With this 2006 release, Santa Cruz rockers Comets on Fire in a way continues naturally in the direction that they set for themselves with their previous album, "Blue Cathedral", where they choose a more accessible path than they had previously been on. And when viewed in the light of the band's noisy earlier work, Avatar comes off as a much more cleaned up and structured effort. With more articulated melodies and less fussy distortion, the music now holds a greater resemblance to the classic rock and progressive rock of the 60’s and 70's than ever before. The excellent, more detailed production and the higher frequency of calmer parts contribute to a less chaotic and messy impression, but the album still doesn't wander off too far from the band's hard rockin' roots. Because that's what Comets on Fire is about, rockin’ hard.
The stirring masterpiece "Dogwood Rust", which surely qualifies as one of the best rock songs of 2006, sets the tone of the album right away. Lead singer Ethan Miller's smooth, alluring vocal melodies perfectly embedded in a dynamic wall of attentive and energetic accompaniment makes for an opening track dripping with psychedelic rock goodness. The ever-present gnarling guitar tags along and leads the song into a living, breathing rock and roll jam filled with haunting guitar havoc. The band then continues their guitar driven rock journey with "Jaybird", which sports riffing that could have been written by Jimi Hendrix himself, and with this as a starting point carries on into for the band somewhat unexplored territories. Their guiding star is of course the excellent guitar work, delivered by Miller and Six Organs of Admittance prodigy Ben Chasny. The more traditional amp settings allows the guitar melodies to be more distinct than on the band's past, perhaps more experimental work, and the album contains countless heavy rock and roll riffs, affluent licks and screeching solos, often grinding their way trough hazy noise rock turmoils.
The rest of the instrumentation is exquisite as well, and manages to keep a high energy level up without getting violent or aggressive. The music has, with much thanks to the intense, eager drum work, a very nice continuous flow to it, which gives the band very solid but never tedious foundations to build around. And they do so very skillfully, as they incorporate every part of the band into their sound and manage to give an extremely tight and amalgamated impression, without by any means turning it all into thick, uniform goo. This description does not exclude the vocals, which, although more distinguishable than on the band’s earlier work where they were mostly found deeply buried under noisy jams, are not as strongly highlighted as is typical in rock music. Instead the for the most part very softly, almost dazedly sung vocals blend perfectly into the overall sound. But this is not a static position, as they sometimes are found closer to the foreground, like on the soft, piano accompanied, almost ballad-like "Lucifer's Memory" and sometimes frantically screamed from under a heavy mess, like on the hectic noise rock blast "Hole Teeth".
When listening to "Avatar", you will often find yourself wishing that it's wonderful, intense guitar furies would never come to an end. You want the band to continue deeper and deeper into heavy psychedelic noise rock muddles, to set sail into unknown waters of coordinated experimentation and amp assault and never look back. But this is perhaps where the album is lacking a bit. Like mentioned, this time the band choose a more traditional path than previously, and while what they actually accomplish on this path is nearly impeccable it feels like there was, now with magnificent production and a more melodic sound than before, much potential in a heavier, more psychedelic approach with longer songs and even more liberal song structures. Despite this, "Avatar" is probably the band's best album to date, and definitely the most accessible. From the heavy rock and roll riffs of "The Swallow's Eye" to the organic prog droning of "Sour Smoke", it displays great diversity as well as excellent songwriting and musicianship. In an alternative music world that mostly seems to be heading in the opposite direction of greats like King Crimson and Jimi Hendrix, "Avatar" serves as an extremely refreshing breeze that sweeps you along to the arcane pine forests of California and gives you a noisy, smoky reminder of what rock and roll is all about. Dynamic, robust and brumous, this is truly an impressive album.