Adventureland, ho

Pub date June 17, 2009
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer


SONIC REDUCER I’m in the mood for adventure — and so are you, apparently. Something off the beaten down and battered tourist path, something wild and glee and free to be you and me. And who is "me," anyway — when "me" is perpetually in flux, in free fall, riding the rapids of the collective unconscious? Don’t fear the reaper, the creeper, the negative creeps, the swine flu, the digital, the Burner, the busted, the Man, the dude who defecates on your doorstep (especially if he cleans up after himself like a responsible pooch owner).

Maybe that’s why adventure is the underlying theme, streaming willy-nilly, in talks with two very different guitarists and vocalists, generating very different sounds: Aaron Turner of Isis (and founder of Hydra Head Records) and Charlie Saufley, frontperson for San Francisco’s Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound (see below) You know it’s in the air when players working in such varied modes of music-making as Isis and AHISS start talking about taking it off-road. Ask, for instance, Seattle resident Turner what he looks for as the sole A&R guy (and de facto art director) of Hydra Head, and he says, somewhat reluctantly because, "at the moment we’re trying to cut back on what we take in — sort of because our boundless enthusiasm has led us take on too much. But if I were to summarize what we look for, it’s an adventurous spirit."

Isis’ latest album, Wavering Radiant (Ipecac) feels boundless, too: as clean and deep as a dive into a wooded swimming hole. Richly melodic passages, with unexpected ambient hues, make me picture the band is listening widely, beyond thrash and forebears (and Hydra Head like-mindeds) like the Melvins. From "Hall of the Dead," a layered, seven-minute-plus opus that brings to mind a more symphonic Neurosis or Mono, to "Ghost Key," which is at moments almost frothy and airy in its interplay of electronics and guitar and at others ascending and falling with loud, earthy thunder, the album, engineered by new producer Joe Barresi (who presently happens to be working with Saviours), seems to step back from crushing aggression and toward more nuanced arrangements tinged with post-rock and mathcore elements associated with Dillinger Escape Plan, Explosions in the Sky, and Mogwai.

And now that Isis has made inroads into the Billboard 200 — Wavering Radiant arrived at No. 98 — I wonder whether the group’s sense of adventure may be contagious. "I don’t think our music is inaccessible," Turner muses. "There’s enough melody there, and certainly there’s an energy that a lot of people will latch onto. But when it boils down to it, there’s an element to the music that will make that a stretch in the mainstream realm." Hold on.


With Helms Alee and Mamiffer

Tues/23, 9 p.m., $16

Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750,



You’d never suspect Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound was on a similar tip as Isis, but if you chat with guitarist-vocalist Charlie Saufley, he’ll stop what he’s doing — namely caring for his ailing father in Mountain View — and ponder the phenomenon, and yes, the adventurous vibe, of the current psych/stoner rock scene in the Bay Area. "The common thread of this newer generation of what we loosely call psychedelic bands is that I think they’re running with what the first generation forgot," he explains good-naturedly. "A lot of them turned into a cliché, self-indulgent dinosaur bands. Now maybe everyone is carrying on the spirit of what those bands had when they were young and didn’t know better and just fueled by that feeling of creating something new."

New for ASHISS: the kudos it’s fielded for its new When Sweet Sleep Returned (Tee Pee), a successful cosmic-cowboy-derived marriage of Floyd and country-fied Byrds, as Saufley describes it, with a drizzle of Revolver-esque pop. Still, he’s not sure what to make of the attention. "I haven’t stopped aspiring to the dream of making a living doing this. I think someone might sneak through the cracks and break through. Aspirations exist but I do think there’s a glorious resignation, like, ‘Fuck it, I’m not going to see dollar one, so why not do what I want to do. There is that democratization of music creation: people who are really psyched if you put out a record on your own and make 500 of them. But I do also think people rally around that spirit — ‘I’m never going to make money, so I’m just going to be prolific and put it out there.’ It’s the hardcore ethic come to life."


Fri/19, 9 p.m., $13

Great American Music Hall