Mammatus, Heady Mental: Sign from Space

The third long-player from Santa Cruz County space rock three-piece Mammatus, Heady Mental, came as something of a surprise. Its November 2013 release came with little fanfare, not much promotion and hardly seemed to acknowledge how long it had been since the band were last heard from. It just beamed in, suddenly materialized. Their sophomore outing, The Coast Explodes, was issued in 2007, a year after they made their self-titled debut (both albums were on Holy Mountain), and was a triumph of raw West Coast heavy psychedelia, exploratory and progressive but still dirty and noisy when it needed to be. They toured with Acid Mothers Temple to support, and then, otherwise absent, they played a few shows in California over the stretch, and as early as Spring 2009 there was some discussion of a third full-length being recorded by the trio of guitarist Nicholas Emmert, bassist Chris Freels and drummer Aaron Emmert. Heady Mental is that album, reportedly written in 2007 and 2008, recorded in 2009 and mixed for release late last year on vinyl through Spiritual Pajamas with word that the band has returned and were once again at work on new material to follow the three tracks included here, “Brain Drain” (7:39), “Main Brain” (8:17) and “Brainbow/Brain Train” (16:39).

When and if that newer material will surface will have to remain to be seen, but it’s worth noting that although Heady Mental is older recordings — in case you were wondering, 2009 was half a decade ago — it’s still the band’s most recent output. It’s not like they recorded a bunch of newer songs and then went back and dug these three tracks up for a stopgap. What momentum they had coming off Mammatus and The Coast Explodes dissipated when they became so inactive, so it seems curious that Heady Mental would surface at all if they didn’t have any interest in releasing more new music. And though they’ve undoubtedly progressed in the time since it was recorded, Heady Mental‘s tracks show considerable growth from the first two albums. If we take it from their having started the songwriting process shortly after The Coast Explodes, it becomes even easier to read the “Brain”-centric trio presented on two basically evenly-split sides here as a purposeful shift in direction. Mammatus have always worked in extended forms, but the thematic switch between “Brain Drain” and “Main Brain” and the likes of the three-part “Dragon of the Deep” that carried across both of their first two outings is as palpable sonically as it is in the titles. They’ve jumped from fantasy to sci-fi.

True enough, the aural allusion to “heavy metal” in the title of the record is not lost in the scaly lead work of Nicholas Emmert‘s guitars throughout “Brain Drain” and “Brainbow/Brain Train,” but their classic metal influence meets with a wash of analog-sounding synth and pushes fast into a pulsating cosmos. “Main Brain” slows the engines a bit, and there’s a break between the parts of “Brainbow/Brain Train” that adds ambience to the neutron thrust, but the course of Heady Mental is set at a warp speed and the Emmerts and Freels have no problem keeping up as the stars stretch out before them. Heady Mental is the cleanest-sounding work Mammatus have yet released, and though vocals arrive buried on the opener in a host of effects, the human element is not lost. A short upward squeak that finds a downward companion following “Brainbow/Brain Train” opens “Brain Drain,” but they skip the countdown and launch immediately into heavy space rocking that takes varying forms across its span but never seems to lose sight of its central rush. Some thicker riffing arrives after the six-minute mark, but even this seems to move at a blinding rate, and soon it’s one more element in an ongoing melee as a noisy guitar solo comes to dominate the mix, leading to the quiet start of “Main Brain,” which again, begins slower.

“Main Brain” winds up making all the difference on Heady Mental. Its subdued beginning is hypnotic with windchimes over atmospheric rumble and effects that build to a less-rushed vibe built on sustained riffs and Aaron Emmert‘s fervent crash before cutting out to allow vocals a minimalist bed of simple kick, sparse guitar and bass. Of course, volume is never far off, and it soon reemerges, but even a temporary shift of mood does much to add depth to Heady Mental‘s dimensionality. Vocals and synth align just past the halfway point in the song, and a guitar freakout tops a rhythmic nod that give way at the last second to a kick in pace as if to hint at what “Brainbow/Brain Train” will have to offer in its two parts on side B. In the case of the first part of the track, “Brainbow,” it’s a return to a somewhat less structured take on some of the same antigrav that “Brain Drain” proffered, but with “Brain Train,” a thicker boogie shows up as Mammatus play one side of their sound immediately off the other. In the case of “Brainbow/Brain Train,” by combining two distinct and separate cuts into one track — not that it matters on vinyl, but for those listening digitally, the split happens around nine minutes in as a sampled train chugga-chuggas its way to the front of the mix — they’ve taken away some of the expectation of structure.

One is provided on “Brain Train” anyway, and taken on its own, it is arguably the most straightforward movement on Heady Mental, but clearly it’s not meant to be taken on its own, and saying it’s the most straightforward inclusion here should be taken in the context of just how far out Mammatus go on their third album. Its long instrumental stretches, however, feel plotted if not entirely written out beforehand, and that makes a difference in comparison to some of what they’ve done in the past. Before the squeak, “Brainbow/Brain Train” ends noisy and with engines working at full capacity, and the mission objective is met. Mammatus have succeeded in giving new character not just to their titles and their album art — they charmingly call it “post-wizard” — but to the songs themselves. Had Heady Mental been released in 2009 when it was recorded, it would’ve been a considerable surprise in following The Coast Explodes. The extra years between have taken some of the sting out of that shift, but the change in ethic nonetheless remains evident, and if nothing else it’s enough to make one curious about what interstellar reaches Mammatus may have discovered since.

Mammatus, “Brain Drain” Live in Santa Cruz, CA, Nov. 2013

Mammatus on Thee Facebooks

Spiritual Pajamas

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