There's a unique duality to White Manna, the Arcata-based psych-rock band, which makes odd sense. Though it is partially named after a surviving '50s burger joint in Hackensack, N.J., the word "manna" refers to the wafers eaten by ancient Israelites, wafers that also can produce sensations akin to psilocybin mushrooms or peyote. This duality, one that joins greasy burgers and ancient mind-altered spirituality, has served the band extremely well. And its self-titled full-length release by the prestigious Portland label, Holy Mountain, is a sheer sonic force and arguably the finest 2012 debut to be released so far.
White Manna draws inspiration from '70s Detroit bands like MC5 and The Stooges, who constructed a musical framework influenced by factory-like rhythm and sound, then filters that through '90s psych-rock and garage influences. The approach is focused, while allowing for rough edges. "Acid Head," the slow-burning opening cut, sets the tone of the record, building from hum to blast, with neither purely chaotic nor slickly orchestrated heaviness; instead, it feels oddly organic and methodical. If those Detroit predecessors took inspiration from the metallic sounds of once-thriving auto factories of early '70s Detroit, then White Manna draws from the slower, burning-orange glow of the melding process of metal.
As opposed to a band like the Bay Area's Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, with whom it shares a few obvious influences, there's a constant undercurrent of energy that keeps the music buoyant, elevated instead of ambling into some type of void. The work of locally based recording engineer Peter Dalmolen (from The Nucleus) and mastering engineer Brian Pyle (of Starving Weirdos/Ensemble Economique) masterfully captures the band's raw sound while providing clarity in the overall mix, allowing the listener to hear each distinct instrument.
There are no gratuitous solos or any other distractions bringing attention to one particular instrument or part. There's an unusual Zen-like discipline to the execution; it propels and gives natural arcs to these five lengthy, yet dense, compositions that flow from one song into the next. Vocalist, guitarist and bandleader David "J" Johnson, bassist Johnny Webb, drummer Tavan Anderson, keyboardist Nate Clement and guitarist Cody West all contribute to the unified arrangements. (Dario Marcello and Anthony Taibi have subsequently replaced the latter two members.)
With the release this impressive debut, White Manna joins an unspoken collective of current Humboldt-based bands, such as Starving Weirdos/Ensemble Economique and Ash Borer, that have garnered considerable attention, nationwide and abroad for challenging, uncompromising work that runs underground, below the celebrated mainstream. True to its namesake, White Manna, by drawing from an industrial, blue-collar aspect of musical history, rises to a powerfully engaging trance-like psychedelic plateau.
White Manna begins a West Coast tour Tuesday, Oct. 23, at The Shanty with Howlin Rain and Midday Veil sharing the bill.