Champ de Mars has released their debut LP with the twelve songs on Rancho Seco Victory, a patiently developed outgrowth of Champ de Mars re-envisioning of an earlier incarnation of the project named Bellstar. The older Northern California headquartered four piece prospered for a number of years playing locally and released two albums entitled Navigator and Divisadero before splitting up in 2006. Half of the existing band relocated to the Washington D.C. area and ten years later they revisited some of the same chemistry, reformulated for a modern audience, with Champ de Mars’ 2016 EP debut Back from the West. That release garnered some glowing reviews and lays the groundwork for this new recording.
Rancho Seco Victory launches with the song “Forlorn Cowboys of Nuclear Winter”, easily one of the moodiest numbers on the collection. The song never overreaches to achieve its effects, however, and musically delineates a haunted sonic landscape where hope tenuously wafts through the air, never achieving permanence. The breath-like instrumental touch of the first song cedes ground to much crunchier rock fare with the album’s second track “This Machine Kills Fascists”. It’s much more guitar heavy than the album opener defined by muscular riffing that would make any top flight hard rock band proud. The hammering rhythm section attack underpinning the entirety of the song gives the guitar an impervious base to thrash and flail over, but never without sense or reason. Every word and note matters on Rancho Seco Victory.
The strong pairing of bass and drums continues with the song “45”, a not so obvious reference to the nation’s current Oval Office holder. Songwriter David Bruns and company never embrace simple minded denunciation or stump for any obvious dogma – this is musical art demanding the listener engage with the material and draw their own conclusions rather than being spoon fed any particular point of view. Discerning listeners will definitely sense the band’s perspective. Hypnotic electric guitar figures duet with brief melodic runs cascading in response. “Mono Street” is one of the more fleshed out tracks on the album and it’s fascinating to hear how Chamo de Mars consistently turns out such involved arrangements that, nonetheless, never come off as cluttered or self indulgent.
Another winner on Rancho Seco Victory for me is “God’s Favorite Redneck Bar”. It’s a wry bit of songwriting with underplayed dark humor. There’s a lot of this song that plays like a series of condensed character studies. Bruns’ singing wisely never overplays the vocal and gives it the right amount of energy for its memorable chorus. The poetically titled “Boreal” lives up to its suggestive title with a snaking, beautifully arranged mid tempo number. The painterly touches of keyboards and other electronic touches deepen the feel and assume a more prominent role further into the song. “Ordinary Woman” romps out of the gate with a spartan distorted bass riff giving it unusual punch. The energetic drumming gives the album’s penultimate track an urgent air and proves key when the performance hits the chorus.
“Nite, Nite Frances” has a nice melodic sound, but nonetheless stays well in keeping with the general style embodying the album as a whole. The vocals are among the best on Rancho Seco Victory and sparkle with an emotional lift sometimes missing from the earlier songs. The first extended recording from Champ de Mars more than picks up where these musicians left off as younger artists; it’s a brave and mature reshaping of their musical destiny.