Carlton Melton: Sonic boiling point

After bluesy psych rock outfit Zen Guerrilla met its demise in 2003, drummer Andy Duvall and guitarist Rich Millman picked up the pieces in 2008 to revisit their roots in the form of space/psych rock band Carlton Melton. Most people know Zen Guerilla for their more mainstream rock sound, but when the band formed in Deleware during the late 1980′s they explored a more psychedelic sound that Carlton Melton has since revived after a few recording/jam sessions in a geodesic dome in Northern California. Now that they are in their 40s with little time to spare outside of their families and day jobs, Carlton Melton manicure a songwriting process that emphasizes improvisation.

Friend of the band Brian McDougall lives in the geodesic dome that serves as Carlton Melton’s creative space where all of their recordings take place, giving their albums a signature sound. McDougall is also featured on the recordings as a studio drummer and guitarist along with John Steuernagel who provides several bass tracks. The touring band lineup is comprised of Duvall, Millman, and Clint Golden.

Having churned out three albums (Carlton Melton, Pass It On, and Country Ways), the band is gearing up for a second European tour in the fall after a four-show stint on the West Coast this summer. The tour will coincide with the release of a 12″ entitled Smoke Drip (featuring a re-release of the song “Against the Wall”) and a fifth release comprised of completely new material in the fall entitled Photos of Photos.

“The Dome,” while a novelty especially fitting for a psych act, leaves something to be desired from an engineering standpoint when considering the predominant use of omni-directional microphones (microphones that record sound in 360 degrees as opposed to directional microphones which are built to focus in on a sound).

The sonance captured in their recordings is somewhat lo-fi and distant feeling, and while this is perfect for a space rock band, my biggest qualm listening to Carlton Melton is that it feels like I’m constantly “leaning in” or straining to hear everything. Then again, this is music made for zoning out and vibe-ing to rather than over-analyzing; I just like being able to hear big drums.

The images the music brings to mind while listening are pleasant, especially for a space nerd like myself… solar eclipses, nebulae, dust, harsh environments, vacuum-induced skin boiling whilst being blasted by stellar radiation. I believe this is mostly brought about by the combination of synth sounds and the slightly muffled room reflections “the dome” brings to their releases.

Carlton Melton’s live experience, however, is a different animal judging by their videos online. Sure there’s the clich of psych music in colorful, hypnotizing screen-projections being looped behind the band, but CM can also get really heavy. The improvisational quality of their music leads the band to taylor their shows around what the audience is feeling so they skip the rehearsals and make each show a custom experience.

“The more you rehearse something it gets more and more sterile,” Duvall said. “[When improvising the song] that’s its initial time and all it will ever be.”

The band’s initial releases have been on their own label Mid-To-Late Records but they have since been picked up by UK label Agitated Records which is headed up by Simon Keeler and is also home to Electric Eels. Through Agitated the band have gotten a spot on this year’s Supersonic Festival in Birmingham, UK. After playing the festival and touring the UK this fall the band plans to continue on with more dates in France, Holland, and Germany.