Fumaça Preta expand on their sound, Pylon dives into rock-n-roll glory
It makes sense that the first release from the group Fumaça Preta was a single featuring a cover of the Sonics’ “The Witch”—a ‘60s garage-rock Nuggets classic”—translated into Portuguese as “A Bruxa”; with the raw energy and sweat of the original, the band blasts through big, dumb yet satisfying chords, with a nod—well, more like a menacing full-body lurch”—toward its heroes.
Still using sources from that “first psychedelic era,” Fumaça Preta (“Black Smoke” in Portuguese) has now evolved into something darker and more diverse, distinguishing itself by not being just another ‘60s garage-rock rip-off.
Its second album, Impuros Fanáticos (“Impure Fanatics”) is a hit of brown acid, hurtling between good and bad trips with wild tempo swings and unhinged vocals from Portuguese/Venezuelan drummer Alex Figueira. Figueira is joined by two members of the British band The Grits, bassist James Porch and guitarist/keyboardist Stuart Carter, and one feature that stands out with Fumaça Preta is its use of rhythms with South American influences that are much more complex than those often heard in your standard rock-pop tunes.
“Décimo Andar” speeds along with a compelling groove, fuzzed-out guitars and buzzing keyboards, and when you think you’ve got it figured out, there’s a children’s choir singing near the end along with a Caribbean flair supplied by steel drum notes. “Morrer de Amor” kind of kills the album’s momentum, being a slow number with Indian elements (sitar, hand drums), but a track like “Ressaca da Glória” just goes for throbbing beats and riffage with start/stop interplay and schizoid vocals over sheets of organ chords.
The capricious “A Serpente” starts as a psych slow jam then revs up halfway through with a sonic drag race before a cool-down session.
Fumaça Preta is a band that’s not afraid to sound a little off-kilter; it’s certainly capable of striking a killer groove with some diverse instrumentation, and the primal vocals live up to the album’s title. Impuros Fanáticos is worth checking out, but they can get to the next level if they cut out some of the chaff and dial up the fury just a little more.
The Athens, Ga. quartet Pylon is what this writer considers to be a “perfect band”—not in the sense that it was flawless, but that every member (each of whom was an art student) was absolutely and equally essential in the composition of the group’s identity and sound.
Bassist Michael Lachowski brought his precise formality and unmistakable bass timbre/tone, drummer Curtis Crowe offered taut, kinetic rhythms bursting with vibrancy, the late guitarist Randy Bewley played sharp, pinprick notes and revelatory chords and vocalist Vanessa Briscoe Hay’s dynamic style is utterly unique, going from calm moments to playful shout-singing to grating shrieks sometimes within the same song.
The music of Pylon has an immediately recognizable crispness and sheen, channeling an energy that had more in common with a post-punk group like, say, Gang of Four than the earthier members of the Athens scene.
It is difficult for this writer to be objective about Pylon; after being obsessed with the documentary Athens, GA: Inside/Out, his first non-local rock show was seeing Pylon opening for R.E.M. (who recorded a cover of Pylon’s “Crazy”). Pylon’s heyday was in the late 70s/early 80s, and it recorded two sterling albums (Gyrate and Chomp) before going on hiatus in 1983; since then, it has reunited several times and released its third studio album in 1990 (the perfectly respectable Chain, which many seem to have forgotten).
The new release Live captures Pylon’s final hometown show from its initial run, on December 1, 1983, and needless to say, fans clamoring for more material will want it. The recording has its warts”—obviously, it doesn’t have the clarity of a studio recording, and in particular, Hay’s vocals are a little muddied in the mix”—and newcomers should start with Gyrate, but the group’s tightness and vigor are impossible to hide on Live.
The renditions are largely faithful to the studio versions with some differences; for example, “Danger” feels antsy and slightly faster live, and the Morse-code icepick guitar stabs on “Beep” have more variation. The song list is impeccable and even concludes with two treats for fans: the rarity “Party Zone” and a cover of the Batman TV show theme song, which sounds like it was always a Pylon original.
When you’re young, you never think about which things will still be treasured in the future, among the clutter of pop-culture ephemera, but the catalog of Pylon has held up remarkably well, over decades; Live only deepens that appreciation.