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Valis | Vast Active Living Intelligence System | review | rock | Lollipop
Vast Active Living Intelligence System (Lunasound)
by Brian Varney
The Screaming Trees, in the opinion of this not-especially-humble writer, are perhaps the most overlooked rock band of the last 20 or so years. Moving from the not-unimpressive garage-psych of their early SST albums to the majestic hard rock of their final two major label records (1992's Sweet Oblivion and 1996's Dust, both in my top ten albums of the '90s and also the best albums to come out of the whole Seattle thing) over the course of a very turbulent decade-plus career marked by band in-fighting, drug busts, public indifference, blah blah blah, the Trees petered out when they were at the top of their game, coming apart to no one's notice when they should've been riding around in limos with armies of groupies and trashbags of cash. But, such is the music business, I suppose.
Of the band's three main songwriters, lead singer Mark Lanegan has been the most active in the years since the band's demise. He has continued to release his dark, primarily acoustic singer-songwriter solo albums (there are now five) on Sub Pop as well as joining Queens Of The Stone Age, thereby upping his hipster credentials (and hopefully, in the process, stimulating some well-deserved interest in both his solo work and the Trees' albums).
The other 2/3rds of that band's creative force, brothers Van and Patrick Conner, have remained more or less silent to this point. However, their rebirth is a much less drastic one than Lanegan's. Whereas his solo work is more or less a 180 degree turnaround from the band's output, Valis, which features both Conners plus former members of Mudhoney and Tad, doesn't fall too far from the Tree (yes, I just said that). That band's mix of epic riffs, a thundering hard rock rhythm section, and a muted psychedelic sensibility is the order of things here as well. Opener "Indian Giver" (no relation to the 1910 Fruitgum Co. classic) unabashedly borrows its central riff from Led Zep's "Custard Pie." Van Conner's vocal phrasing shares quite a bit with Sabbath-era Ozzy, even though their voices aren't especially similar. The band, meanwhile, bashes along with mindless abandon, the aforementioned psychedelia apparent only in the pedals and effects which shoot the lumbering riffs away from their familiar terrain, at which points the music floats freely, unsure of itself or its destination.
Overall, then, a much finer album than I'd expected. The tunes are decent if not spectacular with a nice attack and presence, and the homespun production lends a comforting warmth, all of which lends the songs a nice familiar feeling the first time you hear them. Not the Trees, of course, but who could live to up to such a lineage?
(PO Box 41084 Philadelphia, PA 19127)