USX spread doomy, psychedelic tidings on ‘The Valley Path’

It seems a little premature to be discussing Christmas, and as we on the East Coast are being roasted to death, it seems like the furthest thing from the mind.

And it is, if you’re talking about the holiday. If, instead, you’re thinking about the Appalachia-inspired, psychedelic band U.S. Christmas, then it is not too early to spread tidings of joy. After their excellent 2010 album “Run Thick in the Night” dropped and demolished listeners, we get a follow-up already with “The Valley Path,” an effort that philosophically carries on the last album’s spirit but does so in a completely different way. Unlike last time around, when we got 13 tracks, “The Valley Path” has but one, yet it takes about 40 minutes to run its course. It’s an interesting idea that has been tackled before by bands such as Sleep, Pussygutt and Jethro Tull and countless others, and if done right, it can be a worthy project. If not, it’s a pointless throwaway of an effort. Luckily for USX, this works in spades.

The band has been fairly prolific in their nine years together. Having formed in Marion, N.C., in the summer of 2002, the band wasted no time getting music into the world by way of two CD-R recordings – “Bad Heart Bull” in 2005 and “Salt the Wound” in 2006 on a Russian label (which is baffling on so many levels), before landing at Neurot for a 12-inch and 2008’s “Eat the Low Dogs.” All the while, the Nate Hall-led band adopted a working attitude, touring relentlessly and playing their music anywhere they could find an audience. All the while, respect grew, their oddball name became more recognizable, and their sixth effort had a sense of anticipation behind it after what they accomplished on “Run Thick.”

While USX – Hall, Matt Johnson (synth, guitars, sound), BJ Graves (drums), Justin Whitlow (drums, experimental sounds), Josh Holt (bass, drones), Meghan Mulhearn (violin) —  have a base in metal, with their sometimes doomy sound and relation with Neurot, their audience certainly shouldn’t be limited to that. Fans of Southern rock, classic rock, country (real country not the current pop-country crop), psychedelic rock, and atmospheric ambiance should find something to like here. You even could say someone who likes classical music but has interest in rock also might be well-served here because of how this album is put together. As mentioned, “The Valley Path” is one song. But even though it is, it feels like five or six songs fixed together seamlessly. The composition rises and falls, so much so that if they wanted to break this album up into passages, they could have. But it also probably would have gone against the philosophy of the record and its idea of being one piece that isn’t supposed to be digested in parts. It really wouldn’t make as much sense that way.

The songs starts feeling fairly sinister, with slurry doom and Hall warning, “There is a time for wicked illusion.” This part slithers along and sets up the story, and even though it fades after several minutes, it returns at about the 28-minute mark. The song bleeds into a more raucous mid-section, where the Southern traits show, making friends with those who feast on Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Bros., with Mulhearn’s string work simmering and conjuring up souls. Her expression and playing reminds me a lot of Jackie Perez Gratz’s cello work, and she’s the star of the middle of the record. We revisit the path’s introductory sequence before the finale sets into place, firing headlong into dreamy slide guitar and a rush of atmosphere that remind me of some of Pink Floyd’s headier work. The scenes fade into chirps, almost as if it’s trying to slip back into the woods. It’s like a 40-minute movie, really.

The first time I took on “The Valley Path,” I sat stunned. It’s such an adventurous piece of music, and any worry I had over taking on a one-song album dissipated. I immediately listened to it again, and a few times on my daily walks, I’ve indulged in the record as it seemed to match perfectly what I was seeing as I was enveloped in canopies of leaves and trees and the psychological comfort of my simple suburb. In fact, on one of my walks, a thunderstorm was brewing and casting a pall over the streets in front of me, yet that seemed to open up some of the darkness on the record. I’ve listened on long drives, in parking lots as I waited for my wife to get off a bus, as I worked. It fits everywhere, and it always seems to open up my mind and help me achieve deeper thinking. I already was a fan of the band, but “The Valley Path” just endeared me to U.S. Christmas even more so. This is the type of album very few bands could make work at all, and the fact that USX do it so well, so dramatically, just goes to show how valuable they are.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.myspace.com/uschristmas

For more on the label, go here: http://www.neurotrecordings.com/

To buy “The Valley Path,” go here: http://www.bluecollardistro.com/neurotrecordings/categories.php?cPath=1030_1031_1149

Also, while delayed a bit, tomorrow will feature a visit with a record that is a heavy favorite for my metal album of the year. I got held up a bit because my wife and I took a trip to celebrate our anniversary, and I didn’t have nearly enough time to write. That’s a good thing.