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The Light Brigade

Got Five on It: Linus Pauling Quartet's Larry Liska, Clinton Heider, Steve Finley, Charlie Horshack and Ramon Medina
Rosa Guerrero

"I think we write what we do because we grew up near NASA, playing D&D, reading Tolkien and smoking a lot of fucking dope!"

So says Linus Pauling Quartet guitarist Ramon Medina, explaining the longtime Houston group's proclivity for penning songs whose lyrical content and stylistic cues can easily be interpreted as self-­effacing odes to the members' own ­juvenility.

For the past 12 years or so, LP4 have been pairing heavy psych-rock and a multi­colored array of other genres with songs about aliens, reptiles, insects, faux mythology and, of course, drugs. Curiously, All Things Are Light, the newest album by the seven-piece "quartet," released last month on vinyl only, does not contain a single song about marijuana. There are, however, songs about alien abduction, bar fights, malt liquor, fast food and ancient undead warriors hell-bent on revenge. Dope or no dope, All Things has the makings of an LP4 classic.

But nailing down exactly what constitutes an LP4 classic is somewhat tricky. The band has always had a penchant for jumping genres, and All Things is no exception. It tackles Southern rock, sword metal, heavy-as-hell psych, jazz-leaning interludes and gonzo pseudo-ska. The most unwavering element in their music is the band's complete unwillingness to care what anybody else thinks. It's clear, both speaking with them and listening to their records, their sole motivation is a desire to create on their own terms.

Even with all the genre-hopping, All Things is likely LP4's most consistent and cohesive album to date, thanks in part to the vocals. On opener "Alien Abduction," lead singer Clinton Heider's vocals are surprisingly clean, altered only by a slight echo and one moment of effective, slightly comic processing. The other members, with three guitars wailing at once, provide a wall of morphing sound to support Heider's almost subdued vocals. Nearly nine mind-fucking minutes long, "Alien Abduction" pays much more than lip service to LP4's psych-rock roots.

Heider's muted, melancholy vocals, recorded like he was caught singing softly to himself, are a little disappointing on second track "Southern Pine." To be fair, his delivery perfectly suits the lyrical content, but it's still a tad distracting. The song itself is a trademark LP4 mystery wrapped in an enigma: Arguably the heaviest song on All Things, it starts off subtle, almost sensitive, but eventually erupts into sprawling guitar chaos.

All Things breaks from LP4's norm with several instances of clean guitars and pretty vocal harmonies. From a band known mostly for swirling, fractal guitar figures and distortion-laced psychedelia, and for an album whose hazy cover art and purple-tinted vinyl seem to announce its intentions before the needle ever hits the groove, this might be a bit disconcerting. Intentional or otherwise, it suggests LP4 has a subtle contrarian streak.

"Perhaps our style has made us a challenging listen for potential fans, but it has been satisfying for us," says drummer Larry Liska. "Most of our work has been crunchy on the outside and cheesy in the middle, and from inside looking out I see nothing different about this latest album. But maybe we are frogs in water."

Referencing local rap slang on "She Bad, She Thowed," LP4 returns to another of its hallmarks. The band, especially Medina, has long held extremely close ties to the local scene. If you've been to a show anywhere in Houston recently, odds are you saw him somewhere in the crowd, arms folded, pensive look of concentration on his face.

LP4 wear their Houston heart on their sleeves, literally. All Things' liner notes are punctuated throughout with photos and icons of Houston music personalities, from the Party Owls to the Sound Exchange staff. John Cramer of the Mike Gunn provides an inspired sketch for sword-metal epic "Waiting for the Axe to Fall." Cra­mer's former bandmate Tom Carter pens liner notes.

One full page is devoted to a display of show posters, past and present, that detail the LP4's relationship to the Houston scene, and vice versa. In a remarkable show of community spirit, another page illustrates more than two dozen local bands. Such elaborate packaging means the band has no chance of breaking even on All Things, making it truly remarkable for them to venture to such lengths to show the importance and vibrancy of their native musical landscape.

Local references continue on electric blues workout "She Bad," which details a brief but noteworthy scuffle at Proletariat during a Glass Candy show. To complement the rough and dirty sound of the distorted bass rumble and scratchy guitar, Heider sings like he just drank a quart of whiskey and then ate the bottle; in other words, perfectly. The title was borrowed from a Martel Music hip-hop poster for Houston's B1, which somehow LP4 forgot to include in the liner notes. And so...

"Our apologies, B1!" amends bassist Steve Finley.

"40 Oz.," unsurprisingly, is an ode to that most prosaic of cheap-drunk means. In LP4's hands, however, a 40 of St. Ides conjures a surreally pastoral scene. Recalling Southern rock and Todd Snider, it plays like a sunlit saunter through a hayfield: "Well, the sun is shining, high up above the clouds, feels good and warm on my belly, sparkling through my 40-ounce."

Then comes undoubtedly the culmination of the band's fascination with all things geeky yet cool, "Waiting for the Axe to Fall," all sweeping guitar lines, insistent drums and medieval terminology. Trace the origin and evolution of this track on the band's blog (http://linuspaulingquartet.blogspot.com) and it's fairly apparent they have a communal agreement that sword-metal is inherently worthy of mockery, but it doesn't stop them from trying to perfect the form.

Interestingly, as the band members themselves note, the legacy of manufactured myths — like the legend of Mourne­bong, Stonebringer and the Great Singularity — running so stridently through LP4's catalogue closely mirrors the mentality required to take something as ripe for ridicule as sword metal seriously. They execute it brilliantly, yet leave the sneaking suspicion they're laughing at you as you rock out.

Don't worry, though — they're laughing just as hard at themselves. Though the band maintains the outward appearance of complete seriousness, even in the face of such wonderfully ludicrous material, there's most certainly an element of inherent mischief there as well. Heider's explanation of the album title's origins makes a perfect parting riddle.

"If you get a cryptic message from someone, it's like a dream, and it's up to you to interpret it," he explains. "If 'light' means 'photons,' well, then clearly it's a reference to the Great Singularity where everything becomes a single point of light before pulsing out again and becoming the universe. If 'light' means 'not to be taken too seriously,' then you go back to your original question."


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