Full Album Premiere & Review: Yawning Man, Long Walk of the Navajo

yawning man long walk of the navajo

[Click play above to stream Yawning Man’s Long Walk of the Navajo in full. It’s out Friday on Heavy Psych Sounds and available to preorder here (US) and here (EU).]

A true headphone album. A record you can put on, close your eyes, and drift away with, the sounds floating and swirling and changing shape like passing clouds over a sun-beat landscape, old rocks telling stories about time no one can hear in rusts and beiges and greens and browns. A record with which to wander. And maybe that’s what Yawning Man wanted. Long Walk of the Navajo references in its title the Civil War-era forced migration of Navajo peoples from the territory of what is now Arizona, part of the larger genocide of indigenous Americans that continued well into and through the 20th Century, wherein the US military marched members of the tribe some 300 miles to New Mexico. Hundreds died or had their lives uprooted, some were captured along the way and put into slavery, and many were just outright murdered in yet another example of the brutality of colonialism and the foundation of blood and exploitation upon which the United States was constructed, white European people enacting violence on brown American peoples with the specific goal of destroying their way of life. It is one of many such tales out of American history, and by no means a story that is over. It is a living narrative.

As regards album themes, one might engage Long Walk of the Navajo in a spirit of melancholy or mourning as a result of this context, and I won’t say that’s wrong or counter to the Yawning Man‘s intention. The long-running desert rock progenitors are as ever led by guitarist Gary Arce in their instrumentalism, and in addition to the title they note a desert storm during the recording that fostered a contemplative mood, but if they’re evoking a sense of physical movement from one place to another, specifically of forced displacement, then that movement is presented with due spaciousness, respect and emotionality. Long Walk of the Navajo is offered as three extended tracks running longest to shortest: opener/longest track (immediate points) “Long Walk of the Navajo” (15:09), “Respiratory Pause” (13;25) and “Blood Sand” (8:58), running a total of 37 minutes across two vinyl sides that together serve as the band’s sixth long-player in a 35-plus-year history, though, admittedly it wasn’t until 2005 that their first album, Rock Formations (discussed here), actually surfaced.

These songs, then, are part of the thread of the most flourishing period of Yawning Man‘s entire arc, their last studio records having been 2018’s The Revolt Against Tired Noises (review here) and 2019’s Macedonian Lines (review here), which they followed with 2020’s Live at Giant Rock (discussed here) and a series of catalog reissues through Heavy Psych Sounds that included their demo, The Birth of Sol (discussed here), as well as 2013’s Historical Graffiti (review here) and 2010’s Nomadic Pursuits (review here), and the aforementioned Rock Formations. What having this material readily available has done is to increase awareness of who Yawning Man are and what they’ve contributed to the sphere of desert rock, and in that, Long Walk of the Navajo is a reinforcement of their root approach.

The title-track, recorded by Steve Kille of Dead Meadow in Oct. 2022, is listed as being completely improvised. It begins with Bill Stinson‘s drums establishing a pattern on toms and introducing Arce‘s guitar and Billy Cordell‘s bass on the crash cymbal. The vibe is immediate, unrushed, warm, and yes, somewhat foreboding in the declining notes and the underlying subtle sprawl of the held-out bass notes. It should go without saying that Yawning Man are no strangers to jamming, but there do seem to be layers of guitar working across two channels, whether that was overdubbed or looped I couldn’t and wouldn’t guess. They are nonetheless organic in their sound as they cast breadth over the backbeat, guitars again intertwining after the change four minutes in that cuts back the wash only to rebuild it in a repeating pattern of melody that becomes a kind of central hook that comes and goes, allowing for the quintessential noodling near the song’s midpoint, the languid unfurling of drift in the back half, and the meditation on time and space both there and in the fade, the song going without fanfare to end side A, not without joy in its exploration, but subdued enough to fit the notion of getting to a place and now what.

In dynamic, “Long Walk of the Navajo” is a summary of the chemistry central to Yawning Man in any lineup incarnation. Cordell, who played on the band’s Pot Head EP in 2005 comes back to Yawning Man in place of Mario Lalli (also Fatso JetsonThe Rubber Snake Charmers, etc.), and fits easily alongside Arce and Stinson, the latter having also taken part in Arce-led side-projects like ZunTen East and Dark Tooth Encounter. On paper, they are a classic power trio on “Long Walk of the Navajo,” with the rhythm section acting as fluid support behind the vast reaches of Arce‘s guitar, the tone of which is a signature element of Yawning Man‘s work as well as nearly any other project in which Arce participates. For more than three and a half decades, he has brought together surf reverb, goth atmosphere and land-born scope to create a sound that is distinctive even among the hordes working under its direct influence. That sound, and the entrancing manner in which it covers so much of the mix, seeming to ring out into open air even when piped directly to one’s eardrum, is the defining feature of the band. It makes and has made them who they are. It is only right and consistent that Arce should lead here as he does.

yawning man arce stinson cordell

Recorded in the early going of 2023 by Dan Joeright of Gatos Trail Recording Studio — one might recall he helmed the Live in the Mojave Desert series of streams/live albums (review here), as well as the upcoming Yawning Man/partial-Fu Manchu collaboration, Yawning Balch — “Respiratory Pause” and “Blood Sand” are then distinguished by their freshness as the most recent Yawning Man material put to tape. Cordell does a bit of wandering around the guitar line around six minutes in to “Respiratory Pause” that adds to the procession without taking away from the layers of guitar flowing above, but with Stinson holding steady on the ground, there’s little danger of the piece being any more carried into the ether than it wants to be. Like much of Yawning Man‘s current-era output, it is lush and unrepentantly gorgeous without coming across as overwrought or hackneyed, naturally immersive, consistent in character with the title-track preceding but with a gentle physicality of its own. It fades smoothly into the feedback-ghosts that accompany the launch of “Blood Sand,” a howl underscored by low-end resonance from Cordell as the bass flowers after two minutes in, complementing the guitar in the sense of adding to it, bolstering the impression of the whole.

By this time in the listening, the method is well confirmed, but the shorter closing track is still able to resolve Long Walk of the Navajo in satisfying fashion precisely because of the aural conversation happening between ArceCordell and Stinson. They cap with a particularly fervent wash, and, as with the two prior pieces, end in a fade, highlighting the sense of these songs as samples carved from even broader sonic expeditions. This is one of the most interesting features of Long Walk of the Navajo, since while Yawning Man have worked in long-ish forms on studio LPs before — both Macedonian Lines and The Revolt Against Tired Noises had songs over seven minutes — they’ve never gone so far as to present their audience with 15- and 13-minute long tracks, and even “Blood Sand” nearly hitting nine would otherwise be their longest studio cut to-date.

Whether this is a sign of things to come or a one-off born out of an especially productive session, I can’t and won’t speculate. The overriding message, though, is that as they approach their 40th year of existence in one form or another, Yawning Man are still finding new paths to follow. It is not every band and not every player willing to try new things on their sixth (maybe seventh?) album, and their commitment to exploration as demonstrated here is no less essential to who they are than Arce‘s echoing lead guitar melodies. Because of the longer songs, Long Walk of the Navajo would seem like it might intimidate some listeners or those taking on Yawning Man for the first time, but the reality is that their sound is all the more welcoming for its ability to reside in a part before moving onto the next. They sound vital in a ‘live’ sense, and deliver here with raw class and poise as only masters could, reconfirming their place as one of the California desert’s most crucial acts and reminding the listener why and how their influence has spread to such a degree over the last few decades. And true to form, the next one is reportedly already in the works.

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