Blaak Heat Shujaa, The Edge of an Era: Don’t Forget to Breathe

Since the release of their 2010 self-titled debut, Blaak Heat Shujaa have moved from Paris to Los Angeles — with a stop in New York City as well for a time — have honed their desert rocking chops on tours with Fatso Jetson and Yawning Man, have signed with Tee Pee Records, completed a documentary series about their recording sessions with the venerable Scott Reeder and have taken those sessions and split them into two releases: the late-2012 The Storm Generation EP and their sophomore full-length, The Edge of an Era — shooting videos and playing gigs all the while as well. With that much going on, it’s not much of a surprise that The Edge of an Era is a different beast than was the self-titled, but what is striking about the album is how cohesive it is. On first listen, it makes sense as to why the trio — guitarist/vocalist Thomas Bellier, bassist Antoine Morel-Vulliez and drummer Mike Amster — divided the output from the Reeder sessions. The Edge of an Era focuses is on a singular atmosphere that’s served well by its six component tracks; the material on The Storm Generation (review here) wasn’t lacking for quality, it just didn’t fit. And where the band probably could’ve forced the issue and included most of those songs here — a move that might’ve put the album’s runtime more in line with the 63-minute self-titled (review here) instead of the vinyl-friendly 41:27 the finished product clocks — The Edge of an Era is unquestionably a stronger whole for the structure of its parts, running social/political lyrical themes through organic tones with a marked flow from piece to piece that nonetheless shows development in the experimental side that showed itself on the prior outing. Fatso Jetson‘s Mario Lalli donates vocals and lyrics to the penultimate “Pelham Blue,” making that track an automatic standout and highlighting just how much influence Blaak Heat Shujaa has culled from the desert in which it now rests its collective head, and poet/tourmate Ron Whitehead, who contributed to The Storm Generation as well, launches the album with “Closing Time, Last Exit,” a rising-toward-clarity free-association spoken word in which gonzo, Jesus, Buddha, Hunter S. Thompson and other mythological figureheads are namechecked before we arrive at the starting point just under a minute later: “America is an illusion.”

A fun bit of knowledge to drop, rife with Baby Boomer shock value and wake-you-up-to-challenge-what-exactly exclamation (it seems a fruitless endeavor to rag on the gonzo types; that cat’s been out of the bag since well before I came along to call it self-indulgent), but more importantly, it sets up a good amount of the perspective from which The Edge of an Era is executed. The point of view, like the band, is young, but coherent, and met with fuzz not driven so much by a heavy psych wash of effects in Bellier‘s guitar, but by a dry-sand clarity that finds root in Morel-Vulliez‘s basslines while Amster‘s drumming holds the songs together allowing the other two players to wander over the course of longer jams like that emerging from “The Obscurantist Fiend (The Beast Pt. I),” the initial rush of which takes hold immediately following Whitehead‘s last pronouncement. Time and again throughout the record, Blaak Heat Shujaa prove adept at balancing stillness with movement instrumentally — Bellier‘s post-Cisneros vocal approach is suited to either, frankly, though in the faster parts he seems more inclined to let the guitar do the talking — and that begins with “The Obscurantist Fiend (The Beast Pt. I)” as a slowdown brings hypnotic repeating of a start-stop progression soon to serve as the foundation not just for Bellier’s verse, but the long instrumental stretch that follows. Amster and Morel-Vulliez make it work, the former with a kind of descending progression that winds up on the crash with each cycle as the latter works to gradually expand the base from which the guitars take flight. It is one of the record’s most melodically satisfying instrumental stretches that ensues, rising and cascading in tempo with a solo taking hold before arriving at starts and stops almost frenetic in their tension thanks to Amster‘s fills, double-kick and so on. At seven minutes, they launch into the next stage, bringing the groove to a head as Bellier and Morel-Vulliez align to ignite the melodic apex before sleepily jamming the way out of the song and directly into “Shadows (The Beast Pt. II)” via a sweet bassline worthy of the quieter moments of any Brant Bjork record you might want to name, the actual progression keeping the same starts and stops from the prior cut, but changing the context to something altogether more comforting.

To take it at its very beginning and ending points, “Shadows (The Beast Pt. II)” might seem like a linear build, but it’s actually a winding path that gets Blaak Heat Shujaa from once place to the other. Bending the musical thematic to their whim along the way, the band evoke nighttime open spaces, big, dark skies and moodier contemplations without departing the pervasive warmth that typifies the album as a whole. Bellier‘s vocals are further back and quieter, resting over Amster‘s tom runs before wah scream introduces a louder movement after three minutes or so, the drums shifting to a steady crash while Morel-Vulliez holds firm to the bassline through another quiet verse — Bellier layering in whispers alongside his straightforward vocal — and louder change, keeping to it even as a solo signals the shift into “Shadows (The Beast Pt. II)”‘s closing progression, a touch of Sabbath showing itself in the guitar before it too arrives at that line that by this time has made up a substantial portion of The Edge of an Era‘s side A. With less than a minute to go, they jump into a different run, the guitar and the bass together with the drums, but even then, at the very last second, they fall back to the cyclical figure to end. It’s repetitive but also vigorously enchanting, and on the CD, that vibe is maintained as Bellier‘s guitar begins “Society of Barricades.” The verse starts with surprising lack of intro given the patience Blaak Heat Shujaa have shown in the material so far, but I suspect that’s half the point, and in any case, there’s nothing about the song that isn’t in line with the two-parter preceding, from the minor-key mysticism to the rhythm section’s deft changes. They crash as the track heads towards its midpoint, but it’s misdirection. “Society of Barricades” — its lyrics keeping to The Edge of an Era‘s stated social sphere — pushes into more progressive territory, mounting a tension similar to “The Obscurantist” but distinct from it before slamming into a slowdown made thick by fuzzier bass from Morel-Vulliez and open crashing from Amster. This would be the apex of the song, but they just as swiftly turn again, this time resuming the faster movement and riding it instrumentally for a few measures, once again slowing and then ending fast. Showy? Yeah, but they pull it off, the back and forth emphasizing a technicality that’s been there all along but rarely comes to the center in desert rock.

Lalli‘s vocal is recognizable from the first lines of “Pelham Blue,” which begins subdued with bass before the drums, guitar and singing start in, and the Fatso Jetson guitarist/vocalist proves to be a driving force in the shortest track on The Edge of an Era apart from Whitehead‘s introduction. It’s sweetly melodic instrumentally, and he adjusts his delivery to match, the overall effect with Bellier‘s bright tone accompanying not unlike how something from the last Yawning Man might have come across with a few layers of singing on it, a structure and progression hidden beneath an open, wandering jammy feel. At two minutes in, the guitar comes forward in the mix for a lead which Lalli backs with psychedelic invocations of “Open your eyes” before moving into the next, more insistent and descriptive verse. The build here is subtle, but already happening, and though “Pelham Blue” is shorter than the rest of The Edge of an Era, it wants nothing for smoothness or flow, moving naturally into the heavier, more active crunch of the last minute or so, the lines, “Take this pharaoh of the ghetto/And his chariot in Pelham Blue/Drugged and powerful/Legend of the Golden State/These are patron saints to you,” standing out both for the emphatic layered, thoroughly human delivery and for their general righteousness as the song rounds out having just hit a surprising landmark. Morel-Vulliez, Amster and Bellier are left to their own devices on closer “Land of the Freaks, Home of the Brave,” pitting heavy desert drive against quieter movements as Bellier finds room for his most confident-sounding lead work of the album. They prove able to pick up after Lalli‘s departure via a swirling, faster tempo, which of course becomes a setup for a return to slower moodiness, and that a build back up into the faster thrust — Bellier‘s vocals back at first, then forward, then back, then forward, then gone as an instrumental jam arises similar to that which came out of “The Obscurantist” earlier on the album, closing with a bit more of the journeying sensibility that has been brought to bear across most of these tracks in one way or another, the three-piece winding their way down over the last couple minutes to end with airy guitars, bass and drums. It’s something of a comedown from “Pelham Blue,” but similar to the immediacy of “Society of Barricades” in its purposefulness. Of all the impressing facets of The Edge of an Era, I suppose its high on the list that the band have such a strong sense of direction and what they want their songs to sound like while still managing not to give the feeling of being contrived or somehow inorganic. I’ve said a few times now that I consider Blaak Heat Shujaa a bright spot in the potential future of American heavy psych, and as they’ve worked so hard to embody and project their love of the desert on their second album, I don’t hear anything to change my opinion. There’s still room to grow, jagged edges here and there to smooth out, but Blaak Heat Shujaa seem relentless in their pursuit, and if The Edge of an Era is what they’re coming up with along the way, the album might just live up to the ambition in its title.

Blaak Heat Shujaa w/ Ron Whitehead

Blaak Heat Shujaa on Thee Facebooks

Tee Pee Records

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One Response to “Blaak Heat Shujaa, The Edge of an Era: Don’t Forget to Breathe”

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