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ades of Pink Floyd, Taste of Chili Peppers on Albums

November 18, 1993|MIKE BOEHM

O.C. Pop Beat has accumulated an alarmingly thick pile of recent releases from performers on the local scene. We guiltily make an Old Year's resolution to review the lot of them before the New Year arrives.

The task begins with an assortment ranging from an hour-long, high-tech, major-label CD extravaganza (Altered State) to do-it-yourself releases from Asight Unseen, NC-17 and the Violet Burning. The ratings scale ranges from * (miserable) to **** (excellent). Three stars denote a solid recommendation.

** 1/2 Altered State "dos" Warner Bros. Floyd meets Freud on this uneven follow-up to Altered State's consistently strong 1991 debut album.

At a time when grungy brutality is in, Altered State strives in the shadow of Pink Floyd to prove that progressive-rock elegance isn't dead after all. Against a soundscape employing all manner of studio bells and whistles (and much striking musicianship), singer Gregory Markel plays out breathless psychodramas in which characters probe inwardly to find the truth about themselves--not knowing whether the truth will set them free or drive them mad.

Over the first half of the album, Altered State maintains the combination of trippy, varied playing and pop-rock catchiness that made its first album a pleasure. But as the material weakens over the second half, the spell breaks and the elaborate studio technique turns into tiresome overkill.

Songwriting is the key problem. Markel (who, according to the liner notes, is henceforth to be known as Ever Cleer) doesn't take the time to flesh out his characters by grounding them in vivid settings and giving their lives a plot. He comes off like a dithering Hamlet, repeatedly trying to psyche himself up for the great leap into the abyss of his own mind.

The album's nadir comes at the end in a shapeless opus called "Thinkin' About Movin' to a Catatonic State." In it, Altered State attempts its own rehash of Floyd's album-length psychological dystopia, "The Wall," with 11 minutes of disjointed, overblown babble. Ever Muddled is more like it.

Also ill-advised is "The Waking Dream," a leaden attempt at a sequel to "Ghost Beside My Bed," a luminous track from the debut album.

On balance, though, the good outweighs the bad. The album's first five tracks are all winners that showcase a band of great range and savvy.

"This Just Might Take Me Down" is a wild opening ride that expresses a manic mixture of glee and fear. The state-of-mind alters toward the depressive on "I Wish It Would Rain," an epic-scale cry of despair in which Markel's voice takes on a Bono-ish cast while guitarist Curtis Mathewson trots out an array of David Gilmour-influenced licks.

The lilting "Life on a Skateboard" is the album's most pithy and best-written song; along with "Angst," which echoes music by Pink Floyd and E.L.O., it shows the band's knack for lush, dreamy moods.

Altered State can pound it out with today's aggro bands when it wants to. "Where Is Harrison Ford?" has punk-funk underpinnings and features some sharp, farcical play-acting by Markel that owes a debt to Mike Muir's memorable rant on Suicidal Tendencies' hard-core punk classic, "Institutionalized."

For once, Markel gets out of the cloistered precincts of his own head as he checks out a scary Hollywood nightscape. It leaves him dazedly intoning, "Where is Harrison Ford, 'cause this must be 'Blade Runner' "--but the fresh air does him, and his band, some good.

** 1/2 Asight Unseen "Hollywood Proverbs"

Metro One It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a Christian rock band to crack a joke--or at least it seems that way on local albums that use the Big Beat to convey reverence for the Big Guy.

Asight Unseen raises a grin, though, at the very start of this self-financed album. While the rest of the band burrows into a raunchy, funky-blues groove, singer Jason Lohrke grabs a voice-distorting bullhorn and starts howling over and over: "Big, stinkin' big, way big whamboowee."

"The Big Whamboowee" is it as far as humor goes, but there are other attractions here--such as the very next cut, "Keepin' Time," in which Lohrke's raw, gravelly, high-impact voice rides a chunky, loose-limbed, Rolling Stones beat.

The rest of "Hollywood Proverbs" doesn't deliver on the opening tracks' promise of juicy, blues-steeped rock. Instead, it branches off into a wide sampling of styles--which isn't necessarily a bad thing for a young band trying to find its voice.

"Crowns" sounds like one of those sincere, vaguely bluesy Red Hot Chili Peppers ballads. Before the album is over, Asight Unseen has tried on styles akin to Pearl Jam and assayed a ballad about the young Biblical David in which Lohrke shows he can attain a Bono-like sweetness to go with the rough stuff.

The band's main lyrical purpose is to put the whamboowee on a culture too caught up in the pursuit of filthy lucre and not sufficiently alert to humankind's spiritual needs.

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