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Album Review

Mist & Mast
Action at a Distance

I can't make anything out in an x-ray. Neither can Jason Lakis, only he wrote a song about it. My friend Howie Wahlen says X-Ray recalls the essence of Paul Kantner's Blows Against the Empire but I can't speak to that, not having heard it since its release some, holy crap, 40 years ago! I can speak to the music of Mist & Mast though and it is raw and fresh and at the same time smooth and, pardon the word, grooving. If the world had been tipped on its head back in the late 60s or early 70s and Help Yourself or Man had rolled out of the UK and into San Francisco, they might well have sounded like these guys. Or maybe if Sopwith Camel, Miraculous Hump time, had landed in the UK. Of course, they would have had to have Jason Lakis as a frontman. The guy has his own sound and, trust me, that is a good thing.

That sound worked its way through a handful of groups, most notably Mist & Mast and a previous one called The Red Thread. Together, both groups (to this date, anyway) have conjured up five albums and a cult following in the Bay Area (Lakis lists his operating base as Oakland). He claims that Action at a Distance is an step toward a more commercial sound and I would believe him but for that sound. While it is true, or is my perception, that the new album is a bit more crisp than previous albums, it is not a huge step from those previous efforts, but don't take it from me. Sample for yourself:

The Red Thread/After the Last (2002)
The Red Thread/Tension Pins (2004)
The Red Thread/Ship in the Attic, Birds in the Subway (2005)
Mist and Mast/Mist and Mast (2007)
Mist and Mast/Action at a Distance (2009)

The thing is, I have listened long and hard to three of the albums (the two by Mist and Mast and The Red Thread's Tension Pins) and find all three commercial and non-commercial in equal parts. Actually, what does commercial mean these days anyway? If the Net has done nothing else for music, it has expanded the boundaries once dictated by the at one time top of the music pyramid major labels and, kaff, the media. Commercial no longer means ready for radio. It now means what takes the public's fancy and that, whether it be Lady Gaga or Mist and Mast, changes the rules.

X-Ray, from Action at a Distance, certainly qualifies as commercial, its melody and harmonies the core of a musical stew. “I can't make anything out in an x-ray,” it starts, verse ending in “But you look, you're the expert”, guitars working in tandem and juxtaposition at the same time like the San Francisco bands of old. The solid beat helps, a simple 4/4 beat driving the machine which thrives on loosely tangled guitars, but what makes it really work is the structure--- the solid beat of the verse and the odd rhythm pattern of the chorus and harmonies bordering on the the edge of dissonance. It is neither Paperback Writer nor Boulevard of Broken Dreams, but by today's standards it certainly could be considered commercial.

Maybe the better word for it would be 'accessible' for today's music audience is much more sophisticated than in years past. Thus it is that Mist and Mast's lineup of songs could make the grade with any discerning music enthusiast: In the Fall, From the Fall with its locomotive rhythm section, simple chord organ and dual guitar tradeoffs; Two Seams, the kinks-like rhythm guitar one piece of many in a tightly yet loosely arranged tapestry and with a bridge from another universe; Action at a Distance, a semi-prog instrumental testament to what Quicksilver might have been had they leaned more toward the symphonic; Moving Steps, a floating end to it all with background sleigh bells and slow reverbed guitar creating a lights down, late at night mental setting.

If your definition of commercial is more of the same, you can forget this. Mist and Mast have combined to form an adventurous whole, an entity reflecting but not regurgitating music's past. This is Creativity in Music 301, elevated far beyond the basic 101 to which we are accustomed. If I believed in a Top Ten, this would be in my Top Three, easily, and maybe my Top Pick.

Mist and Mast and The Red Thread's Tension Pins may be earlier versions of Action at a Distance and maybe Lakis considers them less commercial, but I place them all on the same level. Songs like New Water and Price of Fevers (Mist and Mast) and From the Divide and Tension Pins (Tension Pins) are hardly lead-ups to later songs. They are solid and stand on their own, really good and maybe even great songs. I find myself reaching for the two earlier albums as much as Action at a Distance, which means I am waaaayyy behind on my reviews, but I don't care. These are three albums I have to listen to, and I am close to ordering Ship in the Attic, if only to take the pressure off the other three.

Why haven't you seen Action at a Distance on any critic's lists this year? My guess would be that they just haven't found it yet. When they do, if they have a lick of taste, they will be singing the praises of Mist and Mast like I am doing right now. And I'm not saying these guys deserve it. I'm saying if you have an adventurous spirit at all, you do. You're welcome.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.

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