I first heard Sky Cries Mary just over three decades ago, when a cassette of their first offering, Until the Grinders Cease, appeared at the Rocket offices. On that release, SCM found Roderick Romero working with Posies co-founders Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, creating a heavy industrial sound that made me think of large machines running amok through the countryside.
Over the years, the lineup and the music style have changed, though Roderick’s been ever-present (he also goes by Roderick Wolgamott now, and his resume includes such esoteric activities as designing treehouses). It’s been a while between albums, though the group has been making more local appearances in the past few years (such as a gig at the Georgetown Carnival in 2018). And now their recording career resumes with their first studio album since 2009’s Space Between the Drops (there was a live album in 2011): Secrets of a Red Planet.
Roderick’s joined on this outing by longtime SCM-er Ben Ireland (drums), Debra Reese sharing vocals with Roderick, Kevin Whitworth (Love Battery) and Jack Endino (producer extraordinaire) on dueling guitars, and Curt Eckman (Walkabouts) on bass. The music was born in three days of improvisation at Soundhouse studio in Seattle, recorded and mixed by Endino, when he wasn’t busy playing guitar.
There’s a misconception among some that improvisation is “easy” because “you can do whatever you want.” In fact, it takes skill to make such improvisation work; to make it sound like music, instead of random noise. It’s something that these musicians know how to do well. The opening track, “Waves of Mourning,” opens with the sound of tinkling chimes, leading to a mesmerizing guitar drone, with Reese and Roderick exchanging cryptic commentary: “I used to carry water for the devil”; “I never wanted to be truly free; free of desire, of possession, pain and pleasure.” The music then stretches out, ebbing and flowing like a stream expanding to a river as it heads for the ocean. A suitable preview for the rest of the album.
There are calms and eddies along the way. That’s something of the function of “Intermezzo,” which comes after the first two numbers, and before the final three. It’s the shortest piece, three minutes and fifty seconds of electronic pulsing with a bit of guitar drone. Conversely, both “Die of Laughter” and “Trapeze Dancer” reach beyond ten minutes. The former starts out mid-tempo before the drums enter to push things along, with Roderick’s recitations bringing Jim Morrison to mind. That’s meant as a compliment, and really shouldn’t be much of a surprise; the Doors often drew on Eastern sounds themselves, topped by Morrison’s mystical incantations. Reese’s contributions add a further dissonant edge, heightening the tension.
The propulsive dreaminess of “Trapeze Dancer,” gradually morphs into something far more sinuous. “Drunken Pilot” is brooding and mysterious. “Born From My Mouth” is sad and melancholy, the guitars intertwining as the bass and drums hold steady until the lift off in the number’s second half, bringing the album to a ringing close.
Mystical. Ethereal. Tribal. Jam band. Trippy. These are the kind of descriptions you’ll come across in descriptions of Sky Cries Mary, from their Wikipedia entry (“psychedelic rock/trance musical group”) to the press info for this new album (“a psychedelic sonic journey”). They’re not necessarily inaccurate, but they do run the risk of reducing the group to a stereotype. Hear the phrase “psychedelic,” and one invariably thinks of the Summer of Love and putting flowers in one’s hair. But SCM have a sense of darkness about them, adding a little spice to the bliss. You won’t sign a sunshine-and-rainbows kind of trip with Sky Cries Mary. But it’s still a rewarding ride.
(Check out Secrets of a Red Planet below via Bandcamp and get more info about Sky Cries Mary HERE.)