Review: Prison ‘Upstate’

I’ve been intrigued by Endless Boogie, and their figurehead Paul Major, for a few years now. The band’s, ahem, endless, stoner, blues and boogie jams coupled with the fact Major was a player in the New York punk scene of the ‘70s and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music, to say nothing of him having the best bangs in rock and roll (yes, I wrote that) have led me to endless (sorry, I did it again) nights spinning his records when working on artwork.

Prison 'Upstate' Artwork
Prison ‘Upstate’ Artwork

He’s also part of a loose New York music collective called Prison, which featured an old friend of mine, and one of the best musicians I’ve ever known, Love As Laughter’s Sam Jayne, who, heartbreakingly passed away in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. Prison also features bassist Mike Fellows (Rites of Spring, Silver Jews, Endless Boogie) drummer Mathew Lilly and guitarist Sarim Al-Rawi (Liquor Store). Prison existed mainly in a live setting, unfurling a stream-of-conscious, improvised, heavy, garage-infused, psychedelic take on rock and roll. Now, they’re finally releasing their debut, Upstate, which puts to wax the aforementioned description of their sound.

Upstate opens the portal with first single, Hold The Building Up/The Prison Within which is a fifteen-plus minute, blues-y, garage-y, psych freak out, complete with all sorts of sounds, as well as multiple members talking, mumbling and singing over the jam’s cacophony. All three guitarists, Major, Jayne, and Al-Rawi do their thing throughout, riffing, noodling, and unleashing various psychedelic effects, all the while the rhythm section of Fellows and Lilly keep the groove locked down and airtight for eleven minutes, until Prison collectively descend into a cosmic, trip-out for the remainder of the song. This, as you’ll come to find out, is the theme pretty much throughout the duration of Upstate.

Hold ‘Em Up/Comin’ Down On Me spends the first three-plus minutes in a swirl of noise, and mumbling, before a simultaneously annoying and unsettling shout/chant of ‘Boom, Boom, Boom’ invades the listener’s consciousness, and just when one is about to hit ‘skip’ the three guitars and bass actually sort of begin to form a cohesive track. It would be fair to say, that despite a cool bass line as we slog our way towards the end of this track, Hold ‘Em Up/Comin’ Down On Me is not one of my favorites on Upstate.

a grueling, heavy, weird, mind-fuck of an album from start to finish…

Things don’t change too much either on the twenty-one-minute-plus Low Hangin’ Disco Ball/So Alone, as it really sounds like four musicians playing four separate parts at once, with the ever-present mumble, spoken word, shouting vocal approach floating above the dissonance. A few ‘oohs’ get thrown in for good measure, and just when my patience for this psych-noise is about to reach an end, the band finally pick things up a bit with some interesting guitar interplay, but despite this, the track truly is an exercise in sonic patience.

These aural themes continue, if slightly less grating, with another twenty-minute grind on I Always Get What I Want/Playin’ Pool With the Planets, which has some cool, heavy psych elements, as well as a great title, but yet again, there’s so much repetition, and random shouting, mumbling it becomes a chore to get through the track as I found myself hoping Prison would actually get around to some actual playing, which mercifully happens after ten grueling minutes, but again, the ever-present yelling, screaming, chanting is such a distraction, that when the band finally pick up the pace, I’m left feeling relieved, as opposed to being actually into the music.

When we finally reach closer Destroy/Cookin’ With Heat, which is actually my favorite track on the album, if I was to choose one, I think I can actually discern Jayne’s voice through the hazy racket, but again, Prison ride this for well over nine minutes before they begin to pick up the pace although the track remains a literal wall of distorted, psychedelic noise for yet another ten minutes before Upstate finally reaches its conclusion.

Man, Prison is the perfect name for this collective, aurally, it can feel like you’re in a psychedelic sonic prison, which is perhaps the point, as the group really takes ‘heavy psych’ to unreal cosmic levels on Upstate. This is a grueling, heavy, weird, mind-fuck of an album from start to finish. It is not for the faint of heart, and as much as I love Major and Jayne’s previous musical output, and as cool as it is to hear some of his last recorded output, this record was tough to get through at times. Upstate is a quirky, weird, draining, noisy, endless (there I go again) claustrophobic album that music aficionados looking to add a heavy psych freak out record of the highest order to their collection will totally dig and an absolute room-clearer for everybody else. Count me somewhere in between.

Label: Drag City
Band Links: Official | Facebook | Bandcamp | Spotify | Twitter | Instagram

Scribed by: Martin Williams