Spring is in the air. Depending on where you reside, this may or may not be a big deal. For those not residing in a paradise climate, this signifies the coming of tolerable temps and more regular doses of some much-needed vitamin D. It’s also a signifier that we can soon roll the car windows down, crank the jams, and make our best Maxell “Blown Away Guy” impression. With that in mind, red-eyed headbangers everywhere should be champing at the bit to blast the debut record from Detroit’s Octopus out in the open (and springtime-y, flowery, sunshiney) air. Supernatural Alliance beams with an invigorating, revitalizing energy that the rock ‘n’ roll (and our seasonal affective disorder) has been missing lately. One look at that album cover should give you an idea of exactly what you’re in for: fantasy, sci-fi, ardor, majesty, and triumph.
Still, like their aqueous namesake, Octopus are a slippery group to tack down in spite of their mostly retro tendencies. Sometimes you get a Master of Reality-era Iommi stomp complete with undulating tom work (“Beyond The Center”), others a nearly Blue Öyster Cult haunt (“Sword and the Stone”). Then there’s moments like the overdriven title track where they mesh a full-commit stoner rock lead with a glossy, celestial synth foundation, leavening things to a smooth and almost floaty glide. By shifting the weight of the song to the full-throated powerhouse chorus, there’s a nifty dynamic balancing act taking place that never leaves the track feeling thin or uneven. This consistent shapeshifting becomes a varied and eclectic package, the band to touch upon many throwback microcosms. Masha Marjieh’s commanding vocals bind everything together nicely. Her power and delivery suit the high intensity regimen the group doles out, and she handles herself well during the albums few dialed back moments. Album standout “All the Love” (which brings to mind “Planet Caravan” in all the best ways), slows things down at the perfect moment – disarming listeners before they surface again with a potent closing duo.
While a synthy foundation beds most of the record, they avoid entering corny waters that seemed to have doomed everyone in the 80s. Octopus masterfully modernize the keyboard-driven, shag-carpeted sound. A perfect world would have “Strike (While the Iron is Hot)” playing in the background of a dim and smoky pool hall where too-cool-for-school lyrics like “I see that the squeeze ain’t worth the juice” can be said unironically and the clapped-along gang vocal chorus can be belted out with reckless abandon – it’s basically modernized Joan Jett in terms of ‘tude and songwriting acumen – what more can you want? Little touches like the way Adam Cox’s piano key slides cozy up with ferocious organ roars put this track over the top, it’s an approachable, yet dense pop track. Yet, it’s not necessarily the catchy angle that suits them best. Supernatural Alliance’s ace in the hole reveals itself when Octopus stretch out during their roomier compositions like the aforementioned “All the Love.” Likewise, “The Unknown” is unexpectedly massive and heavy, complete with air raid siren guitars and demonic organ roars, hinting that there might be some kraken-sized epic in their future. (Seriously, turn this one way up. Feel that body-buzz. Bask in that holy trinity of fuzz. Ahhhhh.) Similarly, “Slave and Master” hints that there’s something more under the hood here with an extended keyboard and bass jam tucked into a three minute track.
Though their ambition is evident, it’s not really given the opportunity to sprawl. That, or it was edited out in favor of a cleaner, quicker listen. Supernatural Alliance’s longest tracks barely exceed the five minute mark, whereas the rest safely reside in the three or four minute window. There’s the sense that these songs may have been tailored for play in smaller clubs as opposed to a laser-ridden arena show. The framework is certainly in place for tagging a jam on here and there, but things feel just a little too trim. Honestly, it’s a good problem to have. As much as this writer wants to hear these guys unleash in the nerdiest way, it just doesn’t happen here. J Frezzato’s leads are almost tasteful to a fault, straying far away from prog wankery and leaving things open for Matt O’Brien (bass) and Cox to navigate. It becomes a wonder how they can squeeze a little solo or jam into songs like “Black Dynamite” and “Child of Destiny.” Keeping this in mind, the sequencing and pacing are still absolutely on point. Things move along quickly, tempos and dynamics regularly ebb and flow, and intrigue stays on high for all of the record’s too-brief runtime. Octopus’s keen sense of timing serves their diverse compositions well.
Psych rock has largely been a west coast staple, but if the waves made here by Octopus are any indication, we might not be looking coastward for the next great offering of stellar metallic psychedelia. Supernatural Alliance is an eye-opening debut, delivering the goods like seasoned vets instead of stumbling on their first rodeo. It’s a pleasure to hear a band craft something this well-rounded with such confidence, much less as a first impression. There will be obvious parallels to be drawn to Vancouver’s Black Mountain (keyboard/synth heavy compositions, superbly tight songwriting, stylistic variety), which is about as great as a compliment as there can be for this particular style of stoner rock; it’s just that Supernatural Alliance is more akin to the commercial-focused Wilderness Heart than it is the epic IV or In the Future.
Supernatural Alliance ascends March 30 on Rise Above Records.