Wednesday 17 May 2023

Smokey Mirror - Smokey Mirror (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Psychedelic Blues Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

Boy, have I been waiting for this album. The last gig I went to before COVID closed everything down was a psychedelic blues rock band from Dallas, Texas called Smokey Mirror and it's no hyperbole to suggest that they were the most devastating live band I've ever seen. What made that even more special was that they were technically there in support of local stoner metal band Loserfur and the venue, which was about the size of my front room, wasn't full and largely included members of the other three bands on the bill. My brief gig review on Facebook stated that "they gave it everything like they were playing in front of 20,000 people who had paid $200 to get in, rather than 35 people for $8 cover".

They were a trio then, with only an EP out, but they've bulked up to a four piece—Cam Martin has replaced Josh Miller on drums and Caleb Hollowed has stepped in on a second guitar—and signed with Rise Above Records. That's important because this band generated a sound that was hard to believe was generated by only three people and there are now four of them. Along with the boost in production values that comes with an important label, this ought to seriously blister and it very much does that, aided I believe by engineer Paul Middleton, formerly of seventies heavy rock band Blackhorse, also a trio, who did his thing at a studio that uses only vintage analogue equipment.

The result is that this feels authentically seventies, the sort of ultimate crate digger find, surely an album lost in obscurity because nobody could believe how intense it was in 1975. Imagine the most furious psychedelic rock from that decade, drench it in acid and stretch it out for forty minutes and change and you might have an idea what Smokey Mirror sound like. I thought of them on stage as a cross between Aeroblus and Black Sabbath, with some of Motörhead's ruthless heaviness and an intricacy from the Allman Brothers. That translated well to the studio, though there's not as much of the Motörhead as I remember.

They tellingly start with a crescendo, pause a moment and then launch into full gear with Invisible Hand, a song from their debut EP. There are three songs here that are previously released but all benefit from being re-recorded here, not just because of the production but because they're even tighter as a band now than they were, which is hard to imagine. The others are Magick Circle, also from that EP, and A Thousand Days in the Desert, which saw release as a single. All three are on a compilation CD I picked up from the band in 2019 which combined the EP, the single and a further song as a bonus.

Invisible Hand is a killer opener, an ambitious statement of intent, and Pathless Forest matches its intensity but with more obvious melodic lines. Both these songs blister, but Magick Circle blisters a lot harder, which is saying something. It ran to six minutes on the EP but it's eight here, even with a faster pace. The first four minutes there are done in three here, with a neat slower section before some feedback worship wrapped around a bass solo, and, eventually, of all things, a drum solo. It's a ballsy move to include a drum solo on a debut album, but it works because Magick Circle is easily defined as a showcase. The only thing more ballsy would be to kick off the album with it.

From there, it's new material for a while and wildly varied new material at that. I believe they put out Alpha-State Dissociative Trance as a single, which is fantastic because it's particularly wild and full of jazz fusion. It's a jagged and vicious sub-three minute blitzkrieg to cleanse our palates after an eight minute epic with a drum solo and, just in case we needed to cleanse our palates after that level of intensity, Fried Vanilla Spider Trapeze is old school roots rock, only a minute long but music that wouldn't be out of place on a Hot Tuna album. Nice harmonica too.

My favourite song here has to be Sacrificial Altar, another epic workout with a crescendo to start it into motion. I didn't know what Smokey Mirror meant when I saw them live, but then I read Ernest Hogan's books, especially Smoking Mirror Blues, and now I get it. It's a reference to the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, their trickster deity, and, while Los Tricksters were a fictional band in Hogan's novel, it's not a wild stretch to imagine that they sound like Smokey Mirror playing Sacrificial Altar. It's a gem of a track, short at seven and a half minutes, and more perfectly formed than anything before it.

And, while that's enough for an 8/10 album already, we're not done yet. What's to Say underline a Black Sabbath influence, just in case we hadn't noticed it during much of the album thus far, but it does it at Sabbath's speed here, slow and doomladen, before the bass goes hyperactive and both guitars start to shred psychedelia. It's another strong song on an album full of strong songs and it has to be said that I wanted that to carry on forever. However, this avoids overstaying its welcome by wrapping up with a brief Latin solo guitar exploration called Recurring Nightmare.

And, because I can, I can then just start the album again. And again. And again. I've been eagerly awaiting this album for four years and it showed up better than even I expected it to be. Now I just need to stop listening to it on repeat because I have other albums to review.

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