[Review] The Van Allen Belt – Meal Ticket To Purgatory

Posted on Saturday, October 6th, 2012 at 9:36 am

The Van Allen Belt - Meal Ticket To Purgatory

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I have fallen in love with the voice of a woman I’ve never met or even seen. This won’t end well; I have a wife and kids to think about, but I can’t help myself. The voice in question belongs to The Van Allen Belt’s Tamar Kamin who, along with B.K. Ferris, Tom Altes and Scott Taylor form one of the most talented bands out there today. These guys manage to conjur all manner of ideas with the power of their personalities and the combined unusualness of their musical path. I recently listened to their Meal Ticket to Purgatory album, and it’s hard to do justice to this thick slab of high quality choonz, but I’ll try. I’ll also try not to creep out Ms. Kamin by repeatedly referring to how great her voice is. Or not. We’ll see.

The first track was a hazy chant, designed to test the listener, I reckon. It eventually turned into “The Hills are Alive” which was like stepping into another world. Much of this song sounds like a lost Beatles hit, unearthed from an archaeological treasure trough in John Lennon’s back garden…with some Zappa and Residents thrown in for good measure. This is eclectic stuff, executed with as much confidence and ability as anything I’ve ever listened to. They’ve inspired a new word in me: Optimational, a kind of direct antithesis of a live Morrissey concert. Even stranger, I just checked their Twitter page and they only have 124 followers! Perhaps I should handle their social media efforts…

After “Hills” the next track is “The River Hive”. This one left me speechless. It hits you like an external belt of energy that literally envelopes and infuses star-borne particles that cause flowers to bloom in your heart, flowers that are absorbed into the bloodstream and supply a new kind of motion to the brain. I’m serious; this is amazing. The vocals carry warmth that is so utterly convincing I’m suspicious these guys are remote viewers or at least seasoned emotional manipulators. Don Draper’s famous “Carousel” description should have had this tune as a soundtrack. The tune switches to a musical roiling rhythm for the last minute or so that sounds like the Thirteenth Elevators and Sky Sunlight Saxon’s Masters of Psychedelia fused together in some superhuman genetic physics experiment. It worked. “The River Hive” explodes on the mind’s taste-buds like a picnic in a faraway sunsplashed hippie utopia. The mystery girl swears frequently, providing a realism to temper the dreamy quality of her powerful voice. I really need to find her number. Has anyone got it?

“So It Goes” comes next, like Dusty Springfield skipping along a busy 60s city sidewalk on some unknown designer drug that keeps swaying way out into the far spiral arms of what is possible with our monkey minds. The same optimism of “The River Hive” is present. There’s a sense of being on a journey. On foot. Feet, sorry.

“Way Up” bears the now familiar expert-sounding cohesion of all that flowed before it. Folksy and whimsical, again reminiscent of a top 60s diva, it sounds like Springfield reached her destination where she apparently works as a waitress (at least I hope she’s a waitress and not something filthier). One who says things like “I hide from you, and hope you die…” while sounding like the most wholesome girl in the tri-State area, especially when she signs off with “…I just…hope…you’re in time for dinner!”. Tasty stuff.

“Alaska Dreamin’” comes next. For some reason I see this song as a Van Allen Belt anthem in the same way that “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” is a Kinks anthem. The song bears reference to finding a job was “just a practical joke” and entails driving all night and sleeping all day. Ironically, the tune reminded me more of the daytime, a frenetic retro city, where Mad Men and secretaries thronged archaic sidewalks and slipped into incongruous revolving doors of pale green glass. But that’s just me. Ben Ferris from The Van Allen Belt puts it like this:

“People often ask “How did you make Meal Ticket…?” The answer: by borrowing money from friends and sponging off well intentioned people. And then eventually, I had to deliver pizzas again. When I was working, I kept the radio off. It was on the road that I wrote many of the lyrics. When we recorded ‘Alaska Dreamin’’ I really was a pizza guy.”

Driving all night, indeed. There’s a satire here, and everywhere else, that is not unlike that of cult 80s British band “Deaf School”. The same glittery smile that masks a million guffaws. The same nod to eras past as a way to avoid eye contact with today’s vacuous vipers who live to insult via the Web.

“Alaska” starts with a trademark ‘period piece’ effect. It feels like morning. Clonging (is that a word?), a rapid belltower peals out over a weird mid-60s “Winchester Cathedral” type quasi-English landscape, where everyone dresses in purple velvet with lacy ruffles at their necks. This song has a morphology of its own; Beatles a la “Yellow Submarine” cartoon, complete with elongated legs that terminate in comical Paul McCartneyesque bellbottoms that swish through multicolour leaves, fallen from alien trees at the end of what feels like a fantabulous summer in this secret valley city.

“The Revolution Will Be Merchandised”, possibly a play on “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, sees the VAB break out the brass instruments. Kamin unleashes more of those strong drawn-out vocals, comparable to Arthur Lee at his best. Along with the cursing comes reference to kids on the streets who are “murdered on a daily basis”, jarring and infinitely more energetic than political messages broadcast by lesser artists. Tamar Kamin’s voice truly sounds like that of someone who is very famous, and it’s a great injustice that needs putting to rights. This is followed by “How To Get Along Famously”, a tune has an old swing to it, with an orchestral quality. When Kamin talks of “everybody’s eyes all over me” and says “Let’s give this town a show” there’s no trace of the former hippiedom. They sound more like sophisticated conservative elitists, or more correctly, social chameleons climbing the status vine up to where the ruling lizards dwell.

In “Charity Sex” the seriousness peters out with a smashing echo trailing off the words, like a female version of that strange “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” song from 1966. Psychedelic diva Kamin sounds interested, ashamed and appalled by the phenomenon of charity sex, but it doesn’t stop her from singing about it. I just want to run away with her and live in one of her songs forever. My wife’ll kill me if she reads this.

“I can’t Believe You Murdered Me” has a drumbeat tambourine not unlike Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and a distinct tint of the 80s about it. Reminiscent of Plasticland’s sterling 1984 Color Appreciation album, It ends with the most beautiful little tune repeated several times that resembles a spectral dewdrop condensed from tears of radiant joy on a blade of mystic grass on a lawn that gyrates about some multiverse axis of oneness like a love boat in an ecstasy whirlpool. Too much? Nah. Well, maybe a bit. This little tune, like a lot of this album, either sounds like something else from the deep recesses of the subconscious or else induces dejas vu. Whichever one is true, they definitely know what they’re doing, and that to me is the true measure of a good band. Take The Who for instance; their early-60s catalogue is absolute dynamite, proper top stuff. But later that decade, and especially in the 70s, they lost control of their own sound. They didn’t know “who” they were anymore (God, I’m funny when I get going). Not the case with the Van Allen Belt. By which I mean they know who they are and what they’re doing, not that they’re not funny. They’re very funny, I can assure you, in a kind of a David Byrne sense.

“For the 20th Time” has a kind of Roaring 20s-meets-Sandy-Shaw-on-acid feel to it, and I’m now packing my bags and wondering what I’ll write in the letter I leave on the kitchen table for my wife to find…Kamin mentions “mind control” in this song, arousing more fears that these guys are actually part of the CIA’s Majestic 12 Group. Hmm, maybe I should just forget her. She sounds like trouble.

“Love With A Ten Foot Pole”, as uncomfortable and difficult to accommodate as I imagine that to be, is a virtual rocking gospel house in which the band express themselves as a blinkered yet enlightened flock of rabid disciples. There’s a couple of seconds where it almost sounds like the Doors’ “Light My Fire” but it disappears as fast as it emerges, which is very bloody fast indeed. Then comes the masterpiece, “Vancouver” (as opposed to The River Hive, which is an obscene assault on the heart and brain that causes one to spew liquid emotion from orifices one didn’t know one had). “Vancouver” swishes its bellbottoms across a floor made from Fraser Fir that was a Christmas trees in a public square in some sad little Pacific Northwestern town. “Get out of this ghetto and move to Vancouver with me” is the mantra here. I’m not sure which ghetto they’re talking about, but it sounds a f*ckload more optimistic than Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”, a song that deals with a similar plan, but on the opposite coast. “Vancouver” enters into a brief “Leaving on a Jet Plane” type corridor at times, before Kamin’s power opens up once more, like a faithful fertile volcano upon which magic mushrooms grow in abundance. The Van Allen Belt – the “real” Van Allen Belt, I mean – is a couple of electromagnetic conveyors of plasma that surround the Earth. By some coincidence (or is it?!?) I have always been interested in plasma cosmology, and it was the band’s name that first attracted me. These people have no gimmicks, no tricks, no bullshit. It’s raw talent in full flow, and oh Jesus I’m gonna miss my kids…

Ian Hough

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