Atomic Opera
For Madmen Only

Houston's prog-rock trinity of King's X, Galactic Cowboys and Atomic Opera keeps tempting reviewers (at least this reviewer) to use words like "interchangeability." All share a similar guitar sound, vocal harmonies and stop-sign time changes. All have shared, at one point or another, the services of producer/guru Sam Taylor. And all have shared a tendency to start at the top -- signing major-label deals before they've bothered to develop any grassroots hometown support.

All three bands have also shared an over-reliance on more-than-the-sum-of-the-parts rhetoric to push their uneasy musical alliance of melodic rock and metal thrash into the mainstream. Problem is, with King's X and Galactic Cowboys anyhow, not many bought that line. King's X's Dogman and the Cowboys' Space in Your Face don't sound so much like more than the sum of the bands' considerable parts as they sound like, well, just a bunch of parts.

For Madmen Only -- despite a title so stupid that even glue-sniffers will scoff -- strikes me as the most listenable of the three, if only because it doesn't seem to be shooting for anything more than what it is -- crunching, melodic hard rock. There's none of the "heavenly synthesis of shimmering harmonies and gut-wrenching guitar-core" pretension so common to the hometown prog-rock clique, just the facts of a buzz-clipped guitar drive and some, yeah, operatically pretty vocals. Arty rhythmic hairpins are at a minimum, and every now and then the Opera even finds that rock-and-roll grail that King's X and the Cowboys keep at such a frustrating arm's length -- a groove.

-- Brad Tyer

Ancient Sounds of the Future (cassette)

D.R.U.M. (Divine Rhythm, United Motion) is one of those eclectic musical units that gives voters and nominators all hell come music-awards time. You could peg this local conflagration of sounds as reggae at a stretch, or world beat, if you don't mind using an almost meaningless category,

but you're still not going to encompass the music these seven men make on a variety of African and Western instruments. Sax, djimbe, conga, berimbau, flute, guitars, djun-djun, maracas, keyboards, afuche, traps, agogo bells, bass, bongos and vocals both sung and chanted come together on Ancient Sounds, referencing Caribbean music, but more strongly based in African styles.

There's no lyric sheet here, which is probably just as well, since rhythmic interplay is D.R.U.M.'s raison d'etre, and the band accomplishes it with exceeding skill. No pseudo-tribal drum-circle noodling -- just seven clean, crisply recorded, structured tunes imbuing a sense of complex musicality and emotional uplift. Not especially surprising that the ensemble can convey that uplift in their sporadic live shows around town, but I'm awfully impressed with how much comes through on tape.

-- Brad Tyer

Buddha on the Moon
"Broke" b/w "Now That You're a Star" (7" single)
farrago records

Latest word has it that Buddha is no more -- at least with the lineup you may have seen around town -- which lends a certain tender irony to the song selection here. Top that irony with disappointment because -- even if Buddha never gained a high profile on the local circuit, and even if they leave behind little more than this seven-inch, plus a two-song tape called ...hanging strings, like plastic stars and another piece of farrago vinyl shared with Lozenge and Dyn@mutt -- they were chasing one of the more distinctive sounds in the Houston underground.

It's a sound with parallels to Dallas' undervalued Bedhead, and from there to Chicago's Seam and Jersey's Yo La Tengo. Low-key guitars strum and chime over a beat so relaxed that it threatens to fall asleep on you, topped with vocals that stay well within conversational range. Liner notes say "Broke" was recorded on a basement 8-track, and the lo-fi sound only adds to the record's dreamy AM (or a.m.?) charm. It's a mellow, subtly edgy performance, and if it makes you want more, you might be able to convince yourself that Buddha's not defunct after all -- just moving on to the next plane.

--Brad Tyer


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