For the better part of ten years, the Academy Blues Project were one of New York’s most consistently entertaining psychedelic bands. They got as far as the Rockwood, where they held down a long series of big-room residencies. Their annual Big Lebowski tribute was as much a giveaway to their sensibility as their sly, surreal live show. And unlike most rock acts in town before the lockdown, carefully scheduling gigs to maximize turnout and ensure future bookings at a handful of coveted, profit-strapped spots, these guys would take random dates at some pretty out-of-the-way venues just to keep the vibe fresh. It was always fun to catch them at an intimate space like Shrine, or Long Island City Bar, on an off night.
Although they’ve released a handful of eps, their new album The Neon Grotto – streaming at Bandcamp – is their first full-length record. It’s like discovering your cool stoner uncle’s stash of artsy psychedelic records from the 70s. The obvious influences here are the Grateful Dead and Steely Dan, but there are also echoes of acts as diverse as Supertramp, P-Funk and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The band recorded the basic tracks right before the lockdown. After their members were scattered to the winds by the summer of last year, they finished it over the web. The seductive surrealism and archetypes in Meera Dugal’s album cover art make a perfect visual companion.
The opening number, Athens to Corfu, could be the good-natured Hollywood Hills boudoir soul tune that never made it onto Steely Dan’s Aja record. Frontman/guitarist Mark Levy tremolo-picks feathery washes and sunbaked, echoey blues, keyboardist Ben Easton starting out with starry Rhodes piano and drifting into an oscillating swirl, bassist Trevor Brown and drummer Jim Bloom kicking up the waves at the end. There is nothing remotely Mediterranean about this song other than the lyrics’ clever wordplay.
Turbulence, the second cut, could pass for a late 70s track by the Who: the metaphors reach cruising altitude and the brief, celestial bass-and-guitar interlude midway through seems devised for much more extended jamming. The album’s instrumental title track opens with a sideways Grateful Dead reference and then hits a steady backbeat pulse, Levy spinning his catchy riffage through an icy vintage analog delay pedal.
The album’s big epic is Rock Song (Don’t Step in the Gooey Parts), an aptly dramatic, tongue-in-cheek musical history of geological formations, from lava to ossification. The big sunburst intro brings to mind early Santana; from there the band truck like the Dead to an uneasily jangly Nektar bridge and then rising and falling echoes of Pink Floyd.
Make Believe, a big concert favorite, is part Blackberry Smoke newschool southern rock, part White Album Beatles. Prevailing Winds has Genesis written all over it, from Easton’s elegant piano intro to Levy’s big vocal peak.
All Will Be Revealed begins as a deviously detailed account of what could be a stolen election, or some other massive fraud:
And the innocents forget who’s master and who’s slave
Packing peanuts in their trunks, they join in the fray, they join the parade
Then Easton’s gospel piano leads the band skyward to Levy’s savage guitar outro. Who knows, this song could be more prophetic than anyone ever could have imagined.
They close with the instrumental Little Island, Big Volcano, Levy adding amusingly balmy Hawaiian flavor with his slide. It’s still early in a year where there haven’t been many rock records released, but at this point this is top-ten-of-2021 material. What’s even better is that the band have two other albums planned for release this year.