Mars Red Sky, Apex III: Praise for the Burning Soul: Sapphire Vessel Gaining Speed

mars red sky apex iii praise for the burning soul

With its very first lines, Mars Red Sky‘s third album and second for Listenable Records, Apex III: Praise for the Burning Soul, affirms its continuity from the 2016 Providence EP (review here) that preceded it. The parenthetically titled intro “(Alien Grounds)” leads the way into the push of “Apex III,” and guitarist Julien Pras begins the first verse with, “Sapphire Vessel gaining speed,” referring back to the name of the closing track of the three-song EP. What ensues is a sci-fi metaphor for the status of the band, who as the album plays out are, in fact, going places they’ve never gone before (and boldly), while also holding firm to some of the core methods that have allowed mars red sky studio 6them to undertake this creative voyage. It all comes to make sense as the album plays out.

What’s important to know is that Apex III: Praise for the Burning Soul exhibits this kind of self-awareness across its span, but as in the semi-title-track, it’s driven by subtlety, whether that’s in the clever wordplay of “The Whinery” — extra humor added since the band is from Bordeaux, France — or the lush Beatlesian harmonies that make the ending of “Under the Hood” such a standout moment both on this record an in the trio’s career since the release of their self-titled debut (review here) in 2011. Tracked by Gabriel Zander — who also helmed their 2014 sophomore album, Stranded in Arcadia (review here) — and Jacob Dennis at Cryogène Studios, Bègles, with some additional vocal recording by Pras, the seven-song/40-minute offering is expansive enough to make that first album seem quaint in its arrangements. Mars Red Sky know the forward steps they are taking, and as they move further into their individual and progressive take on heavy psychedelic rock, their command of their sound has never been more prevalent or adaptable than it is here. The album is, indeed, their to-date apex.

It is truly fortunate that this growth by Pras, bassist/vocalist Jimmy Kinast and drummer Matieu “Matgaz” Gazeau has come neither at the expense of their tonal or melodic breadth or their underlying strength of songcraft. If anything, Mars Red Sky‘s progression, which can be clearly traced from their first album through this one with 2012’s split with Year of No Light, 2013’s Be My Guide EP (review here) and Providence as transitional points, has expanded organically on what was so striking about their work initially. The melodies have grown richer, the range of tone widened, the rhythms mars red sky studio 4become more complex without losing sight of a central groove and flow across tracks.

Apex III: Praise for the Burning Soul uses a different running order for its vinyl and its CD editions (I’m writing about the latter), but in any version, its resonance is equal parts gorgeous and weighted, “(Alien Grounds)” setting an atmospheric depth as it builds from its initial guitar and bass minimalism into the first of many satisfying rolls to come, piano, guitar, bass and drums building on the arrangement complexity of “Sapphire Vessel” from the recent EP and shifting seamlessly into the bouncing fuzz of “Apex III,” which in its midsection loops back to the opening lines of “(Alien Grounds)” only to build up again to a fitting crescendo and recede, this time to strummed acoustic guitar, backing psychedelics and a recitation from Pras of the verse to that same EP track, tying it all together even as the band begins to move forward from setting the stage on these first two cuts into Apex III: Praise for the Burning Soul‘s crux on “The Whinery,” “Mindreader,” “Under the Hood,” “Friendly Fire” and closer “Prodigal Sun,” the atmospheric effect the opening salvo has had remaining prevalent and integral to the emotional and aural impact of the material. The rest of the album is informed by “(Alien Grounds)” and “Apex III” — which of course are presented as one on the LP — which makes them all the more crucial as a first impression.

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That said, lines like “Bottle up your tears, ship them overseas/The staggered-assed product of your whinery” (pretty sure that’s it; going without a lyric sheet) make an impression of their own, as does the hook itself of “The Whinery,” with changing lines in the chorus but a rhythmic tension-release that’s among the most satisfying of the album. Though somewhat aggressive in its perspective, the track’s trades between open stretches, tighter verses and that unfolding maintain the grace that has become a hallmark of Mars Red Sky‘smars red sky studio 3 songwriting, and a heavy psych shift into a wah-soaked guitar work, even though it leads to a stretch of unexpected — and all the more welcome for that in the context they’re used — channel-shifting blastbeats as a final tension setup for the move into the last chorus, the vocal arrangement recalling classic pop in form but not necessarily the airiness of the delivery, which walks the line that Mars Red Sky and few others dare to tread between heft and accessibility.

The subsequent “Mindreader” offers plenty of the former — while much of the first half of its 6:35 is dedicated to a patient, immersive intro, once its main riff kicks in, it is unquestionably the most elephantine of Apex III: Praise for the Burning Soul, propelled forward by Gazeau‘s double-kick as it makes its way toward the first verse, echoing vocals layered deeply in a huge mix. A slowdown of thudding drums, gong and spacious riffing moves smoothly into an airy callback to the intro, but they bring back the stomping verse again, this time using it as a precursor to a galloping peak topped with overlaid guitar strums that crashes and rumbles to a finish that lets the thudding, drum-led beginning of “Under the Hood” feel all the more immediate. Also the album’s greatest melodic triumph, with an ending that continues to have me wanting to bottle up my tears and ship them overseas, “Under the Hood” makes an excellent companion piece for “Mindreader” for its shift in structure. To compare, its first verse is underway by 20 seconds in. This time around, they save the sprawl for later.

And sprawl it is. I’ll make no bones about being a fan of this band, but Pras‘ harmonies in “Under the Hood,” mars red sky studio 2the interaction of the guitar and bass, the shuffle in the hi-hat and the expanses Mars Red Sky seem to cover in swirl and tonal color are as yet unmatched by anything they’ve done. The build toward the last minute, with acoustic guitar layered into the final push, the repeated line, “Those emerald eyes of yours,” and the whole band locked into this otherworldly bounce while also hitting into the most resonant emotional moment here — it’s almost like listening to two bands at the same time working toward a cohesive entirety. I could go on, but the song ends cold and gives way to the swinging bassline from Kinast that starts “Friendly Fire,” which keeps to a more straightforward arrangement than “Mindreader,” “Under the Hood” or even “Apex III,” and so might have a palette-cleansing effect on the listener with a laid back, easy-flowing verse, though it too branches out wide in its chorus.

Among other things, it is perfectly paced for maximum fluidity, which comes to the fore as it moves toward its finish, a psych wash that ends echoing and gives a few seconds of silence before “Prodigal Sun” kicks in with its opening thrust as the album’s closer. It’s misdirection, at least in part, since the bulk of “Prodigal Sun” is led by pastoral acoustics and bass and the melody is among the sweetest throughout. They play back and forth between the two sides, but the prevailing vibe seems to have found a peace through all the tumult of Apex III: Praise for the Burning Soul has had on offer, even though the undulating progression they ride toward the conclusion has a layer of threat underneath. Suitably, the last verse is the most unabashedly pretty, and even as Kinast sets the bassline that will lead the way out surrounded by layers of guitar and vocals and the crash and march of the drums — which also take off on the toms and the kick in the last minute; an “apex” and one of many — the resolve is clear. They end on a series of thuds and chugs and are gone. Something of an understated cap for a record of such scope, but fair enough to their methods overall.

mars red sky studio 1On the CD included with the limited first pressing vinyl, Providence track “Shot in Providence” is included as a bonus cut, and it seems only fitting, since that bookend further draws the two offerings together, but whichever edition of Apex III: Praise for the Burning Soul one might encounter, it is unquestionably Mars Red Sky‘s most accomplished release. It demonstrates clearly that their creative evolution is matched in its sweep by its drive, and that far from settling into a sound, PrasKinast and Gazeau are continuing to challenge themselves to present new ideas and new styles that add to the context of what they’ve done before. Since their first record, Mars Red Sky‘s progression has been among the most satisfying the world over to witness, and their third album yet again surpasses its predecessors. Recommended.

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