Stumptone’s “Gravity Suddenly Released” 

By Ken Shimamoto 

To paraphrase Francois Villon, “Where are the avant-gardists of yesteryear?” Taking a look at the career trajectories of musos from the underground that oozed and slithered out of Denton, with a few tendrils here in the Fort, a decade or so ago, one might conclude, “All over the map!” Mazinga Phaser’s Wanz Dover and Eric Hermeyer, f’rinstance, are DJs – Wanz around the Metromess, Eric in Memphis. Ohm/Frankie Teardrop/Yeti mastermind Doug Ferguson left the planet in 2002. Sivad’s trumpet playing leading light Karl Poetschke seems to have abandoned his subsequent improv unit Ghostcar for life as a wilderness guide in Alaska -- although he’s made similar declarations before -- while drummer Quincy Holloway kicks the traps for the relatively-mainstream Dove Hunter, his post-Sivad dub outfit Sub Oslo having briefly returned from hiatus last fall for one final exorcism of the Wreck Room (R.I.P.). Trinidad Leal and Curt Christenson have abandoned the experimentalism of Light Bright Highway for the heavy rawk of Dixie Witch. Among its cohort, Chris Plavidal’s Stumptone, formed in 1996, remains the last band standing. In fact, they’ve become (by default) a Denton underground supergroup of sorts, incorporating the talents of drummer Mike Throneberry (Mazinga Phaser), bassist Peter Salisbury (Mandarin), and guitarist Frank Cervantez (Sub Oslo). 

A crucial outlet for most of the aforementioned bands was Dave Willingham and Phillip Croley’s Two Ohm Hop label, which makes it entirely fitting and proper that in 2007, Stumptone finished recording a long-promised full-length CD, “Gravity Suddenly Released,” with Willingham manning the controls when he wasn’t running live sound for the Polyphonic Spree, and that it’s being released on Dave and Matt Barnhardt’s new Works Progress imprint. Historical considerations aside, “Gravity Suddenly Released” is a great, highly addictive sonic bath that conflates indie-“roots” sounds with psychedelia in a manner that recalls the best of “Piper”-through-“Meddle”-era Pink Floyd, Skip Spence, Elliott Smith, the Flaming Lips, and Mercury Rev. Its songs recede into ambient fields like soundtracks to dreams. 

The title track – barely a sketch of a song, but given an epic performance -- opens the proceedings like a sleeping giant waking up, yawning, and flexing a few muscles, with acoustic guitar strummage that sounds like alt-country as imagined by David Gilmour, until a flash of lysergic guitar shatters the soundscape and there’s a “Pandora’s box” moment like the one on the Boredoms’ “Vision Creation Newsun” when all of the energy in the universe seems to have been unleashed, leaving the listener agog with awe as it recedes. And they’re just getting started. The dynamics of the following track, “Precipice,” are similar, seesawing between Theater Fire-like urban pastoralism and a heavy midtempo rock that sounds like every good idea to emerge from Seattle between 1987 and 1991.  But before you get the idea that this disc is gonna consist of variations on a couple of different themes, “Halfforgotten” bursts out of the gate, a pummeling rocker that careens back and forth between 6/8 and 5/4 time. (There’s a ripping live version of this song on Youtube, from an appearance at Fort Worth’s Modern Art Museum last October.)  

“Breeze” starts out as a gentle, wistful song, infused with wonder, its fuzzed-out guitar interjections serving as punctuation, before Plavidel’s spacey Echoplexed trumpet makes its appearance like Jon Hassell providing modal coloration for an Eno soundtrack. “ndrgrnd” is an interesting mélange of organic and synthetic elements that starts out with a Floydian collage of organ washes, synth pulsations, and taped sounds like train station announcements before the song proper begins, then segues seamlessly into “Hey!,” with its shimmering, crystalline guitar textures. “Pendulum” fades in with a motorik pulse that might lead the casual (but Krautrock-primed) listener to mistake it for an outtake from “Neu! 2.” “Texarkana” is a pretty tune that shifts to more dream-soundtrack music after the line “like ghosts in the twilight.” Speaking of which, the shade of Syd Barrett haunts the cover of Roky Erickson’s “Never Say Goodbye,” which gets an unadorned reading, aside from its claustrophobically close-miked vocal. “Via Xibalba” starts with tribal drumming and a rocket launching before lurching into a seasick waltz that continues until blasts of radio static herald the beginning of “rriinngg!!” “Entrada” is another driving rocker, pumping things up like some unholy mating of the Moody Blues and the Velvet Underground. “Brokenland” is a slow, mournful country song, decorated with keening fiddle (courtesy of Centromatic’s Scott Danborn) and harmonica. It’s followed by “{-+--+=}”  -- not a typo, but rather what Stumptone has dubbed the album’s brief coda. 

Maybe I was wrong earlier to make it sound as though Stumptone is carrying the banner for all their compadres from late ‘90s Denton – it’d be ridiculous to say so, and they certainly don’t owe anyone that. Going through that litany, I found it disheartening that the motivation for lots of musos to make challenging and exploratory music seems to have evaporated since that time (although it persists in pockets, like Yeti/Pointy Shoe Factory survivors The Great Tyrant). Stumptone’s accomplishment is that they’ve persisted, even under diminished circumstances, and managed to make a record that’s as good as anything by any of the better-known national acts I’ve cited in this review, one which is already on my short list for “best of 2008,” and as I write this it’s still 2007. The disc won’t be available until late February, but you can hear Stumptone play the toons at the grand opening of Lola’s (the j’int formerly known as 6th Street Live) on January 24th. Be there…