In 1982 a little band from Davis, Calif., set out to document one man’s musical vision and wound up helping rewrite the decade’s pop and indie landscape.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
When Scott Miller died suddenly in 2013, his musical legacy existed only in the critical hosannahs that usually greet any mention of his name and in the hearts of guitar pop record collectors, as his entire catalog with his bands Game Theory and the Loud Family had fallen out of print. While the latter carved out an underappreciated but brilliant career in ‘90s psychedelia, it’s the former group for which he’s most fondly remembered. The band’s sparkling blend of psych rock and new wave pop sounds nearly prescient now, but in the band’s Reagan-era heyday it was lucky to find the cult audience it did – a legacy not helped by the difficulty (and expense) in finding the records in the past couple of decades. Fortunately, Omnivore, the most college rock-friendly reissue label on the racks, is rectifying the problem with a comprehensive reissue campaign.
The best place to begin is, of course, at the beginning; Game Theory’s debut LP Blaze of Glory, just reissued on CD and colored-vinyl LP by the Omnivore label. Considered somewhat raw, even amateurish, at the time of its original 1982 release, the record sounds far more accomplished in retrospect. The low budget nature of the production would be in vogue 15 years later, and the sonics indicate a band that knew how to make the most of its time in the studio. More importantly, Miller’s vision for Game Theory – a masterful blend of the catchy, synth-frosted new wave of the day with a ’60s-inspired approach to psychedelic arrangements and atmosphere, garnished by lyrics more concerned with feel than meaning – was there from the beginning, springing fully formed from Miller’s brow like Athena bursting forth from Zeus’ noggin. Tinkly synthesizers weave in and out of jangling guitar paintings, while Miller’s inimitable voice – high, keening, edging into a whine but never quite getting there – croons over the top. The rhythm section bounces gracefully between caffeinated bop and elastic shimmy, supporting Miller’s whimsy wherever it leads. “Bad Year at UCLA,” “Mary Magdalene” (despite its dubious assertion “Sometimes I feel just like Mary Magdalene”) and “Sleeping Through Heaven” are glorious pop songs, shiny, crashing and true to Miller’s distinctive sense of melody, the sound of a young band finding its groove loudly and enthusiastically. Even lower-key moments like “Stupid Heart” and “It Gives Me Chills” vibrate almost palpably with the excitement of an artist watching his vision unfold. Blaze of Glory is that special kind of debut album – not perfect, perhaps, but boiling over with so many ideas and so much talent it makes you eager to hear where the band goes with the rest of its career.
As with most reissues these days, this new edition of Blaze of Glory comes filled out with numerous bonus tracks – more than there are cuts on the original LP, in fact. The tracks include the usual live recordings and home demos, highlighted by the lovely solo pop tunes “In the Still of the Night” and “She’s a Woman of the Wind” and an in-concert romp through “Bad Year at UCLA” and “Aliens in Our Midst,” from the repertoire of Miller’s pre-GT band Alternate Learning. That latter entity also provides four delightful cuts – the fuzzy “What’s the Matter,” the bopping “Beach State Rocking,” the wistful “New You” and especially the skittering, angular “Another Wasted Afternoon” don’t sound like the later band, but definitely boast some of the molecules out of which Miller would construct Game Theory’s DNA. The extras enhance the original album in just the right ways, giving a glimpse into Miller’s creative process as he laid the tracks for the Game Theory train.
Photo credit: Robert Toren