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MK Ultra

When you first listen to San Francisco's MK Ultra, you will most likely feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, that this is an influential, important, and revered rock group you somehow missed. This is not in any way intended to suggest that the band is derivative -- how could they be, with such an eclectic, unpredictable sound? -- but that they've not only mastered the intricacies and nuances of the rock idiom but also sought to expand it. This is how my father always describes his reaction to hearing The Doors the first time, and it seems a not uncommon response to a first exposure to pop music greatness.

More to the point, the quartet delivers magnetic progressive pop with sharply honed melodic instincts and heavy tendencies toward the arty and experimental. Frontman John Vanderslice has a classic singing voice, sweet and tuneful, but just a bit rough, which he uses to animate the surreal characters who populate his songs. The music that supports Vanderslice's character sketches and melodramas is no less accomplished or distinctive. Together, guitarists Vanderslice and John Tyner, bassist Dan Carr, and drummer Matt Torrey craft glistening, complex, guitar-driven pop full of dynamic instrumental interplay and tasteful, polished, low-key studio experimentation, putting their music in the vein of such highly regarded recent independent pop outfits as Grandaddy, Sparklehorse, and Radiohead.

Sadly, MK Ultra is destined to remain one of the many prodigiously talented bands no one ever knew about, since they broke up in 2000 after three excellent full-length releases. Those were MK Ultra (1994), Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1996), and The Dream Is Over (1999). "Letting Go" and "Catastrophe Practice" both come from the 1996 release, a concept album purporting to be the movie to a nonexistent film. "Goodbye, Max!" and "The Dream Is Over" come from the band's final, dazzlingly ambitious The Dream Is Over LP. Vanderslice continues to work as a solo artist as well as operating his San Francisco recording studio, Tiny Telephone.