[Note: Portions of this review contain information received while conducting a (non-recorded) phone interview with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin in the early afternoon of June 13, 2011. The recording device malfunctioned so I did my best to remember and write down highlights suitable for this article.]
Two years after leaving the Smashing Pumpkins—again but on his own terms this time—to pursue a new musical venture, Jimmy Chamberlin, one of the best rock drummers in the world, is back with a new band, Skysaw. Originally called This, the trio of Chamberlin (drums), Mike Reina (main vocals, keys/piano, guitar) and Anthony Pirog (main guitarist) changed it to Skysaw because, as Chamberlin told me in a 30-minute phone interview a couple of Mondays ago, there was already a California band with that name. There was also concern that “no one would ever be able to find us” in an Internet search anyway, he said with a chuckle or two. So to make everyone happy, the band, thanks to Reina, renamed itself after a Brian Eno song (“Sky Saw”). And the rest, they say, is history.
Great Civilizations (Dangerbird Records) is the name of Skysaw’s long-awaited debut record, and it consists of 10 tracks. I say it’s “long-awaited” because, if the name of this new LP sounds familiar to some Chamberlin fans, that may because you probably saw or heard about its original November 1, 2010 release on a couple of digital outlets, including Amazon.com as a six-track digital-only album under the original band name, This, before it was immediately taken off those sites in order to come up with a new band name. It was a wise decision, even though it meant waiting for the record’s release another six, then seven months (but with four more tracks this time around).
As to who played the bass parts on Great Civilizations, the ex-Pumpkins/Zwan/Jimmy Chamberlin Complex drummer told me that Reina handled them. Chamberlin really appreciated and was pleased with how perfectly Reina’s bass parts filled out the sound of these songs, with what he described as (Pink Floyd-era) Roger Waters-like big-sounding bass lines.
You can hear this type of loud bass action at the start of the record, on lead single and lead-off track “No One Can Tell,” which starts off with drums, backwards guitar from Pirog and Reina’s bass, followed by the latter individual’s gargled, psychedelic vocals. On this excellent, mostly guitar-heavy rocker, Reina sings about being a stranger and complete unknown to everyone. But with this record and on all the tour dates that have already and will continue to go with it in the coming days and months, that won’t be the case anymore.
Reina wrote all the lyrics, but Skysaw is a band that wrote, re-arranged and finalized songs together on the music side of things as a trio. This is something Chamberlin said he wasn’t able to experience in the Pumpkins, which became too much more about one songwriter’s ideas (Billy Corgan) and aspirations than those of a true band, as he said in prior interviews to mine. Thus, Corgan and Chamberlin respectfully parted ways after SP’s 20th anniversary tour concluded in late 2008. (Chamberlin, for the record, also experienced being a more prominent member of a band when he led and wrote lyrics for the more jazz-and-rock-based Jimmy Chamberlin Complex in 2005, the year before Corgan reformed the Pumpkins)
Reina’s vocals, even with vocal effects on some songs, are clear-cut, have the range of a tenor and can best be compared to Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots, Velvet Revolver). The third member of the trio, electric guitarist Anthony Pirog, takes turns using some other noteworthy guitar types on the record, including a 12-string on the title track, as well as a lap steel and acoustic guitar parts elsewhere.
Eno might’ve influenced the band name, but good friends of his in U2 may be impressed with Pirog’s The Edge-like guitar work about two minutes into the otherwise palm-muted, punk-ish pop rock of “Nothing’s Ever Easy” and on the aforementioned title track, which Priog said he used the famed U2 guitarist’s delay pedal on during the recording process (according to a statement he made in a press release).
Some (including their label) have described Skysaw’s sound as progressive rock, but with only one song clocking in past the five-minute mark, it’s hard to see how that description fits this band. Sure, Chamberlin and Reina started the band with progressive elements in mind, but it’s hard to spot on the record other than perhaps on the slightly dark but summer-ish feel of “Tightrope Situation” (which is itself a pretty tune but far from the best track here).
Psychedelic pop or “symphonic pop,” as on the good but certainly not elite track “Am I Second” is a better description. Yet, with folkier tunes featuring country-esque lap steel guitar like “Tracey Janey Girl,” Skysaw can’t be pin-pointed to a particular genre. And that’s a good thing.
Chamberlin isn’t able to play drums like it’s 1995 (as he told this reviewer last Monday) but you’d be hard-pressed to convince listeners otherwise on album highlight “Capsized Jacknifed Crisis.” His ridiculously fast but smooth stick work, and the pop rock behind this well-produced piece of work are pleasurable to listen to every time.
It’s tracks like that one and “Serrated,” with bright-lighted guitar chords and riffs carried by a bouncy beat that exemplify why Skysaw fit well as the opening act to Dangerbird Records labelmates Minus The Bear on a recent, short tour in a few southern states. Chamberlin told me himself that he knew that what Skysaw was doing with these songs would go over well with Minus The Bear fans, and by the end of its shows, those fans often went from not feeling it at the start of a Skysaw set to cheering loudly by show’s end.
By the time you get through these 10 tracks, if you’re like this writer, you’ll appreciate and dig Chamberlin’s new direction more than you thought you would and will definitely want to hear a follow-up to Great Civilizations, one of the more impressive debut records of 2011.
For upcoming tour dates and more info on the band, go to Skysaw’s official site. From there, be sure to keep up with the band on its Twitter and Facebook pages.
Great Civilizations is in stores as of today via Dangerbird Records.