The first thing you’ll notice about Axis: Sova’s Motor Earthis a curious juxtaposition: the sound of a full-fledged psych-rock band playing alongside a tinny drum machine—raw, arena-sized power paired with pint-sized snares and kicks. The sonic contrast wasn’t always so conspicuous. Last year’s Early Surf relied on a drum machine too, but the record was an experimental solo affair—frontman Brett Sova wailing away on his fuzz-damaged guitar as he wandered through a handful of hazy, half-formed ideas laid down on a Tascam 8-track cassette recorder. Amid all that lo-fi murk, the drum machine made sense: just something to keep time while Sova futzed around with his guitar pedals.
For Motor Earth—Axis’ second album for Ty Segall’s Drag City imprint God? Records—Sova assembled an actual band, including touring buddies Tim Kaiser on guitar and Tyson Thurston on bass, and significantly improved the production quality, ditching tape hiss for a sharper, beefier sound. Sova also turned in a batch of more or less identifiable verse-chorus pop songs; the band’s unremitting racket now makes room for a few solid hooks. Even Sova’s voice, largely an afterthought on Early Surf, has emerged as a real melodic weapon.
So why not get a proper drummer? It’s a valid question, and yet it overlooks the Chicago band’s primary appeal (at least in its current iteration): mechanized, unthinking propulsion—an attribute that rock bands, guitar-based and not, have used to great effect over the decades, from Suicide to the Kills. And anyway, Axis: Sova with a regular kit would be just another Hawkwind nostalgia band. Sova thinks his greatest asset is his beloved ’73 Telecaster, but it’s that Roland Rhythm Arranger pulsing underneath.
Which is not to say that he’s a slouch with a wah-wah pedal—Sova didn’t name his band after Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love for nothing. He and Kaiser have a hell of a good time on opener “Love Identity,” tag teaming on glammed-out T. Rex riffage and molten Sonic Youthklang for a fever-dreamy eight minutes. Motor Earth never tops that track’s ebullient first few minutes—listening to Early Surf, who would have ever thought you could sing along to these guys?—but they certainly try. “Violent Yellow” packs an album’s worth of guitar moves into a hot little mess of teenage paranoia and lust. And “(Like an) Intruder” is the record’s most giddily propulsive moment: the Stooges riding shotgun on a Suicide track. “Treat me like an intruder,” Sova begs, in a clear homage to Iggy Pop’s indelible line: “Now I wanna be your dog.”
There’s a flip side to Sova and Kaiser’s six-string obsession: Motor Earth is one of the few guitar-nerd records in recent memory that would be better served with the instruments set lower in the mix. The guitars so dominate the rhythm section that it sometimes sounds like Sova and Kaiser are playing along to a Roland drum machine app on an iPad. Maybe unavoidably, Motor Earth is a one-note affair. Axis plug in and ride the scuzz-rock train for an unwavering 41 minutes. When the band wants to change things up, they simply ditch the pretense of songwriting altogether, drench the proceedings in acid feedback, and keep the train roaring down the track.
And yet the record’s pleasures are no less potent for their blunt simplicity. Listening to closer “Routine Machine” you get the uncanny sensation that Sova and co. wrote the song in real time as they recorded it. As if the boys simply pressed play on the drum machine, grabbed their guitars, picked out a Sabbath riff or two, and kept layering vocal melodies on top of each other until everything fell into place—or fell gloriously apart, depending on your point of view.