[Click play above to watch a lyric video premiere for Brant Bjork’s ‘The Gree Heen.’ Tao of the Devil is out Sept. 30 on Napalm Records.]
Brant Bjork didn’t invent desert rock, but there’s nobody who more closely epitomizes it or whose work has become so synonymous with it. Whether one is considering his pioneering work in Kyuss and Fu Manchu, the stylistic exploration undertaken with Ché or his 17-year solo career, which has undoubtedly become his greatest contribution at this point, in songwriting, style and persona, Bjork is a singular icon and a touchstone of the desert underground — by now a worldwide phenomenon long grown out of the confines of its initial Southern California home.
His second through Napalm Records after 2014’s righteous Black Power Flower (review here), the newest outing, Tao of the Devil, is also the second to feature the backing of The Low Desert Punk Band, with guitarist Bubba DuPree (formerly of Void), bassist Dave Dinsmore (Ché) and drummer Ryan Güt (who makes his debut here replacing Tony Tornay), and it presents eight songs/50 minutes in a spirit of celebrating the laid back, soulful groove of which Bjork has long since established himself a master, while tightening the songwriting some from the last outing, so that tracks like opener “The Gree Heen” — with a roll worthy of Goatsnake — and “Luvin'” stand out early and the later section of the record gives way to longer-form jamming on “Dave’s War” and “Evening Jam,” which run nine and 13 minutes, respectively, and are smartly divided with the ultra-languid mega-vibe of the title-track between them.
Counting outings with The Operators (not quite a full band, but still some other players involved), The Bros. and The Low Desert Punk Band, as well as those solely under his own name — the most recent of which was 2010’s Gods and Goddesses (review here) — Tao of the Devil is upwards of the 11th full-length to bear Bjork‘s name, and longtime fans will to some extent know what’s in store.
Hard to imagine seeing that as anything other than cause for jubilation, and be it the classic ’70s boogie of “Humble Pie” that takes hold after the massive stoner-is-as-stoner-does riff of “The Gree Heen” or the in-conversation-with-the-blues slow-motion shuffle of “Biker No. 2” later on, which gets a sleek pulled-string solo as it moves into its second half and boasts one of the album’s many resonant hooks, if it’s a familiar form, it’s one still changing and progressing as well.
In that way, “The Gree Heen” sets the tone for a lot of what follows it, in that it’s instantly memorable, though its thicker tones are actually something of an aberration in themselves and go unmatched throughout, despite a more aggressive lyric and rhythmic push on “Dave’s War” before the jam takes hold — marked out by lines like, “No ass left to fuck/No cock left to suck/Well you must be on top” — but if it’s the songwriting that stands out across Tao of the Devil as much as Bjork himself, the songwriting feels like it’s more than up to that considerable task.
I’ve jumped around a bit in the tracklisting to this point, but it’s also worth pointing out the flow from one song into the next and just how easy Bjork and company make it to traverse the album from to back. From “The Gree Heen” through the funk hypnosis of “Evening Jam,” it’s a collection that speaks directly to its audience with a complete lack of pretense about needing anything more than a good time and maybe to crash for a couple days if that’s cool? Won’t be more than a couple days, I swear? Awesome. You’re the best.
To the point, the early personality that comes through in “Humble Pie,” “Stackt” (video posted here) and “Luvin'” digs deep into quality, classic songwriting after the opener’s larger push and weedian anthemic — the first lines, “I got all that I need/I got the gree-heen,” tell the tale — and it’s probably fair to put “Biker No. 2” in that category as well to comprise an A-side that hits its target head-on without fail. I don’t actually know where the vinyl split is, but it’s likely with “Dave’s War” leading off side B, and between that track, “Tao of the Devil” and “Evening Jam,” which by the time it hits nine minutes in has morphed into minimalist progressive bass noodling, only to surge forward again in grander-finale fashion — still pretty laid back, which works — side B opens wide from the crisp delivery of Tao of the Devil‘s first half, only really letting go when it wants to as it jams out toward natural-sounding purposes.
“Evening Jam” may just be that — the jam they recorded that evening — but it’s also the perfect closer after the moody, bluesy title-cut, and the liquefied transition from “Dave’s War” to it and into the wah-twang intro of the closer isn’t to be underappreciated. Not that Bjork needed to demonstrate he knows how to put a record together, but such stretches, particularly when paired with the depth of songwriting, organic tones and spirit of the earlier tracks, only serve to reinforce his position as the Godfather of Desert Rock.
Tao of the Devil‘s greatest victory might be in how much of Bjork‘s own it seems to be even as it expands that definition from its predecessor, and its honesty is crucial to that success. It’s a rare figure who earns that kind of hyperbole, but it’s even rarer to find someone who 17 years on from their first LP is continuing to grow and refine their craft in the way Bjork does on Tao of the Devil, adding to his signature approach here and reveling in a full-band dynamic there as he presents yet another piece in his catalog that should be considered essential to longtime fans and novices alike. Very clearly one of 2016’s best albums.