SONIC REDUCER Something wicked this way came, right in the middle of last week's spate of strangely beautiful, beastly hot days, as I sipped a pint on El Rio's back patio with Comets on Fire vocalist-guitarist Ethan Miller. You can bet — with 6/6/06 plastered all over town, prophesizing an ominously large marketing onslaught for The Omen — that wickedness probably involved horror movies. And you'll be right. Because Miller is happy to talk about the fruits of Howlin' Rain, a solo project aided and abetted by Sunburned Hand of the Man's John Moloney and childhood Humboldt County pal Ian Gradek. But Miller gets really "fanned out" when the subject of mind-gouging, low-budg cinematic howlers like his all-time faves — Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Beyond, Maniac, Suspiria — come up. I can dig it, but do all rockers really bond over the joy of having their eyeballs violated?
"My wife doesn't want to watch it with me," he says jovially. "I'm, like, 'Babe, I just got my copy of Cannibal Holocaust in the mail! And she's just, like, 'No! Fuck that! No! No! You have to watch that after I go to bed.’
"I had this one friend, I thought he and I had the same taste, and he just wasn't really speaking up, and I kept giving him films to watch, and he was, like, 'Dude, I told you. I hate that. That was fucking traumatizing.’”
For all his movie-collector madness, Miller can be reasoned with — and likewise is perfectly reasonable. The Comets’ de facto leader and cofounder tells me their fourth full-length, Avatar (Sub Pop), is ready to go after what sounds like a grueling but fully democratic process recording with Tim Green at Prairie Sun in Cotati. "It's hard to know if you're in control of the macro-organism or if it's in control of you," Miller muses. "Like a minidemocracy, you can't steer it more than your one-fifth influence. These are real social people wed to each other through their art and music and now through a band."
The Howlin' Rain project, meanwhile, was quick and dirty, spat out in about eight days, and driven solely by Miller, relying on two trustworthy friends from far-flung parts of the country, with Moloney in Massachusetts and Gradek in Kauai.
Dust demons of fuzz and growling guitar tone still crop up, but here Miller has conjured his own ’06 version of early-’70s "mellow gold" rock ’n’ roll, pulling from the Allman Brothers, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Neil Young without resorting to outright ... cannibalism.
"I tried to pack it full of the psych you could have from this vantage point right now," he says. "Not make a record that's, like, 'Fuck, that sounds just like Sabbath. I mean, just like Sabbath.’”
Keep your bloody Sabbath — instead a laid-back, sun-swept blues-rock vibe, edged with moments of darkness, comes in as clear as a rushing river. You can hear Miller's relatively effects-free voice, for once not screaming over the maelstrom as if flesh were being ripped from his bones, cushioned by the occasional harmony, which he describes as "Simon and Garfunkel on a bad trip or something."