Lots of bands put out CDs. Few bands put out an album, in the sense of a seminal recording (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pet Sounds, In the Court of the Crimson King) that doesn’t offer songs as much as moments and suites. Where one song ends and another begins is hard to decipher (and often meaningless), jamming is prevalent, and there’s usually a theme, even if it’s only sonic. The “album” idea sort of died at the dawn of the compact disc. In the late 1980s, as music became more portable and lives more active, fewer people cared to stop, take a deep breath, and really listen to music. An album also means vinyl.
The Fort Worth quartet EPIC RUINS has just put out an album in both senses, with contributions by some of Fort Worth’s finest local musos, including Michael “Big Mike” Richardson on lead guitar and keys, Chatterton’s Kevin Aldridge on guitar and keys, The Orbans’ Justin Pate on keys, Calhoun’s Jordan Roberts on harmonium, and The Me-Thinks’ and Stoogeaphilia’s Ray Liberio on vocals, among others. Void Mariner and the Mystic Boogie of the Sacred Line will not be available in CD format: only on vinyl (in December) and via iTunes. CDs “are a waste of money,” according to EPIC RUINS bassist Steve Steward. “Nobody buys them.”
Though full of swirling passages, wonky solos, and occultish lyrics, Void Mariner and the Mystic Boogie of the Sacred Line is also highly accessible. Groovy Zeppelin-esque riffs come on strong, and rhythms are occasionally smooth, occasionally pounding, as frontman Sam Anderson (Quaker City Nighthawks) sings in a voice that’s smoky and bluesy but also spacy: a muscle car’s vapor trail. There are some crunchy, heavy jams, but mostly the album just sails on by, which is not to say that it won’t reward deep listening. It will. Incredibly. At nearly 40 minutes in length, it encourages unplugging from the world, putting on the headphones, maybe rollin’ a fatty, and just listening –– and, as even the most casual 2112 fan knows, following along to the lyrics. Void Mariner’s will be located on the album sleeve.
If there’s a lyrical theme, it’s largely about the unending — and ultimately unsuccessful –– search for universal truth that unites us all. “Everybody goes on this search for ultimate truth, and some people think they’ve found it, but … nobody ever really finds what the ultimate truth is,” Steward said. From that, “we started thinking up this character, the void mariner, this immortal guy who travels through these various universes and existences in search of that, but by the end of it, he doesn’t have any more answers than anybody else, even though he’s experienced just about everything you could possibly experience.”
The music contains all sorts of references though never any direct quotes: Pink Floyd, Zappa, and King Crimson happily mingle with ZZ Top, Black Sabbath, and Metallica. The songs were written by Steward and drummer Jordan Richardson (Ben Harper and the Relentless7), though Anderson, saxophonist Jeff Dazey, and guitarist Richardson (no relation) were afforded room to stretch and interpret. Of course, you could listen to Void Mariner and the Mystic Boogie of the Sacred Line on your iPod while running on the treadmill. But you’d probably enjoy the album best in a custom-painted van, preferably one that has an eagle firing lasers from its eyes while soaring over Machu Picchu and being ridden by a buxom she-demon.
EPIC RUINS has humble beginnings. The band began as an outlet for Steward’s and Richardson’s visual –– rather than sonic –– imaginings. “Steve and I birthed the idea years before we ever penned a note,” Richardson said. “Most of our influences and intentions then were based in a particular feel or aesthetic or look even.” Some of that aesthetic revolves around Conan the Barbarian (film and comic), The Beastmaster, the Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies, Star Wars, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century TV series, Heavy Metal magazine, Planet of the Vampires, and games such as Zelda, Morrowind, and Oblivion.
“Early in the inception of the project, it was almost based in narrative and visual terms before we ever had a sound pinpointed,” Richardson said. “We discussed our influences and knew that our obsessions with psychedelic film and music of the 1970s would ring through, certainly.”
Void Mariner and the Mystic Boogie of the Sacred Line also has “a uniquely Fort Worth sound,” Richardson said. “Every player on [the album] is a heavy motherfucker here in town.”
Steward, Richardson, and company recorded the album piecemeal last year. After rehearsing for a couple of days at The Me-Thinks’ Haltom City space, EPIC RUINS went into Fort Worth Sound in August. In October, they did a song at Fusion Project Studios. In December, they did two songs there that aren’t on the album but may appear in a sophomore effort. In January, they went back to Fort Worth Sound and finished up. The album was mastered just a couple of weeks ago by Danny Kalb (Ben Harper, Beck, Rilo Kiley).
In actuality, you could praise Void Mariner and the Mystic Boogie of the Sacred Line for its moderation. It’s not over-the-top campy, though it easily could have been. “I feel like we went around the campy aspect of fantasy,” Steward said. “Not that fantasy’s supposed to be serious or realistic.”
The musicianship and lyrics –– however fantastical –– aren’t gratuitously kitschy. “We were serious about the record without taking ourselves too seriously,” Anderson said. “Touching on as many points as we did, you have to kind of recognize a little bit of fun in all that. It’s still a serious record. We had a good time while doing it, and I think that comes through.”
Anderson, who sang through a guitar amp, sometimes sounds as if he’s calling from a payphone on Saturn: dusty and distant. In his delivery and texture, he evokes Mitch Ryder’s raspy soul and Billy Gibbons’ streetwise cool, which is perfect for songs in which the astral and earthbound coexist peacefully. (He doesn’t sing every song. The lead-off track, “Sacred Line,” is sung by wispy-voiced drummer Richardson with backing vocals from multi-instrumentalists Richardson and Aldridge.) The rhythm section is tighter than Conan’s abs, and in the soloing department Dazey stands out, whipping his sax into a frenzy and approximating crunchy guitar tones.
The songs are not complex but dense. “Holy Curses” begins as a smoldering, ominous dirge of stuttering snare, glistening cymbal, and creeping bass before the volume and attitude get cranked up and the song transforms into a full-on head-banger. Michael Richardson’s thick, syrupy, reverb-laden solos wind through the blues to early Metallica, mainly conjuring up Sabbath’s Tony Iommi. “Unnamed Boogie (Ashera’s Theme),” about a sword-toting, monster-slaying vixen, is a Fu Manchu-ian rocker, full of fuzzed-out bass and spurring drums. “Sacred Line” isn’t necessarily loud, but the main acoustic-electric guitar riff –– alternately muted and twinkling –– is obsidian, somehow referencing Metallica and Zep at the same time. One of the heaviest moments on the album is the chorus to “Child and Cobra,” when all of the instruments land on the same few honking notes at the same time a la Soundgarden.
The album’s most sweeping track is “The Shade,” about the mariner in the middle of his journey, adrift at sea and questioning his mission and his sanity. Composed in three distinct parts (not counting the shimmering piano intro), “The Shade” begins softly –– tribal drums bongo back and forth beneath resonating guitar chords. “The vessel drifts between the rifts, and memory resigns,” Anderson sings, his voice hollow and murky. “Forbidden paths are easiest to find.” The song comes to an abrupt stop, at which point a semi-jazzy bass line bubbles up and is soon joined by Dazey’s sax. “Walls of stooone, nobody hear me through these walls of stone,” sings Liberio, his voice gritty and pained. He is soon echoed by Anderson, who sounds as if he’s succumbed to the lotus. A brassy sunlit jaunt brings the song to a Van Morrison-ian close.
Void Mariner and the Mystic Boogie of the Sacred Line ends not with a bang but a whisper. Soft and mellow, “Convergence” follows the hero’s realization that all that’s left for him is the grave. “Pick out a spot, pick up a spade, climb up that hill,” Anderson sings. The music eventually swirls away, drums and guitars jamming on the same few notes, out of time, into the void, and into history.
For the band, the future is always present. “There are no typical rock band parameters or rules set in place,” Richardson said. “Yeah, we have to book shows and promote the record, but the project has a much more forward-thinking attitude behind it, trying to literally take futuristic steps in what we do,” including creating a feature-length film to serve as a companion piece.
“Our hurdles are not typical rock-band hurdles,” Richardson said, “and that makes it much more fresh and I think motivates everyone involved a little bit more. There is no pressure in this band, because it’s not a regular band. It’s almost like an art project whose medium happens to be rock band.
“I think EPIC RUINS will continue to push and expand toward different sounds and maybe even into different mediums,” he continued. “It’s a really exciting time in the world. It all feels on the brink of something. Destruction or renaissance or robot takeover — whatever happens, I know me and Steve and Sam and Jeff and the rest of the collective will still be sitting around pushed by that energy to write records and perform while the shit is hitting the fan all around us! And that’s a really exciting and promising feeling.”
Fri w/Eyes Wings and Many Other Things and Future People at Lola’s Saloon, 2736 W 6th St, FW. $8. 817-877-0666.