When Sabbiacame out in 2006, I was interested. I remember seeing it was around, and knowing that Brant Bjork was somehow involved, and that the desert, the fuzz, etc., but I never picked it up. You know how it goes. Some things just get by you, and when it comes to music DVDs, they’re cute once or twice, then you never watch them again. They sit on the shelf and collect dust. Brant Bjork‘s music is so visually associated in my mind with a specific imagery, I guess I wasn’t in a hurry to have something come along and screw that up.
Fair enough. Sabbiacame and went, and it wasn’t until this past weekend that I finally stumbled on a copy, on sale for a whopping three dollars, and felt inclined to pick it up. Actually, I felt excited to pick it up, since it’s harder to get nowadays than when it was first released. I paid three dollars cash money and when I finally put in the disc, I quickly saw that Sabbia– which was directed by Kate McCabe and features Bjork both performing and wandering around a convenience store to pick up some beers — was more than just a standard music DVD. It’s more like a love-letter to desert weirdness brought to life as the music and the visuals feed into each other’s ideas.
There’s no narrative to speak of, though a thread runs throughout of a hottie making her way across the sands in slow motion, but through a series of vignettes based around songs — sections titled “Future Freak,” “Cobra Jab,” “Cool Abdul,” “Joint Ritual,” and so on — McCabe takes the viewer through a range of experiences, usually drenched in sunlight, and it’s everything from skateboarding to snow on cacti to dark-room dancing, trees, open skies, music, people, buildings, sunglasses, freaks, drugs, stars at night. It’s not about Bjork specifically, though he’s in a lot of it, but it’s a project where the editing is almost as much of a character as anyone appearing. Some voiceover, but no real dialogue to speak of. And scenery. Scenery for what feels like forever.
Obviously that’s the idea. And with grainy footage, quirky flourishes and a landscape to work with that’s as unmistakable as the grooves it has birthed, Sabbiaruns 80 minutes of tripped-out pastoralia. It wanders in parts — again, that’s the idea — but it’s easy to get lost in its admiration and idolization of the desert, especially if you’re somebody who appreciates that place and the various freaks who’ve emerged from it over the course of the last two decades with a brand of rock and roll that nobody outside has been able to capture in quite the same way. The collaboration between McCabe and Bjork is almost even-sided, but unquestionably one is made fuller by the work of the other.
Being on the other side of the country and given to a certain brand of escapism, I can very easily see paying many return visits to Sabbia, though I’ll say already I’ve gotten my three dollars’ worth out of it and then some. Of course, the whole movie is up on YouTube at this point, so I’ve included it below if you’d like to check it out, with fervent recommendation for tracking down a physical copy so you can get the liner notes from the director and the composer on how their working together came about and what their mission was with the project, etc. It’s about as fitting a representation of the desert as one could ask for:
Any discussion of all-time essential heavy albums is incomplete without Kyuss‘ 1994 full-length, Welcome to Sky Valley.
Officially self-titled, the Palm Desert four-piece’s third album following 1992′s also pivotal Blues for the Red Sun and 1991′s Wretch debut is to this day the single blueprint on which the desert rock aesthetic is based. The album was recorded at Sound City by Chris Goss and included the simple instructions to, “Listen without Distraction.” Rarely in heavy rock has such sound advice been given.
You could argue that Blues for the Red Sundeserves induction into the Canon of Heavy first — I’m not sure you’d be wrong. The difference, however, is that where Blues for the Red Sunestablished Kyuss as a band apart from the grunge movement that was then sweeping radio, print mags and the greater rock and roll consciousness, it was Welcome to Sky Valleythat showcased specifically the alternative they presented, the weight of their grooves, the loosely jammed feel of driving, punk-derived rhythms, the sheer power of a riff like that of “Supa Scoopa and Mighty Scoop” to stomp itself into the brain of a listener — I still try to tap out the hits at the end and get it wrong more often than not — and ultimately set the stage for the massive and ongoing influence Kyuss has today on bands all around the world.
Then comprised of vocalist John Garcia, guitarist Josh Homme, bassist Scott Reeder and drummer Brant Bjork, Kyuss would become a standard for those to whom even the commodified strains of alt rock left cold, and the sheer something else-ness of Welcome to Sky Valleycontinues to resonate and make it one of the best heavy records of all time, the best and most formative desert rock release ever, and an utterly timeless listen.
If nothing else, let the fact that Welcome to Sky Valley is included second to Black Sabbath‘s Master of Realityin the Canon of Heavy be a testament to its standing among the classics. And yet how can we call Kyuss anything but underrated?
“The Desert Sound”
Among others, Kyuss cited local jammers Yawning Man as having an influence on their sound, and one can hear that in Homme‘s guitar work on “Space Cadet” and elsewhere, but in a way that’s both unpretentious and undeniable, Welcome to Sky Valleywas representative of the Californian desert to its very core. Weird and a little hippie, there was nonetheless heat in the tonal fuzz of the guitars and an ecosystem at work in Reeder‘s basslines, and while Garcia mused with stoned, brazen abandon about who the hell knows what, Bjork solidified every move the band made with understated percussive brilliance. Whether it was the single-worthy psychedelia of “Demon Cleaner” or the landmark thrust of “Odyssey,” Kyuss was as much about the rhythm section as it was about riffs or melodies.
The closing duo of “N.O.” (a cover of Reeder‘s prior outfit, Across the River) and “Whitewater” emphasized that perfectly, but really, it can be heard throughout Welcome to Sky Valley, and the photos that comprise the album’s artwork, of cracked sands and a foldout of a windmill, only speak to the band’s connection to its geography and their intent in conveying that musically. Whatever it was that did it, Kyuss never quite fit sonically with either the hard rock or the metal of their day. A jammed-out instrumental like “Asteroid,” placed as the second track behind opener “Gardenia” in the first of the album’s three movements, is unlike anything radio would’ve touched at the time, and at the time, radio was how a band like Kyuss would’ve gotten big. So what we have is an act necessitating a new vocabulary that didn’t exist when they did — ahead of their time — an act forcing those who’d approach them to realize that heaviness didn’t necessarily have to come hand in hand with anger or some teenaged grunge moping.
How did all this come from the desert? Hell if I know. Thinking about a landscape like that, beaten by the sun, dry and cracked like in the liner note pictures, it looks heavy, making a subtle, nonchalant threat just by being there. You can get lost in the desert and you can get lost in this music. The two almost can’t help but go hand in hand.
Let’s say you’re a rock band signed to a major label. You see that the audience is becoming less and less dependent on a full-album listening experience and to counteract this — because you’ve just gone to the trouble of writing a full-length’s worth of material and perhaps you believe in all of it and want it to be heard — you decide to block the 10 component tracks of your album into three movements, three in the first, three in the second and four in the third. Basically, you’re demanding that your audience engage the songs on the level you’ve chosen for them. They no longer have the power to skip to whichever track they want. The terms are yours.
First of all, you’d never get away with it. Today’s corporate label strata is so client friendly that so long as you’re willing to give even the slightest bit of money as opposed to just stealing an album by downloading it illegally, record companies will basically spoon-feed the music to your ears (that’s not to mention the homogenizing effect that the desperation to reach as broad an audience base as possible has had on commercial hard rock as a whole; it’s an issue for a different time), and if you want singles, singles you’ll have. Even Welcome to Sky Valleyfeels like the result of a compromise in this way. Kyuss could just as easily have presented the individual pieces as one 51-minute track. One wonders at the negotiation process that resulted in the three blocks of tracks that the final CD housed, a new meaning given to the proverbial numbers game of contract talks.
Promo copies of Welcome to Sky Valleywent out to radio stations with the pieces split up individually, but for the general listening populace, Sky Valleymore or less forced you to take it on as a whole and on that level flew in the face of its own potential for commercial success. In a climate that was having less and less time for a whole album, Kyuss decided they’d refuse to give anything less.
Unless you’ve done it, I’m not sure you can understand quite how difficult it is sometimes to review heavy rock records and not just be like, “Well, it kinda sounds like Kyuss on Welcome to Sky Valley.” At this point, approaching 19 years since its original release, the album continues to have an appeal past any expiration date one might’ve ever wanted to put on it, and from California to Moscow, bands have tried to make even the slightest bit of its magic their own. Most fall short, but the mere fact that their inspiration can be traced back to Kyuss and in particular to Welcome to Sky Valleymakes the album a standout in its generation.
The basic fact is that when Kyuss released this album on Elektra, yeah, there was a market for creative hard rock — the Melvins put out Houdinion Atlantic late in ’93, and Monster Magnet‘s second album, Superjudge, founding them riding high on A&M — but the number of bands taking the approach Kyuss were taking to psychedelia, to rock-after-punk (that’s not to call them post-punk), on the level they were doing it, well, it was pretty much them and nobody. The desert from whence they hailed may have had a vibrant scene at the time, with bands like the aforementioned Yawning Man or Fatso Jetson, whose guitarist Mario Lalli guests on lead for “N.O.,” but Kyuss became the ambassadors for that scene to a wider public consciousness.
Really, it’s a title they continue to hold to this day, and with the boom in awareness of what they were doing that came with the rise of the internet as a musical conveyance, their reach went global just a few years after they’d broken up. Already by the mid-to-late ’90s, Man’s Ruin Records was having an impact on listening habits, but today, the sound that took root in Palm Desert can just as likely be heard in Poland or New Zealand.
So Why Weren’t They Huge?
How can that be true — how can Welcome to Sky Valleyhave had such an impact on heavy rock — and Kyuss still be an underground band? Well, the commercial success that Josh Homme eventually found with Queens of the Stone Age — and let’s not forget it took three albums and a collaboration with Dave Grohl to get there — eluded Kyuss for the entirety of their career. Singles like “Demon Cleaner” and “One Inch Man” from subsequent album …And the Circus Leaves Town(1996) brought some attention, and the band toured hard, but they never quite took the steps that Homme would later take to embrace their audience. Songs were loose and half-jammed, Garcia‘s vocals biting and guttural, and like several others of their musical generation, Kyuss inhabited a curious zone somewhere in between hard rock and heavy metal. The difference is now two decades’ worth of bands have lined up behind them in that position.
The way I look at it is like “Lick Doo” — the “secret” fourth track after the glorious finish of “Whitewater” that’s a minute-long faux doo-wop organ number with Garcia singing, “Oh honey, you know that you can and will lick my doo,” etc. Kyuss by this time were getting to be professionals at their sound, realizing that they had something unique to offer on a stylistic level and setting themselves to the work of capturing that on tape, but they were also a bunch of desert-dwelling stoners goofing around. You think if they were up to taking themselves too seriously they’d have put “Lick Doo” after “Whitewater?” No way. “Hey, here’s probably the best song we’ll ever write, let’s end the record with it and then put this stupid outtake on after it for absolutely no reason.” Sorry, but if you’re considering your position in rock history, that’s probably not the choice you’re gonna make.
And ultimately, maybe that’s part of what makes Welcome to Sky Valleyso special — that Kyuss may have been reinventing a long forgotten classic rock wheel, but they were basically doing so just by being who they were. And maybe that’s why all the people who’ve come along since, including Kyuss themselves, have never quite managed to harness the same feeling in a recording as these guys did at that particular moment in time, in that studio, with those instruments, those songs.
Posted in Reviews on March 11th, 2011 by H.P. Taskmaster
It’s a cross-continental collision of sounds, and aside from being into both the Aussie noisemaking brotherly duo Hotel Wrecking City Traders and the work of landmark desert guitarist Gary Arce of Yawning Man, what most drew me in to the idea of their collaborative studio project was how different the two sides are. Hotel Wrecking City Traders, who’ve been releasing music on drummer Ben Matthews’ Bro Fidelity Records since 2007, are a fittingly tight unit. The sounds on their Black Yolk full-length and follow-up Somer/Wantok 12” were rife with intensity and an impatient mathematical feel. By contrast, Gary Arce is considered one of the founding figures of desert rock. His laid back, airy tone and improvisatory will have been a key inspiration for bands literally all over the world, and when it comes to jams, there are few guitarists out there who can add as much personality to a piece of music as he can. It’s not like one’s playing polka and the other death metal (although I hear those go together nowadays too), but it’s a short list of commonalities between Arce and Hotel Wrecking City Traders. Apart from working instrumentally, they seem to be driven by completely different musical ideals.
And maybe that’s what makes their joint Hotel Wrecking City Traders and Gary Arce 12” (released on limited 180gram vinyl via Bro Fidelity and Cobraside Distribution, who also put out Yawning Man’s 2010 album, Nomadic Pursuits) so damned interesting. The two-song, 20-minute release combines the disparate elements at work in the total three players involved for a double-guitar brew that’s based as much on improvisational noodling as it is on noisy crunch. It works, too, which is the miracle of the thing. The first track, “Coventina’s Cascade” (10:19) is content to wander in its midsection, Ben providing pulsing bassdrum kicks while his brother TobyMatthews adds to the build on guitar and Arce spaces out for what’s probably the busiest payoff on the release. Hotel Wrecking City Traders showed off some atmospheric tendencies on Somer/Wantok, but Arce takes it to do a different level entirely. One can hear during a break about seven minutes in how the duo constructed the track before sending it to Arce to add his guitar lines, but that’s not at all to discount the flow of what the collective trio come out with as a result. As he does in Hotel Wrecking City Traders proper, Matthews proves capable of holding down a rhythm section, and Toby wisely leaves room to allow for interplay with Arce – who also contributes bass to both cuts, adding further dimensionality to both sides A and B.
I noticed that I’ve picked up a couple records lately based on recommendations in the comments for this site, so this is the start of a new series of Buried Treasure posts about those albums. Hope you dig it.
A couple weeks ago when I did the Where to Start post on the Palm Desert scene, one of the responding comments was from Midwestern stoner rock luminary and all-around great guy Postman Dan (The Fallopian Dudes, Sow Belly, etc.), who said I should check out the album Gossamer by Solarfeast, which featured the guitar and vocals of Vic du Monte (AKA Chris Cockrell, Kyuss‘ first bassist), Tony Tornay (Fatso Jetson) on drums and was produced by Brant Bjork. Not the hard sell by any means, but it was enough.
There just happened to be a copy for sale on eBay at the time, so I nabbed that just before the auction ended an got the disc in the mail the other day. It’s dirty, it’s definitely of its era in the mid-’90s, and it’s plain to see why Brant Bjork didn’t make a career of producing bands, but what Solarfeast has in spades is charm. Gossamer has a lot more punk in it than I expected, but a song like “My Cradle, My Grave” goes a long way toward showing the influence the desert scene has had on the outside world.
I don’t know if I’d go as far as to pass the recommendation onto anyone just getting started with desert rock, but for those who’ve been around the music for a while, done the Kyuss thing, etc., Solarfeast‘s Gossamer is an interesting curio, and it’s cool to trace the links — Vic du Monte’s Idiot Prayer released two albums through Brant Bjork‘s Duna Records (now Low Desert Punk) and Cockrell‘s latest project, Vic du Monte’s Persona Non Grata, features Alfredo Hernandez (Yawning Man, ex-Kyuss) on drums — and see just how incestuous this scene is. Plus, it’s fun, and we all need that sometimes.
What a question. Understand, I’m not talking about a grouping based on sound. I mean bands from the desert in California. It’s a limited bunch of musicians, centered around a few interconnected acts that have had a tremendous impact on stoner rock the world over. Although I think they’ve made some of the most important contributions to the genre, I’m including no outside bands here. It’s all about location.
Five bands you need to know, and which album to get. Here goes:
1. Yawning Man: Most often credited as originators of the desert scene, an instrumental trio with Gary Arce, Mario Lalli (also Fatso Jetson) and Alfredo Hernandez (also Kyuss). Their new album, Nomadic Pursuits (review here), is fantastic and a great display of the influence they’ve had on those who’ve followed them, but recommendations for 2005′s Rock Formations are valid.
2. Kyuss: They’re the hallmark act of stoner rock, with import not just limited to the bands former members have launched (Queens of the Stone Age, Unida, Slo Burn, Brant Bjork, Mondo Generator, etc.). Welcome to Sky Valley is an all-time classic. As necessary as oxygen.
You just don’t get this kind of stuff in Jersey. Here’s the trio Yawning Man — Gary Arce on guitar, Mario Lalli (Fatso Jetson) on bass and Alfredo Hernandez (ex-Kyuss) on drums — playing in what looks like a parking lot but is actually The Constant Gallery in Los Angeles. Reportedly, the hearse behind them belongs to Lalli. Makes a great backdrop, in any case, though Arce‘s guitar could come in front of just about anything and still work.
Why these guys don’t have 16 live albums out is beyond me. Enjoy “Rock Formations” and check out the rest of the videos on the YuberTubes.