Roots of Confusion Seeds of Joy
Drag City Records
Major Stars are underground legends, not just in their native Boston, but across the US, in Japan, and elsewhere. So how in the hell have I never heard of them? Luckily for me, I was at Hallelujah The Hills‘ record release for their brilliant new album, I’m You, last month in Boston. Major Stars were there to help them celebrate. Major Stars formed in 1997, playing their first gig that year at the Terrastock Festival in Providence, RI, just down I95. Since then, they’ve been pumping out guitar-driven psychedelia and stoner music, touring the world, and somehow I missed it. And they’ve toured with some heavyweights, including Acid Mother Temple, they’ve played All Tomorrow’s Parties, curated by Thurston Moore, in the UK. They’ve played SXSW.
The problem has been rectified. When Major Stars hit the stage that cold night in Allston, I didn’t know what to expect, other than a vague promise of psychedelia. But that could mean nearly anything. And then they kicked into gear. Major Stars is led by a triple onslaught of guitars. Three freaking guitars! I’m not sure how that’s even legal! Kate Biggar and Wayne Rogers trade the leads, or rather, are co-leads, as they both thrash their axes over the tight rhythm section of guitar-bass-drums, courtesy of Tom Leonard, Dave Dougan, and Casey Keenan. Noell Dorsey is the current frontwoman (at least their fourth since forming). This is one tight, brilliant band.
And that translates to the recording studio, which is perhaps not surprising for a veteran band. Roots of Confusion and Joy is their most recent release, out last year on Drag City. It continues in the vein of Major Stars (I have listened to all their albums and most of their singles and split releases since that night), of churning, shredding guitars, slamming drums and a heavy bass rumble. Dorsey is an ideal frontwoman, a modern-day Grace Slick meets Nico. Her voice presents as flat and monotonal, but that only covers up the fact that she actually has a beautiful voice that can challenge the guitar onslaught, and is full of melody. And the fact that she can stand up to those guitars and the heavy rhythm section add to the glory that is Roots of Confusion Seeds of Joy.
The very title of the album seems a perfect encapsulation of our times, to be honest; the best way to fight the confusion and terror of these dark times is to find joy and happiness in the world. It reminds me of a hand-drawn poster I saw in a café in Burlington, VT, last fall, which the artist claimed was revolutionary, but I saw more as a guideline to not be an asshole. But, apparently this is where we are. Not being an asshole is the resistance.
Anyway. The music. The album starts with the pounding drums and bass of ‘The Tightener’ before the guitars kick in and we’re off to the races as Biggar and Rogers each play in their own world, and yet, they are firmly tethered to the rhythm section. Dorsey makes her appearance on track 2, ‘I Don’t Believe,’ which starts with the tom-toms before the guitars show up in a simple riff, and here comes her voice, challenging the riffing guitars for primacy. Then the song kicks into gear with the rhythm section stopping in. The leads on this track are reminiscent of the best of work of Billy Corgan in early Smashing Pumpkins.
‘Echo’ starts off as a slow jam, with Dorsey telling us ‘We’re always getting it backwards.’ She’s not wrong, but as she delivers her vocals over a single guitar and bass, I can’t help but wonder what the trick is? And then, as she hits the end of the first verse, here comes the onslaught again. It’s glorious. And she intones ‘And on an on it goes/In the end, you’ll find that no one knows.’
‘Out in the Light’ is my favourite track here, beginning off in a late 60s blues rock haze, another apparent slow jam reminiscent of Hendrix or Zeppelin. To call this is a slow jam is a mistake, as it’s slow burning track, never quite kicking out of first or second gear, until Rogers’ solo takes over mid-track. Watching him play live is something else. He looks unassuming, really, more an accountant than guitar god. But, man, can he play. After he’s done, the song kicks in, now with the chugging rhythm section, as Dorsey harmonizes her own voice, and she delivers some of my favourite lines of the album: ‘Take away the meaning of the message/Only asking why? Not how?,’ which is kind of how I see most of the world these days.
‘Spun Around’ shows the skill of a collection of veteran axe slingers, as the song begins with all the instruments chugging, fuzzy distortions and echo around the guitars, then the song breaks down into a grunge-inflected break, and here’s where you see the difference between song writers and guitarists, as the song then picks up again and Dorsey tells us about having seen the future in a blade of grass. This is stoner rock at its fucking best.
After another wicked slow burner, ‘All For One,’ this short set ends with the epic ‘Dawn and the Spirit,’ which also presents as a slow burner, at least for the first two minutes, but then, as the rhythm section chugs long, the lead guitars show up and for the next five minutes, ‘Dawn and the Spirit’ whirls around like a dervish, as the drums and bass keep the song grounded and spinning around in a series of drum rolls, as the guitars soar, crash, slide, spill over, and grind down into the ground over and over before starting all over.
This album, my friends, is the shit.