Review Summary: Extraterrestrial Highway has enough moments of brilliance to make it a worthwhile listen, but the overwhelming monotony of a great many tracks hold the album down from ever taking off as a whole.
Instrumental rock is tricky business. For a genre whose fans often seem to pride themselves in going against mainstream opinion and pop culture, a surprisingly small percentage of 'rock' fanatics would at all be able to engage themselves in an instrumental album completely devoid of vocal hooks or choruses or 'mainstream' accessibility. Sure, many rock fans would be quick to sneer in the face of any lover of simple chart-ready pop, but the realization that the two's taste may not be so different would come quick at their common confusion over an instrumental album like Ten East's Extraterrestrial Highway. It's blatantly obvious that this album was not made with global success and recognition in mind, but every band needs a fanbase, and with so few people from most genres' followings willing to swallow an entire album in which not a single note is sung, gathering enough support for financial stability can be difficult.
So how, if at all, have Ten East succeeded here? Despite being a virtually unheard of band outside the American palm-desert rock scene from which every band member has been accumulated, there is no denying that Ten East are, musically, a very solid ensemble; and when mainstream success is all but out of the picture, musical ability is virtually the only goal a band like this has. The album starts strong – if not exactly dazzling – with 'Heavy Light,' a thoroughly enjoyable mid-tempo jam. 'Heavy Light' cruises along at a steady pace, working with only a few guitar parts spread out over it's total ten minute duration. In typical desert rock fashion, it's difficult not to envision scenes of Southeast American road trips and long, sprawling highways as the piece runs it's course. 'Heavy Light' closes leaving the listener a sense of optimism; while no more than a likable, mid-tempo instrumental jam, there's a sense that with a bit more dynamic and variation, Ten East could really do something superb with their arsenal of experienced palm desert musicians.
Unfortunately, the ultimate downfall of Ten East is their contentedness to do exactly not
that; instead of experimenting with their sound, the group see it fit here to continue exactly where 'Heavy Light' left off for almost the entire album. 'Aqua Beard' picks up the pace a little, utilizes a much denser sound and introduces a warmly familiar guitar riff in it's opening segments; but again, is simply another perfectly likable but not at all surprising jam. 'Scraping the Barrel' comes around and, although it never really does anything wrong, it never really does anything at all either; the listener can't help but wonder if the guitarist is ever going to change his tone (which seems to have remained identical for the past three tracks), or what on earth the point in hiring Brant Bjork, the master of dry desert groove, on base guitar was if said instrument seems to altogether disappear from the mix so often.
The next highlight finally arrives with 'Draggin' Balls,' a 10 minute exploration of a thumping, groovy and utterly brilliant guitar riff. The base once again emerges here to help the tilted, heaving rhythm of the track, and it's quickly clear that Ten East have struck gold. Shifting gears regularly between thick, plodding guitar riffs and spacious jam sections, 'Draggin' Balls' is an exercise in instrumental rock done right. If the whole album was as engaging as this, Ten East could really have pulled off something that was more than just 'enjoyable.'
But unfortunately, it quite simply isn't. Three of the final four tracks sit around the three to four minute mark and pass by without any impact on the listener whatsoever; 'Progressive Guillotine' is the only cut that saves this final half of the album. Clocking in at 12 minutes long, it could be viewed as the epic of the album, perfectly merging a driving rhythm section and some tense, emotional guitar work. Ten East manage to ride the tension, the driving rhythm and the painful guitars for the track's entire duration without failing to entertain, before everything rises into a cacophonous climax that's over as soon as it's begun, before the album fades out with the wholly uninteresting and by now completely redundant 'Expanding Darkness.'
All things considered, Extraterrestrial Highway
can be breathtakingly excellent when it wants to be, and the highlights of the album truly do manifest themselves in lessons on how to do instrumental rock damned right. On the other hand, the gaps between these sparks of brilliance are bridged with redundant and monotonous songs that just don't really seem to do much at all; when you're delving in a genre that's going to be dismissed by a vast majority as 'boring' anyway, it really helps if you try and avoid monotony at all costs and Ten East seem to be completely oblivious to this. Coming from a group of musicians who through their other projects have shown themselves as perfectly capable of writing engaging, instrumental-based music, the failure to entertain here is simply baffling. That's not to say Extraterrestrial Highway
isn't enjoyable – in fact every track on here is likable enough, but not all do much more than that, and this is what Ten East need to work on if their brand of desert-themed jam rock is ever going to take off the ground in a truly spectacular way.
Draggin' Balls, Progressive Guillotine, Heavy Light, Aqua Beard