Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound: Vintage Psych Rock Honed in Hippie Tradition

Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound: When Sweet Sleep ReturnedAssemble Head in Sunburst SoundWhen Sweet Sleep Returned (Tee Pee, 4/7/09)

Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound: “By the Rippling Green”

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No matter how progressive San Francisco may be, there are a few things about the City by the Bay that will never change. For one, you can always count on being enveloped in fog, even in the summer. For another, you will always find countless long-haired, tie-dyed relics from the ’60s loitering in the streets of the Haight-Ashbury district. And lastly, thanks to a 40-year-old tradition of a liberal community of musicians bucking convention and testing the limits of what rock music can do, San Francisco will always be responsible for some of the trippiest, hardest-grooving psychedelic rock in America.

Along with the likes of Echoplex wielder Comets on Fire, the folk raga of Six Organs of Admittance, and prog/post-rock band Crime In Choir, Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound is defining a new generation of psychedelic rock in the Bay Area. Its own unique brand simultaneously nods to the heavy fuzz of Blue Cheer and the jangly, summery pop of The Byrds, while maintaining a spacious and exploratory groove all its own.

Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound

The band’s new album, When Sweet Sleep Returned, marks a shift away from the band’s improv-heavy, ’60s-influenced first record, Ekranoplan. With When Sweet Sleep Returned, the band has taken its sound into bolder and more spacious territory, while retaining some of its fuzzier aspects.

What sets When Sweet Sleep Returned apart from its peers is how delicately it balances atmospheric sonic textures with the catchiness of a classic rock song. It has a vintage feel in some regards, but tracks like “Drunken Leaves” and “Clive in the Lyre” are far removed from the sounds of the psychedelic era. According to front-man Charlie Saufley, giving each song its own unique identity was an essential component in creating the album.

“We wanted individual songs to have a character and soundscape all their own, rather than hone in on some idea of what we are supposed to sound like,” Saufley says. “Personally, I don’t have an interest in a really cohesive sound. It wasn’t a concept — there are left turns, zigs, and zags.”

“We wanted the songs to be so intricate that they couldn’t be vehicles for improvisation, especially in a live context. We wanted to make sure that this album was a more tuneful-sounding thing.”

When Sweet Sleep Returned is a more focused record, even if, sonically and stylistically, it varies widely. Yet this new effort also strikes a notable dichotomy between the group’s recorded output and its live presence, which is louder, more incendiary, and more concerned with improvisation. Saufley says that this aspect of the band’s persona isn’t bound to change any time soon.

“I’d be hesitant to say that we’d be keen on having the improvisation go away,” Saufley says. “One thing that’s been apparent in our history is that the live show and the recording process have taken divergent paths. As disciplined as we would like the live show to be, we wanted the songwriting to be there. We wanted the songs to be so intricate that they couldn’t be vehicles for improvisation, especially in a live context. We wanted to make sure that this album was a more tuneful-sounding thing.”

Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound

Though Sweet Sleep isn’t heavy in a conventional Sabbath Bloody Sabbath sense, there is most certainly an emphasis on dense textures and layered arrangements. Take a track like “Kolob Canyon,” which focuses on clean, melodic guitar sounds courtesy of Jefferson Marshall and heavenly vocal harmonies, but still piles on effect after effect, while a metallic, almost sitar-like sound buzzes beneath the harmonic bliss. The fact that the band was able to combine a raga-like drone and a pop melody into one track is a testament to the attention put into textures.

“We wanted to spend less time on structures and more on textures,” Saufley says. “We knew that there wasn’t going to be a lot of vocal howling. We wanted things to be more crafted, more tuneful. I’m really pleased with what we achieved with the vocals, creating a little more space, and some bolder, more overt musical themes and hooks without hiding behind chaos. The desire was to get away from the real overt heaviness, just because we would end up doing it anyway. When we’re in the studio, no matter how we end up intellectualizing it, we just go bat-shit and jump around like monkeys.”

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