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The Haul: Rockets Red Glare's Rockets Red Glare

Rockets Red Glare's Rockets Red Glare

This past weekend I came across a copy of Rockets Red Glare’s 2002 self-titled debut at Mystery Train Records in Gloucester, MA (otherwise known as my favorite record store in the northeast). I would be surprised by the score if not for its source; I’ve found all sorts of “This shouldn’t be here…” sundries at Mystery Train, including a stack of mid-’90s Midwestern rock records that I never caught a glimpse of during my six years living in the Midwest. Finding a limited-run vinyl copy of a Toronto post-hardcore outfit’s debut record is strange, but not unforeseen. Actually buying it, that was the tricky part.

(Choose your own adventure directions: Skip down two paragraphs for an description of this record and a sample mp3. Keep going for record-buying anecdotes.)

I can’t remember if this habit pre-dated the dollar LP warehouse, but my process for record shopping is to pull everything of interest and then sort through it at the end. I make three piles: things I’ll definitely buy, things I’ll check reviews (or Discogs prices) on, and things I’ll stop kidding myself on and put back. During this trip to Mystery Train, the first pile was comprised of Dr. Octagon’s Dr. Octagonecologyst (an album I begrudgingly bought on CD a few years ago but will gladly purchase in my preferred format), Clikatat Ikatowi’s Orchestrated and Performed by Clikatat Ikatowi (a recommendation from my friend Charlie—San Diego math-rock/ with drummer Mario Rubalcaba, later of Thingy, Rocket from the Crypt, Hot Snakes, and Earthless), and M83’s Teen Angst EP (cheap, great song, bonus b-side and remix). The second pile was towering: a pair of John Coltrane records ( Olé Coltrane and Live at Birdland) that became no-brainers; a Sun Ra’s Live at Montreux (which reinforced my issue with Sun Ra—I have no idea where to go next); a Jon Hassell LP (Fourth World Volume Two: Dream Theory in Malaya) that reminded me I need to spend more time with the copy of Fourth World Volume One: Possible Musics I grabbed in a previous visit to Mystery Train; a Beastie Boys seven-inch for “Sure Shot” that triggered my potential resale reflex; and the Rockets Red Glare LP. The “C’mon, you have places to be” pile included a pristine copy of the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request; an Engine Down single; and Pinback off-shoot The Ladies’ lone LP, They Mean Us. With regard to Engine Down and Rob Crow-related albums, Enuff Z’nuff, you know?

I narrowed my stack down to the Dr. Octagon, Clikatat Ikatowi, M83, Beastie Boys and Coltrane records. The big question mark was the Rockets Red Glare album. The review touchstones were tempting—Hoover, Slint, Shellac, Mission of Burma, ’90s math-rock like Sweep the Leg Johnny (whose label Sick Room Records released the CD pressing of this album)—but I was sure I’d seen it there before and was relatively confident I would see it there again. Ultimately I flipped a mental coin, saw that it landed on “Just buy the damn thing,” and checked out.

That was a wise decision. Despite possessing a band name more evocative of super-patriotic American country music, Rockets Red Glare nails Hoover’s style of churning post-hardcore. The average track length stretches to seven minutes, but there’s no excess. The tangled guitars, clear bass lines, deftly shifting drums, and alternately spoken and shouted vocals adhere tightly without an ounce of studio trickery. If you enjoy harmonics cutting through a thick haze of crash cymbals, shouted vocals offering impenetrable poetry (from “Embouchure”: “History is our lemon yellow awning / Opposite spokes obviate sorrow”), stop-starts that have been practiced into muscle memory, quiet passages with wandering arpeggios, and urgent strafing in the place of big choruses, Rockets Red Glare is an obvious pick-up. I have a stack of promo CDs from the late ’90s that evoke this sound, but few of them came close to Rockets Red Glare’s brutal efficiency. (Higher praise: I'm far more likely to put this one on than post-Hoover project Regulator Watts' The Aesthetic of No-Drag.) Check out “Union Station” (.mp3), which is one of the album’s standout tracks.

Rockets Red Glare's Redshift b/w Halifax single

Rockets Red Glare released one more album, 2003’s Moonlight Desires, also on the Montreal-based Blue Skies Turn Black label, before going their separate ways. Singer/guitarist Evan Clarke drummed for Toronto slow-core outfit Picastro for a spell and joined up with Burn Rome in a Dream, while bassist Jeremy Strachan and drummer David Weinkauf formed the free-jazz outfit Feuermusik (saxophone and bucket percussion). The group played a few reunion shows in 2009, but didn’t release anything new. I haven’t checked out Moonlight Desires yet, so I can’t vouch for its post-hardcore goodness, but if you find yourself in front of a copy of Rockets Red Glare, move it into the to-buy pile.

Bonus content alert: Commenter Anthony below mentioned that Rockets Red Glare's first single, "Redshift" b/w "Halifax," contains his favorite song from the group. Since that single appears to be highly out-of-print, here it is: "Redshift" b/w "Halifax" (.mp3). The a-side is an instrumental, the b-side is an urgent rocker. Both songs are more compact than their sprawling companions on Rockets Red Glare. This single reminds me of another excellent, mostly forgotten math-rock band: Drill for Absentee.