Freak family reunion at the Pig
by Patrick Dunn
High school rock bands aren't generally known for their clarity of musical vision and certainly not for having a lasting legacy. But the members of Ann Arbor's Sproton Layer mustered the former while they were still in their teens, and the latter has followed. While brothers Ben, Larry, and Roger Miller have since threaded their way through other historically notable groups, their high school band has been remembered in multiple books, even as their only record disappeared into obscurity. Now Sproton Layer is headed for a major reunion concert--its first in forty-three years.
It's difficult to pin down just when elder brother Roger and identical twins Larry and Ben began playing music together, because all three played a variety of instruments from childhood. But in 1967, when Roger was fifteen and the twins thirteen, they already had their first full-fledged band, the covers-oriented Sky High Purple Band. After discovering the psychedelia of Pink Floyd and the MC5, as well as the properties of marijuana, the boys in late 1968 refocused their energies on hallucinogenic experimental rock. As the Freak Trio, they recorded a small repertoire of original works at their family home--partly in an igloo they'd built in the backyard--and played their first shows at band battles and U-M frat houses. With Ben on guitar and vocals, Roger on bass and vocals, and Larry on drums, the brothers eventually added Harold Kirchen's trumpet to the group.
Renaming the band Sproton Layer, they played only a handful of shows before recording their debut album, With Magnetic Fields Disrupted, in fall 1970. Arriving as the original psychedelic era faded, the record gained little traction, and the Millers went on to other notable projects. In the late seventies, Larry and Ben played with the Detroit experimental punk outfit Destroy All Monsters, while Roger cofounded the cult postpunk group Mission of Burma in Boston.
Although Magnetic Fields may have fallen by the wayside, it remains a remarkable record on its own merits. The
album channels classic psychedelic rock like Jefferson Airplane and Captain Beefheart with occasionally dissonant vocal harmonies and guitar parts that range from chiming and hypnotic to stormy and off-kilter. The songs are druggily portentous, even awe-inspiring, laced through with the uniquely regal sound of Kirchen's trumpet. Magnetic Fields inspired musicologist Gertrude Kurath to work with Roger on a 1972 book about the record, and the album also drew favorable mention in noted rock journalist Michael Azerrad's 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life.
The group's initial output seems almost impossible without the effects of drugs; the liner notes to the CD reissue of Magnetic Fields describe the band's "ideal performance" as "two sets of songs, followed by a set of space jams, inspired by serious toking activity." However, things will be a little different for the group's upcoming Ann Arbor and Detroit reunion shows, as Roger and Ben travel in from their new homes in Boston and New York. "The band has decided not to drop acid again or run around in the woods smoking joints," Roger's website notes. "But this should not keep them from delivering their very psychedelic sound in a convincing manner."
Sproton Layer plays the Blind Pig on Friday, June 14, with Blue Snaggletooth.
[Originally published in June, 2013.]