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Major Stars - Syntoptikon

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Artist: Major Stars

Album: Syntoptikon

Label: Important

Review date: Apr. 6, 2006

Wayne Rogers and Kate “Village” Biggar have been traveling rock’s interstellar spaceways for nearly two decades now under various guises, Major Stars being the latest and most prolific. The two guitarists/songwriters have been making some of the most overlooked psyche rock under the sun; even the duo’s mid-1990s band with Damon and Naomi, Magic Hour, never seemed to get the love it so rightfully deserved. In an era in which Animal Collective gets interviewed in Entertainment Weekly and Black Mountain plays opener to Coldplay, one has to wonder when, if ever, Major Stars are going to get their due. It’s probably wishful thinking to imagine some sort of breakthrough occurring for these Cambridge, Mass., freak-rockers, and they’re most likely none too concerned about it anyway, but if it were going to happen, Syntoptikon would be the record to do it.

The Major Stars’ fifth album is by far the band’s largest statement yet; bassist Tom Leonard’s move to third guitar and the addition of vocalist Sandra Barrett bring an entirely new dimension to a band that has already pushed aural barriers to their limits. Barrett’s handling of vocals on five of the album’s seven tracks marks the first time Major Stars have had a vocalist other than Rogers. And while Rogers’ singing certainly has its merits (a deep, stony croon that floats atop the squall just so), Barrett has a more traditional pop-rock voice that’s as much Grace Slick as it is Sandy Denny.

Fear not. All of Major Stars’ key elements are still firmly in place and working their magic: Wayne’s way-out solos, Kate’s monolithic noisescapes, and the tight yet fluid rhythm section all serve to keep the band’s Vincebus Eruptum pulse beating strongly. Barrett’s vocals maximize both the pop aspects of the group’s sound (which have always lurked beneath even the tallest mountains of Twisted Village) and its more straightforward rock stylings. “Cinnamon And Lightning” and “Collapsing,” stripped of the acid-rock heroics, are basically pop songs, and lovely ones at that. This isn’t to say that Barrett’s style is all sugar and spice. She can handle the heavier stuff too, like the fuzzy headbanger “Pocket” and the lurching “Black Road.”

There are two tracks without vocals – “The Ravager” and the album's title track – and it makes sense for Barrett to sit these out. The guitar onslaught of “The Ravager” is ferocious and dense, and so concise it’s difficult to hear where the vocals would fit. And if it’s possible for an instrumental track to function as a career encapsulating biographical narrative, then “The Ravager” is Rogers’ snapshot life story, as he slashes and burns his way to what should be immediate infamy. The titular closer is a 10-minute plus jam that, while not the album’s tightest track, features all five instrumentalists at full tilt from the word go, with no space to get, literally, a word in edge-wise.

Syntoptikon would rock whether Barrett contributed or not (the two instrumental tracks being obvious cases in point), and would most likely be received with equal fanfare either way, but for those who’ve been on this ride before, take heart. The Stars have picked up a righteous hitchhiker who makes the journey a hell of a lot sweeter.

By Nate Knaebel

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