Listening to “Head in the Clouds,” a new album by the New Haven psych-noise band Headroom, feels like eavesdropping on a seance, barging in on a ritual that began a few hours ago.
You haven’t witnessed creation: Drones and grooves don’t appear, they’ve been there. Guitars materialize mid-squall with … feedback? Delay? Distortion? Leave, if you want; the music presses on, with or without you.
“I wanted to make music that was beautiful and emotive,” says guitarist Kryssi Battalene. “Maybe I have a high threshold of noise, but I wanted to make something that was pretty.”
Battalene, 30, has an intoxicating, gauzy electric guitar sound. She’s currently in two bands: Headroom, which she founded in 2016, and Mountain Movers (also from New Haven), originally started by singer-guitarist Dan Greene and bassist Rick Omonte.
(There’s considerable overlap between the two groups. Battalene, Omonte and drummer Ross Menze are in both; Greene is the lone Headroom holdout.)
Years ago, Battalene briefly studied jazz at the Hartt School. “If you wanted to play bebop or modern jazz or whatever, that was a good place for you,” she says, “but [for me] it was a bad fit.”
Discouraged, she put down the guitar. “It was the best thing I could have done, but it was scary. I had identified as a guitar player my whole life, so it was weird to not play it that much for a couple of years. I was scared that I wasn't going to go back: ‘Is it over?’”
Seven years ago, Battalene, who had started playing the guitar again, joined Mountain Movers. Greene is the principal songwriter. The band has released several records; last spring, Trouble In Mind Records, a Chicago-based label, put out its latest LP.
Mountain Movers, Battalene says, involves “learning and practicing [Greene’s] songs, but also going into the studio to just jam.”
Headroom focuses almost exclusively on the jamming part.
“There’s nothing lacking in Mountain Movers for me,” Battalene says. “I just want to make a lot of music, as much as possible. I also wanted to do something that was a little more self-directed. I’d always wanted to have my own band, but the more I tried, the more discouraged I got.”
Engineer and drummer John Miller, a former member of both Mountain Movers and Landing, recorded “Head in the Clouds” in his Shelton studio. The LP, featuring cover art by Emily Larned, was mixed by Mikey Young.
Battalene sings on two songs (“Millers Pond” and “Flower of Light”). On several tracks, Stefan Christensen (formerly of Estrogen Highs) and David Shapiro (who plays solo-guitar gigs as Alexander) join her on guitar. (Shapiro plays a Farfisa organ on the title track, and supplied drums for an earlier three-song EP). Jon VanDuzee adds synth to “Head in the Clouds” and “Millers Pond.”
Shapiro and Christensen strum an E seventh chord — cleanly, but with some volume-generated crunch — for all 10 minutes of “How To Grow Evil Flowers.” Menze and Omonte push and pull on the groove, and Battalene bathes the whole thing in psychedelic weirdness. (After 10 minutes of E, the shift to A for “Millers Pond” is seismic.)
“The Second Blazing Star” could be a Miles Davis/“On the Corner” outtake: Battalene’s guitar sounds like a trumpet played through a wah pedal, imitating a guitar. Shapiro’s Farfisa grounds “Head in the Clouds,” a textural head-trip (it’s the only track without a pulse). “Flower of Light,” builds slowly; Battalene solos over a two-chord vamp; halfway through, she sings, and Menze’s drums enter. It’s the most song-like track on the album.
Battalene didn’t bring polished songs into the studio. Instead, she created musical parameters — tempos, clean or dirty sounds, chord progressions (or lack of them), trajectories of jams — and shaped the overall vibe.
“People are putting their own creative energy into it. By no means do I tell everyone what to play all the time. But I get to make aesthetic choices, and I also get to curate the album, which is a big part of it, too.”
When the sessions ended, Battalene didn’t edit any of the tracks. “When you hear it come in, that’s when [Miller] pressed ‘record,’” she says. “It was a lucky session, four-leaf-clover-lucky. It was all first takes. You’re not hearing the best take we did. You’re also not hearing the best section of it. You’re hearing the full recordings and the only recordings that exist of those songs.”
Only “How To Grow Evil Flowers” and “Flower of Light” were preconceived, but not “super-practiced. They were songs I had ideas for. The middle three were completely improvised.”
Trouble In Mind released “Head in the Clouds” in October. It’s available on vinyl LP or as a digital download. There’s enough music left over, Battalene says, for another EP, which will likely come out the spring.
“I’ve been really happy with [Headroom],” Battalene says. “These past couple of years have felt like the easiest to make music. Before that, when I tried to have my own projects, it felt painstakingly difficult. It’s just a difference in the approach.”