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MINERAL KINGS

Metropolis
   There’s been some debate on this web site and others about the intersection between careful musical craftsmanship and raw emotion – the question being whether copious amounts of the latter can compensate for a lack of the former. I don’t think fans of Sonic Youth will ever agree with me on this issue, but it’s a pleasure to be able to bring up an example of a band that exemplifies the best of both qualities: San Francisco’s Mineral Kings.
   The Mineral Kings consist of Art Forte on guitar, bass, keyboards and harmony vocals, Tony Morosini on drums and guitar, and Carv Tefft on lead vocals (yet another debate rages about whether that’s his real name, but I think it must be, on the grounds that if you were going to adopt a stage name it would something much cooler than that.) Although the two guitarists take turns writing the songs and delivering the leads, the sound is well-integrated, because the material is quite diverse to begin with, and the production lends a high-quality gloss (but not too slick) to the proceedings. But above all, the songs are simultaneously passionate and finely honed, combining two schools of rock and roll into one excellent blend. With only a couple exceptions, any of these songs could represent modern rock at its finest to a skeptical Sonic Youth or Yes fan.
   Metropolis kicks off with “North Beach Drifter”. A startling burst of distorted chords eases into a warm blend of acoustic and chorused electric guitars picking out a haunting progression that gives Tefft lots of room to show of his excellent range, as he rumbles in a throaty baritone and reaches for a pure falsetto note to end the verse. The haunting melody of the verse sets off the lyrics of the chorus, which ruminate over lost love (“I’ve got nowhere to go / And my mind works kind of slow / But you know I’ll always think about you”) over a classic “garage rock” set of chords. The song opens up to new layers as Forte’s dubbed backing vocals spread into a choral sweep and Morosini powers through a series of press rolls for a dramatic climax, then the song returns to those lovely opening chords underpinned by a subtle organ. Simply gorgeous.
   ”Vanish” follows in a folksy vein, with several acoustic guitars and tambourine under the first verse until the song explodes with a powerful shuffle (impressive double-timed kick drumming), and a brilliant extended guitar solo from Morosini that rams home dozens of Allmans-style licks but played with intensity and speed. The bridge links nicely to the verse motif with a set of staggered climbing chords giving nice pauses for Tefft to claim with an authoritative delivery (he starts off hesitantly with “something’s tugging at my arm, breathing down my neck”, but by the end he’s letting out a powerful “No fear!”) A powerful run through the gamut of musical moods and expressive emotions in under three minutes.
   A threatening toms-and-bass riff sets up a brooding fingerpicked guitar lick (like Chet Atkins doing the Cure) that is the main motif of “Scared to Death,” and it works excellently to play off the vocal melody with its short phrasing of a wave-like arc. Tefft’s vocal delivery is hushed in the verses, adding to the dramatic contrast when the chorus opens up with syncopated snare, choppy guitar and urgent harmonies. The bridge is wonderfully integrated into the song, as it takes the same phrasing of the verse melody but changes the notes. The first three songs on this album are excellent examples of mature songwriting, with lyrics that address deep emotions – in this case, unformed dread – with powerful performances and nuanced arrangements.
   The album takes a slight dip with “A Lot Like You”, a slow grinder that doesn’t capitalize on the band’s strengths, although the bass line does a nice job of pushing the beat with pickup notes into the one. The problem lies in a pedestrian guitar arrangement (not much in the lines of lead work) and an awkward lyric: “When Jesus comes, tell him for me...” (When Jesus comes, he’ll be judging everyone, so you can tell him yourself.) It is fun, though, to pick up on all the little Beatles touches the band throws in, from the Abbey Road-style drum fills, to a clever two-part vocal arrangement, to a slow modulation at the end of the verse that sounds just like a Lennon idea. The guitar solo is also wonderful, playing with the melody by trilling on the opening notes in each bar and bending notes throughout.
   ”Please Don’t Take It So Bad” picks things back up, with a revving guitar line and a vocal delivery so impassioned that the lyrics are incomprehensible (it sounds like “Takes a second of slate buckwheat baby of weight someday uh huh” to me) but the energy level and hooky chorus are irresistible, and the little lick in the guitar line followed by a psychedelic descending bass line are musical bliss. Another excellent set of backing vocals, where Forte shows his range (they’re way up there) leads into a moog-driven bridge that darkens the mood with a dip into a minor feel but keeps the charging tempo going. An excellent way end side one, were this an LP.
   Morosini shows his diversity here, switching from the bright driving riff of “Please Don’t Take It So Bad” to the gentle fingerpicked line of “Sweet”, and supports his own guitar work with a nuanced drum line, with sophisticated sixteenth-note syncopation in the kick drum, leading to a march in the second half of the verse, then a delicate ride pattern for the chorus. Another fine bass line supports the guitar work with touches like glides up to the fifth and scales downward into the chorus. This is another gorgeous recording, that shows Forte singing low harmonies – the man must have a three-octave range!
   The only other dip on the album follows, as “Good Good Man” takes a bunch of forced rhymes (“I’ve got a big monster truck / we can get in the back / maybe I can show you my gun / you know, the one in the rack”) and shoves them onto an irritating little riff and fuzzy electronic drums. The vocal delivery is a hoot, though, with the slurred accent and excellent harmonies again.
   A luscious blend of acoustic and electric guitars opens “Jack O’Lantern” with a spooky progression that opens into a ghostly chorus with slightly dissonant lead work and distant vocal responses (nice use of reverb on that). Tefft’s lyrics pick up on earlier themes of trepidation and sets them in a physical environment for appropriately chilling effect. A powerful bass line in the instrumental breaks lends a foreboding quality to the proceedings.
   A good old-fashioned blues lick opens “Queen of Apostles” and the song has a friendly southern-rock feel, from the open hi-hat to Forte’s blue-note harmonies to a guitar solo that channels the spirits of Allen Collins and Tom Scholz. The melody is anything but conventional though, as the chorus reflects the lyric’s smile-inducing stroll down memory lane with its diminished intervals and clever stepwise motion against strident guitar slashes.
   ”The Prize” concludes the album in impressive fashion, with a pounding drum line that opens into a splashy chorus, over which cascading leads lend a playful air and Tefft turns on his bedroom voice, but then lays into an intent delivery for the pre-chorus with its ringing guitars. The chorus is an exercise in synchronicity as the guitars, drums and vocals all hit a complex rhythm with precision and Tefft stretches his larynx out of shape with an awesome scream over fuzzed out guitars and ringing cymbals. A fitting end to an excellent album which shows that musical craftsmanship – in the form of well-planned chords progressions, careful arrangements, and detailed production – can meet with passionate performances and produce the best kind of music: rock and roll for the modern soul.

Please visit the Mineral Kings at their website and get yourself a copy of Metropolis. It’s my new favorite record, and it just might be yours, too.

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