Labeling Burning Mirror prog-rock is like calling Slayer metal: It's true, but it understates the case given that other bands in the category are infinitely less deserving of the designation. Burning Mirror's mind-numbingly complex music blends virtuosity with willful inaccessibility -- for every free-flowing solo that any lighter lofter could appreciate, there's a savagely staggered time signature that would give any spectator without a seat belt instant whiplash.
An informal sampling of the Bunker audience reveals a consensus: more vocals, please. Guitarist and singer Troy Van Horn's delivery is the group's most accessible, least showy tool; given the instrumental output, one might expect Mariah melismas and octave-jumping galore. But Burning Mirror uses this human touch sparingly. In "I Offer," for example, Van Horn starts to sing at the twelve-minute mark, soon after which the composition closes.
"That's not the first time I've heard that," Van Horn says of the less-rock, more-talk proposal. "My wife even tells me to sing more. Vocals are more important to us than you might gather from watching us. I like to sing and to write melodies and lyrics."
Trouble is, it's difficult to sing and solo at the same time, and Burning Mirror's sets leave no doubt where its true love lies. Not that its core fan base is complaining. While the majority of the Bunker crowd watched Burning Mirror's wanky wizardry through increasingly glazed-over eyes, a thin line of musicians stood near the stage, taking mental notes on obscure techniques and leaving puddles of drool near their shoes.
"We knew what we were getting into when we started playing this kind of music," Van Horn says. "It's not going to have mass appeal. We didn't set out to make musicians' music, but it came out this way."
Burning Mirror isn't entirely alone among local acts in its quest to explore rock's outer limits; Equinox and Audio Kombat Arsenal also take their listeners on twisty water slides into the aural abyss. But Burning Mirror has yet to play with either group, and it usually ends up sharing bills with much heavier fare. For its show on Saturday, September 27, it will share a lineup with Moire, the musical equivalent of a muscular bully becoming science partners with the class geek.
"It's liberating in a way," Van Horn says of such unorthodox pairings. So far, the metal-loving masses, not known for their patience, have been astoundingly accommodating.
"I don't think people quite get what we're going for, especially the first time," he says. "There's no heckling. It's more like, CEWow, OK, the song's over, then?'"
Given that Burning Mirror is an instrumental-emphasis group whose songs stretch well into double-digit minutes, jam-band enthusiasts might expect the band would tailor its sets to its audiences. Playing with Moire? No problem -- just make every riff about 25 percent more jagged and maybe weave some Pantera nods into the mix. It's easy to see the similarities between the hippie hordes and prog rockers, especially given that Burning Mirror guitarist Tommy Anderson often plays barefoot in true flower-child fashion, and the group interrupts "Battle of Fractions" with a drum circle of sorts. But Van Horn suggests that his band is merely putting the prog in rigid program.
"Everything is composed and arranged to within an inch of life," he explains. "There are few elements of surprise."
Burning Mirror's sonic tapestries can be enchanting, but watching the band create the otherworldly sounds lessens the allure somewhat. In fact, watching two players in close proximity squeeze every imaginable bit of sound out of their instruments while making under-duress expressions, it's tempting to coin the term guitarded. There's a reason that Yes, Genesis and King Crimson preferred garish sci-fi album covers to their own mugs on the cover. (Phil Collins would later overcompensate for this omission.) And it's no coincidence that Tool, the band that helped make prog kinda cool again, boasts one of the most spectacular -- and distracting -- stage shows in recent memory.
In the past, Burning Mirror has addressed this issue by showing what Van Horn calls "terrible horror films" on television monitors or on a screen behind the stage. Feedback was immediate and positive: People liked imagining these epics as a spooky soundtrack. "They started getting more out of it," Van Horn says.
Burning Mirror also has a secret weapon it has yet to unleash onstage. Its eponymous Web site contains a link that delves deep into the allegedly Sheffield, England-based band's history. Each member has an alias -- Van Horn becomes Duke Wisdom; Stork Handsom, Xavier Twin and Warren Glasgow round out the roster -- and a fictional bio. The site also includes several amusing interviews, one transcribed in Sudanese.
"We get more response from that than anything else," Wisdom says. "But I don't know if we could do a show in character. I would feel ridiculous talking in a fake British accent."
Hmm, maybe even over the top prog bands do have to draw the line somewhere.