In an era when attention spans have been atomized into mere microseconds by the constant barrage of rapid-paced, seizure-inducing digital content steadily beamed into our eyes, ears, and very souls every second of the day, many simply no longer have the patience required to enjoy albums. In the land of digital streaming, the single has become king, and most musicians have been all too eager to cater to the diminished focus of listeners. Easily digestible 3-minute aperitifs are the coin of the realm. Thankfully, not all have succumbed to the whims of the cell phone zombies. Psych-doom duo Stone Machine Electric has been giving the proverbial middle finger to the brevity of the pop song format for more than a decade now. Their latest avian hand gesture, The Inexplicable Vibrations of Frequencies Within the Cosmic Netherworld, was released early last month on Albuquerque’s Desert Records.
In alignment with the verbosity of the album’s title, the new LP clocks in at around 45 minutes in duration. Not necessarily The Wall in terms of runtime, but when you consider it’s composed of only three tracks, the odyssean quality of SME’s songcraft becomes much more apparent.
“For somebody who’s not aware of what we do, it may be challenging for them to want to listen to us play one song” for 20 minutes, said drummer Mark Kitchens of the band’s signature sonic breadth. “At our shows, we don’t even stop between songs. We just kind of go from one song right into the other, so it’s like one continuous song for 45 minutes or an hour, so if someone wants to stop and go grab a beer, they might not know when they can,” he joked.
With the duo’s smoke-heavy blend of stoner rock, doom, dirge, and psych, each track is an expedition. With rolling, fluid scene changes, the SME oeuvre is one made up of sections much more akin to orchestral movements than the standard verse-chorus-verse format. Haunting drones and swirling effects give way to thick, fuzz-laden riffage and shamanistic, half-tempo drumming and back again, providing the perfect red- and glazed-eyed soundtrack to a sonic voyage into a Lovecraftian underworld.
“Within a song, we try to keep it interesting,” Kitchens said. “Whether the mood changes or whatever, there’s some movement to the song. It’s not just 20 minutes of the same riff. For us, it’s just about playing in the moment. Maybe it’s a bit selfish, but those who know us know what to expect.”
Though long, wayfaring song structures have been an SME staple from the beginning, the new record is unique to the band’s catalogue in one major respect: The twosome of Kitchens and guitarist William “Dub” Irvin have always been known to use improvisation as a main feature onstage. The synchronicity they’ve developed by playing together for the better part of two decades is a tool they use to help stitch each of their live set’s songs seamlessly together, segueing smoothly from one to the next. However, Netherworld is their first album to employ that off-the-cuff expressionism as the main musical vehicle. Each of the album’s three tracks arose from fully organic jams rather than the two’s usual, more thoroughly developed songwriting process.
“For the most part, Dub and I usually write our songs individually, and then we’ll get together to work them out,” Kitchens said. “But, basically, all the tracks on this album were improvised. It’s probably nothing you’d ever hear us playing again. ‘At Crystal Lake’ was essentially a studio outtake from when we recorded our last album, Darkness Dimensions Disillusion. It was roughly a 20 minute-long jam thing we did to get warmed up to record that we kinda just chopped off parts of to use for this record.”
In a clever gag, each song’s title is inspired from the location where the jam was documented. “Journey on the Nile” was recorded with Josh Block (Leon Bridges, White Denim) at Niles City Sound, “At Crystal Lake” was tracked by Kent Stump (Reverend Horton Heat, Brave Combo) at Dallas’ Crystal Clear Sound, and “Free Thought” was from a live performance in Lafayette, Louisiana, at the Freetown Boom Boom Room. Stump also mastered the project.
Though not a conventional approach for them in making a record, Kitchens said that due to the pandemic and not being able to get together to work on material, it was one of necessity.
“We just thought it was something good to release because we can’t be out there playing live,” Kitchens said. “People can at least hear something [from us], even if it’s not out at a venue somewhere. They can at least crank it up on a stereo.”
The Inexplicable Vibrations of Frequencies Within the Cosmic Netherworld is available now via a limited edition run of CDs featuring killer original artwork by horror/fantasy graphic artist Joshua Mathus and is also streaming via StoneMachineElectric.bandcamp.com.