One of the worst things about listening to Led Zeppelin was the munchies. Sure, "When the Levee Breaks" sounded just as good stoned as sober, but being sober was for sports or science class. And listening to Zep was what you did when you wanted to forget about form tackling and photosynthesis and all that shit. So when a new band like Nebula (which the glossary in your high school science book defined as "a faint misty patch of light in the heavens produced by clustered stars or by masses of diffused gaseous matter") emerges from the hazy memories of the '70s, and at the same time initiates a return to fuzzed-out guitars, brain-dead lyrics and sharp drumming, a desire to fire it up wells in your gut. Once more.
Nebula's music is what's called "stoner rock." Or rock for males who like their music like their women like their drugs: cheap and easy. Other bands such as Queens of the Stone Age and, earlier, Kyuss (pronounced "Ki-uss") and Sleep, appropriate the sound well, but none are as sincerely raucous as Nebula. All those sly winks grunge made so popular have given way to unabashed head bangs. And Nebula is the most unforgiving in its allegiance to rock-hard hard rock.
Its sonic roots go back to Sabbath and Blue Cheer. Its lyrical inspiration: Cliffs Notes ("Antigone"), pharmaceutical labels ("Fields of Psilocybin") and the Discovery Channel ("Clear Light"). The tunesmithery is mostly straight-ahead verse-chorus-verse-jam, and the band's kitsch factor, always important in an age of camp and retro, is as flagrant as the nipple on Farrah Fawcett's first swimsuit poster.
But the guys from Nebula, front man Eddie Glass on guitar and vocals, Mark Abshire on bass and Ruben Romano on drums, say they don't care how the band's perceived or what "stoner rock" even means. This type of music is what they've been doing since they became a band about three years ago, and what they intend to do until the levee of good fortune breaks.
"If we tap into some memories for people, cool," says Romano, from a hotel room in Laramie, Wyoming. "But we're not trying to re-create the past, but I know it's got that feel. We have influences from back then with a '90s feel. Everyone seems to like it."
Before Glass and Romano formed Nebula, they were part of Fu Manchu, a popular grunge/hardcore outfit with heavy-metal leanings. Romano, who says he has been playing drums since the age of eight and who is now 30, began performing when he was a teen. One of his earliest bandmates from his youth in Orange County, California, was Abshire, who Romano says was "the ultimate punk rocker." Through Abshire, Romano met Glass, with whom Romano has been playing for eight years.
Nebula worked the Los Angeles scene for about a year before releasing a six-song EP, appropriately titled Let It Burn (Relapse/Tee Pee Records), and a seven-inch, That's All Folks, on Italy's Last Scream Records. After touring Europe, where the term "stoner rock" was coined and where fans have been eating up the music for the past few years, Nebula cut a 12-inch, appeared on a compilation for MeteorCity Records and released another EP, Sun Creature, on Man's Ruin.
This week Nebula releases its national debut, To the Center, on Sub Pop, the label grunge built. The record comes just days before the band appears in Houston as part of the Riff Rock Railroad Tour, which features Atomic Bitchwax. The tour started early last month.
Live, Nebula is an episode of That '70s Show set to music. Not only are the band members' clothes and haircuts appropriately dated, but their instruments are also from a time long since past. Glass, toothpick-thin with brown stringy hair, plays a pair of SG's (but saves his 1969 authentic Blue Cheer model for studio work), and Romano, compact with a curly dark bob, plays a set of Ludwig VistaLites, circa 1975. "I love my drums," he says. And though similar to John Bonham's skins in make and appearance, Romano's five-piece kit is blue. (The Led Zeppelin drummer's were clear.) Topping off Romano's arrangement of snare, rack, two floor toms and 24-inch (24-inch!) bass drum is a 40-inch gong. "It's cool, man," Romano says. "To stand in a room and hit it real softly. It's meditative in a way."
The gong, as every headbanger worth his weight in malt liquor knows, is essential to heavy rock. And Romano's gong has a prominent moment on the title track on To the Center. A rangy tune with a split personality -- one part bar-chord groove, one part melodic reverie -- "To the Center" is the band's reaching out to its audience, asking its listeners, "Are you ready to rock?" The song is six and a half minutes long and goes on for stretches without any lyrics. Essentially, it's the soundtrack to a movie about lighting a joint. The gong comes at the moment the smoker reclines in his seat.
Nebula does the transcendental stuff well (and Romano uses his gong judiciously), but the band is best when it plays fast and loud. On a song such as "Come Down," Nebula actually does what few '90s bands have ever done, chemically enhanced or not: It achieves true heaviness. After the song's simple three-note syncopated intro doubles back on itself, Glass scratches his guitar pick down his strings before singing the hurried lyrics. And it's during those one and a half seconds, the time it takes for Glass's pick to travel a few inches, that Nebula is the heaviest band on earth. Not since Ritchie Blackmore's days with Deep Purple has the simple gesture of pick scratching been used so perfectly.
Over Romano's crisp drum work, which alternates between double-time stomp and triple fills, Glass rocks a rather complicated, Sabbathian riff on high fuzz. His voice sounds as if he's singing with the microphone in his mouth. The song's so pre-metal, so '00s, you can almost see its music video now: the three guys from Nebula jamming, superimposed on a tie-died backdrop as the camera zooms in and out real fast.
"Come Down" loses momentum only during the call-and-response chorus, when Glass repeatedly sings, "Come down," and echoes himself with a couple high, fast notes on his guitar.
And it's this return again and again to time-worn rock tactics that makes To the Center a triple instead of a heavy-metal home run. While this trio obviously knows that little accents (e.g., gong bangs, pick scratches, sound effects) are the difference between a decent and a great record, the guys deliver their songs too loosely to leave any long-lasting impact. Glass's guitar playing is often reduced to filler (which is okay for The Who or U2, but not for a band descended directly from Sabbath and UFO). Romano's drumming becomes cliché. And Abshire's bass playing You wonder if there even is a bass player on some tunes.
Maybe it's the contraband. ("When people ask us, 'What kinda drugs you like?' " says Romano, laughing. "I'm like, 'Well, whadda you got?' ")
Or the partying. (Does Nebula party? "You bet," says Romano.)
Or living up to the Jeff Spicoli rock tag? ("It's kinda funny," says Romano good-naturedly. " 'Stoner rock.' That's cool.")
Whatever it is that gives the band its spacey tendencies, it will force Nebula to face its fate one day. Maybe not tomorrow or next year or two years from now. But like the bands that inspired it, Nebula will have to either change its sound or die. Blue Cheer failed. Sabbath turned into a one-man unglamorous glam-rock band. And Zep adapted well, which meant it crafted some solid stuff. For now, Nebula's sound, like being high, is great for a short while but doesn't last long.
Nebula performs with Atomic Bitchwax on Saturday, November 6, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Call (713)862-7580 for more information.
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