After two ceremonious vinyl reissues for their 2012 Disastronaught (review here) and 2013 Corned Beef Colossus (review here) EPs, London heavy rock four-piece Steak make their proper debut on Napalm Records with Slab City, also their first full-length. In several ways, the album is a 10-track/49-minute homage to the glories of desert rock, and particularly, Slab City is indebted to Kyuss‘ 1994 genre classic Welcome to Sky Valley in both its mindset and execution, taking its name, as that record does (if unofficially) from a location in the Californian desert. Not only that, but Steak – vocalist Kippa, guitarist Reece Tee (also a principal organizer of the DesertFest in London), bassist James “Cam” Cameron and drummer Sammy Forway – traveled from London to Palm Springs in Southern CA in order to record at Thunder Underground with producer Harper Hug, who also recently engineered outings by Vista Chino and John Garcia, and co-producer Arthur Seay, guitarist of Unida and House of Broken Promises. In addition, John Garcia makes a guest vocal appearance on side A’s “Pisser,” underscoring that track’s particular Blues for the Red Sun-shine, and even unto the goof-off bonus track “Old Timer D.W.” — which, admittedly, is both less pull-you-out-of-the-album and more of an actual song than was “Lick Doo” on Sky Valley – Steak wear their influence on their sleeve. I’m not going to complain about that. With the general quality of their riffing and the compression brought to the recording — Vista Chino‘s Peace makes a decent comparison point, production-wise — by Hug and Seay, Steak embark on their first long-player by continuing the progression from their EPs that serves as the steps toward creating their own identity out of that influence. And anyway, it’s not like they’re trying to tell you they wrote “Gardenia” or something.
I’ve been curious to hear how Steak would make the leap from their shorter releases to a full album. They do so reusing only two tracks — “Liquid Gold” from the second EP, and “Machine,” from the first. Each is the second song on its respective half of Slab City, which seems to have been structured with at least thoughts of vinyl. “Liquid Gold” in particular is an early highlight, coming off opener “Coma”‘s noisy and gradually solidifying atmosphere — the first couple minutes of the album, the band seem to be coalescing aurally before the track launches — more expansive sounding than the original and with a different treatment of Kippa‘s vocals, which here are deeper in the mix and piled in effects, whether it’s echo, compression, megaphone, reverb, etc. Sometimes that can signal a lack of confidence on the part of a singer, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case here. While he’s got a gruff delivery and he’s prone to sticking to it, Kippa doesn’t strike as the kind of vocalist trying to hide behind studio trickery, and the impression across Slab City‘s first three tracks — “Coma,” “Liquid Gold” and the shorter push of the titular cut, “Slab City” — is that the band is trying to find different ways of changing things up around Tee‘s wall of fuzz and the laid back heavy grooves of Cameron (who once again serves as Steak‘s hidden weapon) and Forway, whose tight snare pop manages to ground the proceedings even at their most jammed out. And they do jam. Songs are structured, but even “Pisser” moves through its varied parts and into and out of Garcia‘s parts with a sense that any minute now Steak might just decide to ride a riff for the next eight minutes. They don’t go that far — at least not until closer “Rising,” and even that has purpose — but they make it known effectively that they could and reserve the right to at some future date. The noisy wash of “Quaaludes and Interludes” underscores the dynamic flow of Slab City‘s first half, setting up side B to keep the momentum moving forward.
It does so successfully. “Roadhead,” which follows “Quaaludes and Interludes,” begins a trio of faster cuts that continues through “Machine” and “Hanoid” as Steak hit full throttle en route to the eight-minute “Rising” and Slab City‘s grandest statement of where they are as a band. Though I doubt you’ll be hearing about it on the radio anytime soon, “Roadhead” is one of the album’s catchiest songs — a solid opener for the second half — and with the familiar roll of “Machine” backing it up, there’s a bit of back and forth play going on with the energy of the material, despite a pretty consistent tempo. Tee alternates between airy lead lines in the verse and a more heads-down chorus rollout, but the groove is palpable either way, and he saves a scorching lead for “Hanoid,” which builds up quickly over a four-and-a-half-minute course and ends with a cymbal wash and feedback to signal the shift into “Rising,” the longest piece on the record and most expansive, bringing in a feedback start, some vague speech in there either sampled or not, drum thud taking hold to transition into the verse. The song is almost at its halfway point be the time they get to the chorus, Kippa raging out his lines over waves of distortion in the guitar and bass. More feedback serves as a transition back through the next cycle, and though it’s basically a verse and a chorus repeated, Steak approach “Rising” with a feel open enough to bring some chaotic vibing to the mix, which is as fitting an end to Slab City‘s movement as one could ask. That makes “Old Timer D.W.” a little extraneous, perhaps, but the bonus track, which begins with a cockney “Come on now, work for your money! Play another song!” and shifts into reverb-drenched slide guitar shenanigans, is clearly serving a purpose beyond what it might convey about the band’s songwriting. Its half-written feel is somewhat incongruous with Slab City‘s overall purposeful nature — if Steak had just been interested in screwing around, they probably would’ve saved the travel expense and stayed in London or at least the UK to do it — but as far as sending messages goes, “we don’t take ourselves too seriously” isn’t a bad thing for a band to say on their first album.
But don’t mistake them, Steak might be up for tossing off a riff here and there, but even when they do so, they’re playing to a very specific idea, and Slab City — desert hued and desert captured — is a record by a group of players who knew precisely what they wanted to accomplish in making it. It is not haphazard. The two EPs set up a comic-book-style narrative between them, and I don’t know if Slab City continues that or not (hazards of digital promos), but in terms of their overarching progression, it proves just how ready they were to take on the long-player task, and justifies the ambitious method by which they recorded the album through high-grade riffs, memorable songs and a molten flow between its component tracks. Steak leave themselves room to grow, but don’t let that take away from the fact that Slab City is a markedly impressive debut and as true a work of desert rock as one is likely to find no matter the geography.