Describing the evolving musical philosophy of Mondo Drag, keyboardist/singer John Gamino said the band is learning patience: "Letting parts breathe. Kind of letting the listener ease into something. ... Letting things develop. Not rushing them along too much."
Patience has also been required in other ways for the Oakland-based psychedelic/prog band that got its start in the Quad Cities and will return on July 9 for a show at RIBCO. (Three of the band's five members hail from the QCs: Gamino and guitarists Nolan Girard and Jake Sheley.)
In 2011, the year after Mondo Drag's New Rituals debut was released, the rhythm section left. The follow-up album was recorded and co-produced by Pat Stolley in the Quad Cities in late 2011 and early 2012 with Zack Anderson and Cory Berry (both of Radio Moscow), who then moved to Sweden as members of Blues Pills.
"So we didn't have a band, essentially," Gamino said. "We didn't have a rhythm section. We couldn't promote the album on tour." And the record didn't have a label, either. He added that the group had difficulty finding compatible musicians in the Midwest, so in April 2013 Mondo Drag set out for California.
Sophomore album Mondo Drag was finally released this year (on RidingEasy Records in the States) - three years after it was finished.
For anybody familiar with the band from its New Rituals days, and even for those who've picked up the "new" record, Mondo Drag is a different animal today, Gamino said - to the point that the first album isn't represented on set lists. "We don't play anything from New Rituals any more," he said. "It was a different singer, a different band. It just kind of seemed weird to us to keep playing those songs."
Gone, Gamino said, are blues-rock elements of New Rituals, with the sound of Mondo Drag leaning more toward organ-heavy European prog rock from the late '60s and early '70s. "Since we moved to Oakland," he said, "we've kind of expanded upon that direction. There's a lot more intricacy to the songs we're writing and performing. ... Especially with the new material, the songs are much longer, and they're very arrangement-intense. There's lots going on, there's lots of parts, and there's lots of transitions and different time-signature changes. "
The band's influences, and Gamino's keys and vocals, lend Mondo Drag a retro feel. "In rock music, a driven organ sound - kind of like you'd hear in Deep Purple or Uriah Heep - that's a very specific quality of heavy that you don't necessarily get from a guitar or anything else," he said. "It's got a certain growl and grittiness to it."
While Mondo Drag isn't as aggressive as New Rituals, its seven tracks are just as heavy. Set staples "Zephyr" and "Plumajilla," for example, are anchored by massive, thick hooks. (The former is basically the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Higher Ground" shifted two decades back in time.)
But the final three tracks of Mondo Drag suggest that the band is headed in the right direction by embracing its progressive tendencies. "Shifting Sands," "Pillars of the Sky," and "Snakeskin" have that patience Gamino referred to - layering, expanding, and contracting with measured and unhurried confidence, and loaded with pleasant surprises.
"Shifting Sands" has an explosive chorus releasing the tension built into the keyboard groove, over which one guitar moans above the other's clean notes. The jagged guitar solo is ear-piercing in the best way - and at one point mimics a storm siren that increases in pitch and volume as it pans from one channel to the other.
"Pillars of the Sky" is achingly pretty, with the wavering organ setting the stage for the bluesy lead guitar's heavenward pining. And that's just the opening section, which gives way to heartfelt piano, which gives way to cheesy keys and spacey sound effects that shift the track from timeless to the '70s. The instrumental's swell and fall along a clearly delineated circular journey is simple if dense - and surprisingly effective, as the closing feels significantly different from the opening despite the tune ending up where it began.
Closing the album, "Snakeskin" lacks the detail and nuance of those two tracks but has a thunderous low end and the discipline to unfold naturally, basically splitting the difference between the two core personalities of Mondo Drag: the earthy elemental rockers and the adventurous, curious explorers.
Mondo Drag will perform on Thursday, July 9, at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue, Rock Island; RIBCO.com). The 9 p.m. show also features Slow Season, and admission is $6.
For more information on Mondo Drag, visit MondoDrag.com.