-sound that adds a touch of inadvertent Americana to the deceptively quick push of “Long Gone”‘s verses. He was a more than capable singer to start with, and his voice comes across fitting in smoothly with the touches of electric and acoustic guitar, the spaced-out wah leads and the rhythmic thickness Hewitt‘s bass so provides both on “Long Gone” and “Under Iron Feet,” which is even more commanding and drenched in attitude. Instrumental stops at the ends of the verses let Kelly carry the shift to the chorus — something The Flying Eyes will do again shortly on “Smile,” though in a different context — and upping the tempo in the second half, they border on cacophony making their way to a last-minute boogie chorus before ending cold and leaving Schutzman to announce the foreboding beginning of “Rolling Thunder.” It’s a deception, if a grand one, since “Rolling Thunder” is both the most propulsive rhythm yet and working at a pace more akin to the sort of loud-motor shenanigans the title may or may not be referencing — i.e. classic biker rock. A slowdown as they approach the midsection provides an unexpected turn, and Kelly adjusts his shout to something more reminiscent of West Coast lumber-riffers Snail, but they bring it back to the shuffling progression soon enough and by the halfway point are so deep in a jam that for a moment it seems like there’s going to be no getting out. A dead stop, of course, brings back the verse hook in building form, they riff it out, go back to the slowdown and end with a last push in a maddening series of turns as exciting as they are smoothly executed, Bufano and Kelly and Hewitt locking in with Schutzman‘s half-time stomp to bring the track to its conclusion. A sparser feel pervades throughout the six-plus minutes of “Smile,” but the tension the band creates throughout its linear build makes the darker vibe a highlight of Lowlands nonetheless, Kelly giving a fitting sense of finality in his delivery of the lines, “I’m broke I know to your delight/You want my trust but it’s too late/Wicked deeds have sealed your fate,” after the first swell dies down to start the second from the album’s most silent, brooding moment.

Because the number of tracks is odd (nine total) and because the sides don’t break cleanly as a result, I’m inclined to think “Alive in Time” ends side A rather than starts side B. That way gives the most even spread, through if “Alive in Time” were to kickoff the second half of Lowlands, it would work well in that role anyway, with a subdued beginning that opens to sunny-feeling pastoralia and a sub-freakout payoff that stands among the most striking on offer. In the long instrumental stretches of “Alive in Time,” the way the guitar lines weave in among ambient noise, the drums and bass holding it together, shifting into and out of verses, The Flying Eyes construct a positively lethal flow that reveals itself more with repeat listens, and as the volume swells to consume Kelly‘s voice before the cut ending (is that a theremin I hear?), the stage is set for the near-Spaghetti Western sprawl of the title-track, a moment of purposeful meandering given pastoral twang thanks to a pedal steel guest spot by Dave Hadley, given to loud/quiet tradeoffs and a fittingly woeful vocal as the shuffle builds anew to a memorably melodic instrumental no less satisfying as a climax than was that of “Alive in Time” — and if “Lowlands” starts side B, you could argue the two are in direct conversation, the latter answering and furthering the ideas of the former — layers of vocals topping layers of guitar while the rhythm section holds steady, keeping the ensuing swirl propulsive en route to the stomp of “Eye of the Storm,” introduced by Hewitt and Schutzman before the guitars — again, acoustic and electric — show a pop-minded Rolling Stones influence without veering either into the trite or putting on the cloying airs of edginess that modern indie seems to have adopted from classic rock while dumping off the sense of danger that made it so vital in its day. The song stands with “Under Iron Feet” as one of the shortest at 3:56, and its howling guitar finish leads to “Comfort Machine,” the longest at 6:38 and the first installment of a closing duo with the finale “Surrender” that expands the sonic palette, recalling some of the earlier Mars Red Sky-isms while blending them with classy acoustics and another psych jam that seems like it’s going to spiral out of control before The Flying Eyes skillfully rein it back. The ending is pure stoner rock cabaret, but glorious in that, and “Surrender” with layered in sitar (courtesy of Ryan McBride) and guest vocal accompaniment from Celebration‘s Katrina Ford offsets friendly late-’60s peacenik verses with an air-pushing fuzzy chorus before rightfully combining the two as the song continues.

If there’s any question as to what exactly is being surrendered to in the closer, it’s The Void, according to the lyrics. An exploration of mortality presented as psychedelic bliss-out rather than the source of blinding fear it’s been since time began? Maybe. Kelly invokes for the chorus, “There’s no today, there’s no tomorrow as eons pass me by/I feel no joy, I feel no sorrow in my peaceful oblivion/I surrender to the void.” From there, Ford rejoins and the pasture reawakens, gradually joined by an effective far-back wah lead before a stop reignites the chorus and that leads to the instrumental build that caps Lowlands in suitably grandiose fashion, Schutzman announcing the arrival of the closing progression on his toms before an echoing assault of guitar squibblies commences and assumes the forward role in the last minute of the track, Hewitt subtly mixing in choice last-minute fills while dutifully maintaining the sense it all winds up making as they swirl to a fading-feedback end. The takeaway lesson winds up being this: The Flying Eyes were a good band. Now they’re better. There are so few acts in the US showcasing any European influence at all, let alone one so well presented and worked into the larger sphere of their own aesthetic, that Lowlands was bound to be a standout one way or another, but the level of confidence in what they’re doing and the apparent ease they show in the succession of shifts throughout, The Flying Eyes emerge from their third record having taken total charge of their creative destiny. Lowlands is a refreshing and exciting listen, and more than that, it reinforces The Flying Eyes‘ placement among the brightest hopes for the next generation of American heavy psychedelia.

The Flying Eyes, “Under Iron Feet” official video

The Flying Eyes on Thee Facebooks

Noisolution Records

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