I haven't heard King Buffalo before, but I've seen the name increasingly often and, on the basis of this, their fifth studio album, that rise in prominence is well justified. They play psychedelic rock in an interesting fashion, because it's not remotely the instrumental stoner rock I expected. For one, Sean McVay sings as well as plays guitar, though he does do much more of the latter. For two, that guitar isn't downtuned and it's a liquid space rock vessel here rather than a fuzzy riff machine. For three, while Dan Reynolds's bass is clearly audible throughout, it's not extra-high in the mix.
What that sums up to is almost an old school sound. The opening title track starts like Vangelis but then shifts into a cross between laid back desert rock and Hawkwind space ritual. It's a peach of an opener, the first of a pair of nine minute bookends, and, like all the best psychedelic rock, it takes us on quite the journey. McVay's voice is soft and reserved, almost an alternative rock voice, but it floats in a swirl of instrumentation that's dense enough to shock us to acknowledge that this band is a trio. Sure, if we pay close attention, we can only hear three instruments but that guitar is like an orchestra all on its own. I'm assuming at this point that the keyboards I keep hearing are really guitar with serious reverb or other effects in play.
The rest of the album follows in much the same vein, albeit at shorter lengths, with McVay's guitar always the lead instrument, far ahead of his voice, and Reynolds and drummer Scott Donaldson an immensely reliable backing for him to shine over. Whenever he gives his fingers a rest, Donaldson shows just how much Joy Division he's listened to in his time. I wasn't expecting to reference them in this review, just as I wasn't expecting to reference U2 in the early sections of Mercury, though it does heavy up somewhat in its second half.
It's usually McVay who signals any shift in comparison. He taps the fuzz pedal late into both Hours and Mammoth to highlight a stoner rock mindset that I'd expected all along, though it's combined in both cases with melodies out of alt rock. He softens up on Interlude to remind of Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd. I wasn't expecting to raise a comparison to Grantchester Meadows here either, but it helps highlight how much depth there is to King Buffalo's sound. Moving from the jagged guitar of Hours to the pastoral hippie-esque chill of Interlude is quite the shift but it works.
Interlude excepted, because it is what it says it is and does its job well, I found that the longer the song the more I appreciated it. Perhaps that's because, while McVay does a fair job as a vocalist, that's just one more texture in the layers of the band's sound and I appreciate them more when a song leaves the vocals behind and they jam. Mammoth is probably the best example of this, with a perfectly capable opening vocal section that's left in the dust when McVay unleashes his guitar to blister his way through the rest of the piece. If I remember this one for vocals, it's not the singing early on, it's the vocalisations that wrap it up.
So Mammoth and Avalon sit a little higher in my estimation than Mercury and Hours, but it's that title track and its opposite bookend, Firmament, that I'll praise the most. Firmament kicks off with more hints to that soft Floydian approach, but it's perkier with chiming guitar. Later in its opening half, it heavies up in an unusual call and response fashion, between riff and what feels like a cloud. Then the second half returns us to the magic of Regenerator, because I simply get lost in this music. It lifts me up and carries me somewhere and the world ceases to exist for a few minutes, almost the perfect attribute to an album in these troubled times.
This is a majestic album, which makes me very aware that there are more King Buffalo albums out there, including two last year the band is combining with this one as their "pandemic trilogy", and an upcoming gig at the Rebel Lounge here in Phoenix. Let's see if I can make it out to that one.