Syntoptikon
Important, 2006
rating: 5/5
reviewer: p funk

Midway through "Collapsing," I want to laugh, a reaction I had always thought inappropriate in the face of rapturous triple-guitar devastation. I've listened to the song many times over the past month, and without fail I smirk and giggle each time. I blame the track-length listing in the album insert: the booklet tells me "Collapsing" will last upwards of nine minutes, but as the song crosses the halfway point, the band has nowhere left to go. Vocalist Sandra Barrett has her say in about 90 seconds and then ducks out of harm's way as Wayne Rogers, Kate Village, and Tom Leonard launch into a sky-high display of cock-rockin' licks and leads. It's the kind of instrumental break we've come to expect from Major Stars: soaring and searing, taut form given to an excess of feedback and distortion. But the guitar pyrotechnics max out early, and you know that there's just no way the soloists can keep topping themselves, and you also know that they know this and will do everything in their power to avoid simple retread. So, where do they send us when there's still three-and-a-half minutes of jamming left? Straight into the abyss. A black howl covers the background; tones grow more evil, menacing, abnegating, acknowledging the ridiculousness and futility of rocking by jamming codes and, well, collapsing.

It's this complete surrender to the void that makes Major Stars a unique voice even in the midst of our current blowout-fuzz-rock revival. Psychedelic rock (or space rock or stoner rock or trip music etc.) traditionally finds itself gazing into nothingness during the search for new novel timbres and textures. Formless and sonic absolutism are happy accidents from which guitar solos and recognizable structures eventually reemerge, and if they don't, then the song dissolves peacefully, content to live in its newfound perfect sound. And in the face of this abyss, the sound-world often becomes a stay against fragmented, anarrative reality: here disparate forms of music can coexist in harmony, momentarily reconciling the incongruous milieus from which they arise (see psych's perpetual plundering of the entire spectrum of the "record collector music" canon: free jazz, folk, blues, experimental electronics, raga, "noise," even afrobeat, and so forth) and providing a consolation of cosmopolitan wholeness. Bardo Pond, Hawkwind, Neu!, Kinski, Amon Düül II, and scads of other similar groups gesture towards this kind of transcendence in their most sublime moments.

Rather than transmit the ecstasy of fusion, Major Stars channel the futility of feeling trapped in secondhand sonics. As record store owners and veterans of numerous groups who melded the credible and questionable halves of the pre-punk rock landscape into sprawling guitar workouts, Rogers and Village have ample reason to be overburdened by influence, that euphemism for history's nightmare: that all forms of expression are subject to the law of diminishing utility, constantly eroding from use and overuse. Even at their most wild and expansive, Major Stars cannot rocket out of the cosmos of their influences; even their freakouts have precedent. To open up a vibrant pangeneric discourse à la Lula Cortes's Paebiru would be to project more noise, to reflect an even more painful awareness of just how many borrowed voices mediate Syntoptikon's sonic identity, so Major Stars reject that route and minimize their own headaches.

Barrett's lyrics show this skepticism extending towards all forms of language. She snorts curt dismissals: "No one cares/ No one there," "Nothing to see when you're unaware." She and her bandmates inhabit a space in which they perpetually see "revelation turning off," as their spiraling musical excursions never discover the spiritual highs or enlightenments so often embedded in psychedelic discourse. Barrett's words hearken diffusion: no third eyes opened here. And she keeps her singing to a minimum, as words suffer from the same debasement as guitar riffs, unable to "say" much of anything at this point in the game.

If this whole package sounds bleak and debilitating, remember, this album makes me laugh. Whether we're existentialists or not, Syntoptikon sells its ideology pretty well within its own confines, and as soon as we buy into its rock-as-recycling argument, we're in on the joke. We realize that as futile as playing the same blues scales and falling back on the same dynamic builds and stamping on the same psych-rock guitar pedals for the billionth time may be, the whole spectacle can still be endlessly amusing for both creator and participant. More than ever before, Major Stars sound like they're having a hell of a time, cramming semiotic ecstasy and intangible bliss into each sound particle. Notes and syllables ring just right, harboring rock's cutthroat authenticity and pop's unabashed contrivance in a logically confounding but instinctually intuitive manner. And we come back to this same spectacle in spite of having essentially heard it all before, and then we rave not about its technical or compositional merits but its extratextual riches. Those are teenage bedroom air guitar's chills running down your spine, years after you swore them off, and elicited with markedly less emotional investment than you remember.

I looked "syntoptikon" up in the dictionary and Wikipedia. The word has no definition. Perfect.

1. Cinnamon and Lightning
2. The Ravager
3. Collapsing
4. Pocket
5. Fake Date
6. Black Road
7. Syntoptikon