Dali’s Llama, Autumn Woods: Tree in Your Forest

Undervalued stalwarts Dali’s Llama are the kind of band that 15 years from now someone’s going to make a documentary about. And rightly so. The largely-unpromoted desert rocking Palm Springs, California, foursome will celebrate two full decades of existence in 2013, and they hit that anniversary behind the release of their beefy 10th (or possibly 11th) album, Autumn Woods. As always, they’ve issued the disc via their own Dali’s Llama Records, and where their prior outing, 2010’s Howl Do You Do? (review here), saw them step outside of their long-since established desert blues rock aesthetic, and frontman Zach Huskey (vocals/guitar) veered even further away from Dali’s Llama in 2011 with the heavy rocking side-project Ogressa’s Warts and All debut (review here), Autumn Woods makes for an excellent homecoming while still providing a twist on the more trademark desert-isms of records like 2009’s Raw is Real (review here) or the prior Full on Dunes (review here). As one might be able to glean from looking at bassist Erica Huskey in the photo on the album’s cover – clad in a cape and peeking out from behind a tree to look at the sky while drummer Craig Brown, her guitarist/vocalist/husband Zach, and guitarist Joe Wangler stand out front – not to mention the title itself, Autumn Woods is less about desert sands than it is darker atmospheres derived from classic metal. Dali’s Llama aren’t about to start writing about castles, steeds or epic battles, but filtering thicker distortion and more metallic atmospheres through their inherent desertitude (*copyright The Obelisk 2012), the Huskeys, Wangler and Brown both return to their musical roots and stem from them in a new and exciting way. A production job from none other than Scott Reeder presents Dali’s Llama with suitable tonal thickness on cuts like “The Gods” or the 9:36 centerpiece title-track, but still leaves the band room to move in terms of tempo, as they do on the punkier opener “Bad Dreams” or later “P.O.A.,” which starts off with a near-thrash intensity before cutting the pace for a more grooving second half… of its total 1:26.

That’s one thing that’s always been true of Dali’s Llama since I first encountered them: they are remarkably efficient. Like Howl Do You Do? was with its focus on classic horror punk and alternate reality early ‘60s surf, Autumn Woods sounds like an album approached with a specific sonic concept in mind, i.e. someone in the band saying, “Let’s make a record that sounds like this.” And they do. Top to bottom, Autumn Woods retains Dali’s Llama’s characteristic lack of pretense even as it’s based entirely on one – namely, that they’re a metal band. Of course, they’re not a metal band, and through Zach lets out a scream before the apex of penultimate track “O.K. Freak Out,” at their core, they’re still playing heavy desert rock and they retain the penchant for wah, for rolling groove and for classic rock structures led by riffs. No complaints at that. Catchy highlights “Goatface,” “Nostalgia” – on which cleaner vocals top a more open verse before the chorus takes flight – and the later Sabbathian “The Gods” provide landmarks around the title-track, and each song presents a personality of its own despite sharing the elements of chugging guitar, straightforward vibes and variations on Zach’s punker-bluesman’s snarl. The lead lines in “Blowholes and Fur” seem to nod at Deep Purple’s “Woman from Tokyo,” but even this Dali’s Llama work quickly to make their own, and while it’s a strong and distinguishable instrumental hook, the context they give it makes all the difference, accompanying a meaty chug made even thicker by Erica’s concurrent low end work. Even on “Autumn Woods,” I wouldn’t call them showy, but the extended cut (the next closest is “O.K. Freak Out” at 5:22, though “The Gods,” which follows, also hits 5:19) does give them room to range as far as they’d like, which structurally is something of a departure, despite Zach’s croon tying the early verses to the rest of the album and indeed to Dali’s Llama’s already formidable discography. The chief difference seems to be a sense of patience that a lot of the songs – derived from grown-up punk as so much heavy rock is; ask Fatso Jetson if you don’t believe me – eschew. Very subtly, the four-piece move into a darker soft of jam from the initial verses, letting a slower jam take hold amid Danzig-style atmospherics and a gradual push.

There’s a discernible break after six minutes in from which the final instrumental crux takes hold, descending guitar lines from Zach and Joe leading the way while Craig underscores with solid tom-hit timekeeping. Because it never gets out of control or overly raucous, it makes a better centerpiece than a closer – one imagines that after 10 records, Dali’s Llama have a pretty good sense of how they want to structure a tracklist – and the apex of Autumn Woods comes not with its eponymous cut, but with the later “O.K. Freak Out,” which at about 3:45 slams into the peak of the record with fervent crashes from Craig, raging, dueling solos from Zach and Joe and an increasing tempo held together by Erica’s bass. They build it until there’s nothing more to build on and fade, and it seems reasonable for the album to be over right there, but the acoustic afterthought “Resolved” brings about a feeling of finality worthy of its title. There’s some soothing interplay between electric and the acoustic guitar, but what really makes the track is the intimacy of the atmosphere and Zach’s quiet vocal. It may be the epilogue to the album’s varying exploits, but “Resolved” proves much more than epilogue or a last-minute shot of sentimentality to try and give the earlier rockin’ some kind of emotional context. The song holds firm to structures similar to much of the record, but has its execution unto itself, and when the electric lead enters over the acoustic rhythm and continues to back Zach’s final chorus with ethereal, almost ghosting, notes, the effect is more kaleidoscopic than any hint the mostly black and white album art might give. I’d be interested to hear Dali’s Llama develop a record or at least an EP of stripped-down desert acoustic ephemeralities, to find out what they might be able to do letting the subdued jams take hold – though if “Resolved” is anything to go by, that would mean a severe cut in Craig’s contributions; perhaps some alternate percussion could fill the void, but it’s moot since we’re talking hypothetically – and it wouldn’t necessarily be out of character for them to take on such a project, given the expanses they’ve covered between Autumn Woods and Howl Do You Do? Whatever their next outing might bring, Autumn Woods proves two pivotal facts about Dali’s Llama: First, that the band remains passionate about exploring new musical avenues even 20 years into their run, and second, that they’re among the most underappreciated acts ever to roam the Californian desert. I find it affirming to see they’re showing no signs of letting that slow them down. True rock from lifer rockers.

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