Birds of Avalon don't fly very often these days. Their initial burst of activity stalled near the beginning of this decade, as the members of the heady, catchy psych outfit wrangled new responsibilities. Married guitarists Paul Siler and Cheetie Kumar run three thriving businesses together—the rock club Kings, the subterranean bar Neptune's and the eclectic ethnic eatery Garland, where Kumar is the chef. Bassist David Mueller has revived his project Heads on Sticks, issuing three sets of drug-melted dance rock since the Birds last released a record. And Scott Nurkin has kept busy painting and drumming, including a sizzling run with Durham emcee Shirlette Ammons.
But with new EP Disappearance, the Birds regain their earlier ascendance; in fact, these five songs might be the best collective take of the band's career. Disappearance builds on the slanted grandeur of 2011's Birds of Avalon, the bulk of which was actually created in 2008 with Craig Tilley, a lead singer who has since left. The band moved on without finishing it, eventually producing the home-recorded acid test Uncanny Valley when their label, Volcom Entertainment, ran out of money. But they later returned to Birds of Avalon after Tilley's departure, and the results found the group fulfilling the big rock promise of their old configuration while charting new courses. While "Invasion" keyed on an arena-rattling hook led by Tilley's piercing wail, songs like "Road to Oslo" presented something else entirely. Drifting through a haze of colorful guitars, the tune forged a succession of dramatic tonal shifts, escalating to crescendos that diffused into brain-tingling abstraction. It suggested that Birds of Avalon had shaken off the shackles of classic rock structure and were ready to indulge experimental whim.
Four years later, Disappearance makes good on that promise without abandoning the Birds' intrinsic accessibility. Opener "Just Alike" is one of the catchiest songs they've ever produced, its hook buttressed by Mueller, Nurkin and Kumar's sleek harmonies. The pounding rhythms and gyrating guitars suggest the insistence of Neu!. Think Thee Oh Sees with a twist of The Who's stadium-sized charisma, and you get close to the strange, alluring composite.
The remaining songs push in disparate directions; it's a testament to Kumar, who produced the record at Mitch Easter's Fidelitorium, that Disappearance plays so smoothly. Her fuzzy touch eases the whiplash of the Birds' sharp, frequent turns.
The closing "Wasted Hours," for instance, recalls "Road to Oslo" as it cycles through an array of hypnotic melodies. The band injects a throbbing beat as the song approaches its chorus; it's like a lost New Wave hit emerging from a wash of bent strings and reverberating riffs. During the title track, loopy guitars bubble from beneath a mechanized beat. "Guffaws," too, has electronic underpinnings, but the motives are different. Nurkin's pounding drums support a funhouse of coarse noise and wild distortion.
The 21 minutes of Disappearance took four years for Birds of Avalon to muster. For many bands, such stagnation might signal a corresponding creative drought. But this crew re-emerges here with more energy and far-flung enthusiasm than ever.
Label: Third Uncle
This article appeared in print with the headline "Connecting flights."