CD Review: Helion Magister, Vaquero

Some music is just music. Whether it’s good, bad, or somewhere in between; interesting or boring; derivative or original, it’s just music. You listen; you like it, or not; if you do, maybe you listen again.

Then there’s that other kind of music, the kind that’s like the tip of an iceberg, or the nose of a starship emerging slowly from another dimension, or a feature film censored and watched on a black and white TV. Music with baggage. Music with a long tail like a comet.

Helion Magister is a new appellation for Michael Miner, who was an original member of the seminal San Francisco band The Great Society. Remembered today mainly for being the band Grace Slick left to join Jefferson Airplane (though the story was more complicated than that), The Great Society lasted but a year. It did, however, make some influential recordings, now rarities, which included – alongside the original version of Darby Slick’s classic “Someone to Love” – songs credited to one “D Minor,” the artist now known as Helion Magister (and Bullman Atavar Crowe and several other things).

Helion Magister has emerged after many decades with a new home-recorded CD on which he re-makes a couple of Great Society songs, adds some others in the same psychedelic rock vein (whether they’re new or have been knocking around for some time, no one knows) and branches out into the nuttier side of spoken-word noise-rock.

With the opening bars of the title track you know right where you are: back in 1966 San Francisco, tripping your brains out. A bluesy bass line, guitars twirling like spaghetti, tinkling hi-hat, and what sounds like a whip drive the incantatory vocals. “Daydream Nightmare Love” and “That’s How It Is” are re-imagined but recognizable versions of Great Society songs that in those days inclined towards Sonny-and-Cher pop – but don’t any more. In the former, vocal tradeoffs and tight harmonies evoke a sound familiar to fans of Jefferson Airplane, and a slightly loopy guitar solo boasts a playfulness evocative of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Sam Andrew and James Gurley.

“Chick-A-Boom Baby” is driven by gutty bass, clanging guitar, banjo, and smokehouse harmonica (all played by Miner). It’s eight minutes long, with the structure of a song – lyrics, verses, and so on – but it fits no genre, nor does it need to. In this song it’s possible to forget the long tail, the baggage, the history. It’s just pure crazy original fun.

The Tejano-bluesy “Rock And Roll Is” closes out the psychedelic-rock section of the CD with Miner cawing “Rock and roll can still relieve your sorrow,” proving his own point. (Hey, it’s relieving my sorrow even now!) It sounds like Los Lobos if their instruments got wet and started shorting out but they kept playing.

Then come three songs that comprise a noise-rock sonata full of goofy raps, screeching sounds and funny voices: Spongebob Squarepants meets Captain Beefheart in a bowl of Green Jelly. There’s seems to be some kind of story about a highly disturbed married couple running through the three songs, but who cares when the third movement is called “Jello Butt.” The CD closes with a slow, entirely unclassifiable nine-minute opus mixing Jacques Brel, flamenco, Steve Hackett and some rather impressive multi-part madrigal singing.

Short but representative clips of all the songs are available at the Helion Magister website. If you are a fan of psychedelic music, or stuff that’s just “out there,” or what Miner curiously refers to as “good old rock and roll” – it’s worth a click.

And leave your baggage at home.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]