Album Review: Mushroom – Messages from the Spliff Bunker

A kind of indie-underground supergroup, Mushroom is at its core the brainchild of Pat Thomas. Combining avant-garde, free jazz and krautrock influences and textures might – to the causal listener, at least – sound extraordinarily unappetizing. But the truth is that Messages from the Spliff Bunker is a challenging sonic experience that yields rewards for the engaged listener.

“Looking for Adventure” has a go-go jazz feel, not unlike the kind of thing one might expect to hear on the soundtrack to a spy adventure of the late’ 60s. The heavily distorted keyboards have a saucy, aggressive character. And the beat and melody are quite accessible. The liner notes let us know that there are three drummers (David Brandt in your left ear, Thomas in the center, Marc Weinstein on the right) but any fears that Mushroom will sound like Grateful Dead or Doobie Brothers are wholly (and mercifully) unfounded. This is deep groove music, with Matt Cunitz’s keyboards at the center of the tune’s universe. Digging deep into the krautrock aesthetic, few have done so much with so few chords. If Neu! made souljazz, it might sound like this.

“One Ton Anvil” is cut from very different sonic cloth. Spare, abstract percussion is joined by keening, atonal bursts of guitar that recall Lizard-era Robert Fripp. Dollops of Erik Pearson’s flute and sax are applied here and there. It’s a dizzying mix of sounds that feels completely improvised.

The tribal thumps of “I’m Ok, You’re Not OK” are joined by bloops and bleeps of the sort that confuse the listener: are they acoustic or electronic? Overdriven organ or something else? The source of the sounds is ultimately less important than the sounds themselves. Occasional melodic licks dart in and out of the heady mix, but as a whole the track is unstructured, impressionistic. The three percussionists defy time and space, sounding like a six-armed beast (but not, it should be noted, like the final, three-drummer King Crimson).

The one-chord “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful” takes its time to unfold. Once it does, the track bears a vague resemblance to Obscured by Clouds-era Pink Floyd, albeit with tasty vibraphone runs and other jazz-leaning elements worked into the recipe. Grading accessibility quotient on a curve (hey, I like it!), “Don’t Hate Me” provides the most poptastic ten minutes on the double LP. And it is in fact beautiful.

The entirety of Side Three is taken up by the 18-minute “Marc Moved to Buffalo.” As one might well expect of such a lengthy track, it unfolds slowly. Sparkling keyboards and languorous drumming build in intensity, “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” style minus the nightmarish screaming. The piece moves through many different textures, with the beat ebbing and flowing, each player taking his turn to explore the sonic reaches of eternity. Paul Hoaglin lets us know that he owns a wah-wah pedal, too. The ending moments of the track are mesmerizing, somnolent and evocative, somehow all at once.

Side Four is the mainstream, catchy part of Messages from the Spliff Bunker. No, I’m kidding; it’s every bit as out-there as what has come before. “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” is – if anything – more abstract than anything on the first three sides. Ned Doherty’s cyclical bass work evokes thoughts of Bitches Brew. Continuing the album’s playful character, the set concludes with “Victor Krummenacher vs. Jorma Kaukonen,” name checking two artists not involved with the project. Otherworldy sounds dominate, taking the sound toward musique concréte frontiers.

A wild ride, and one well worth taking.