Mary Star of the Sea
The Music Box's #4 album for 2003
First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2003, Volume 10, #4
Written by John Metzger
Following the release of its breakthrough album Siamese Dream, the Smashing Pumpkins descended into darkness. Despite this, the band did manage to put together a masterpiece in Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, but then its world collapsed. Touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of a heroin overdose, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was subsequently fired over his own drug problems. The group toiled on, but the internal turmoil continued as a series of management conflicts and the departure of founding bass player D’Arcy became public affairs. The band’s final two albums — three if one counts its internet-only swan song — had their moments, but overall, they weren’t on par with the rest of the Pumpkins’ catalog. It wasn’t all that much of a surprise, then, when the group called it quits.
But front man Billy Corgan is far too big a talent to sit on the sidelines for very long. A year after the Pumpkins hung up its hat, Corgan quietly returned, leading his new band Zwan. The group, which also features Chamberlin, popped up here and there around the country, playing small clubs, while finessing its sound. The result is its magnificent debut Mary Star of the Sea, an exquisite return that feels like the proper follow-up to Siamese Dream.
With Zwan, Corgan sounds like he is finally free from the restraints that shackled him on the latter day Pumpkins’ albums. Rather than being dour, depressed, and angry, he is positively upbeat and joyous — a fitting emotional pose considering the music’s construction is grunge-gospel with a twist of psychedelic pop. For certain, Mary Star of the Sea is a grandiose effort, but it never resorts to the false manipulations of an overwrought string section to achieve its goals. Instead, it rides on the chiming, churning, rippling river of guitars. Save for the epic, prog-rock medley of Jesus, I and the title track — a mini-masterpiece of its own — the album is full of concise power pop that falls closer to the infectious, orchestral ease of Today than the metallic roar of Bullet with Butterfly Wings.
That’s not to say that Mary Star of the Sea doesn’t pack its share of thunder, for it most assuredly does. Anchored by Chamberlin’s precision volleys and subtle textures as well as Paz Lenchantin’s driving bass, Zwan welds together a triple guitar attack in a way that makes the songs ride towards the heavens in a fit of blazing glory. Through his lyrics, Corgan confronts his faith, addressing God, music, and the human condition with Pentecostal fury. Instead of driving into darkness, he points towards the light, and all the while, the chords and notes from his band radiantly cascade around him. Indeed, Billy Corgan is back, and in a big way. It may have been released in January, but surely Mary Star of the Sea is an early favorite for album of the year.
Mary Star of the Sea is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box