The ultra-heavy psych-rock music scene that is associated with our California desert took root in the mid-’80s. The music of bands like Fatso Jetson, Kyuss, Throw Rag and Unsound helped shape the budding underground local music scene; today, a slew of aspiring musicians are borrowing from punk, acid rock, grunge and metal-new sounds.
Today, type “stoner rock sub-genres” into your computer’s search engine, and a dozen varieties will come up. Black metal, doom, sludge, psych (combined with any other genre, i.e. psych-rock, psycho-billy, psycho-punk), fuzzrock, spacerock, grunge and old-school metal seem to have knocked speed metal and death metal off of the list … or were they perhaps selected by Mother Nature for extinction and rebirth?
The Mojave Desert has been a breeding ground for original hard rock and provides an environment that is ripe for exploring the darker, less-conventional forms of musical expression. In the ’90s, Zach and Erica Huskey’s band Dali’s Llama was one of the few “desert rock bands” that was all about the doom. Dali’s Llama’s sound was thick as pea soup, expressed through deep-droning, drop-tuned, fuzzy guitar riffs and fueled by thick, heavy rhythmic structures that warbled the mind.
Today, the desert is teeming with stoner-rock bands. But the high desert, only 25 miles away, has a very different vibe than the low dez. There are far more hippies and indie bands up there making feel-good music—some of it so sweet you can gag on it.
Then there’s Atala.
Atala reunites Rise of the Willing bassist John Chavarria (Sons of Serro, A’rk) and guitarist Kyle Stratton, and introduces drummer Jeff Tedtaotao (Forever Came Calling). The band formed in early 2013, when Stratton set out to create his own unique style of ultra-heavy desert rock while applying his “off-grid” lifestyle to the music, allowing it to flow from the source—the universal energy pool.
He didn’t want to overthink the music, nor did he want to focus on how heavy it was. He kept his testosterone in check and explored his instrument, dialed in his signature sound and began writing his ass off. Using his guitar, a couple of expression pedals and a wall of 100-watt amplifiers, he wrote Atala’s self-titled debut album and then enlisted the help of producer/bassist Scott Reeder, who carved out a name for himself with Kyuss, The Obsessed, Goatsnake, Nebula, Fireball Ministry and his current project, Sun and Sail Club.
Shaman’s Path of the Serpent will be Atala’s second record, and is slated for release in May 2016. The members left the desert and recorded at Cloud City Studio, this time working with Billy Anderson, who has produced records for Mr. Bungle, Sleep and The Melvins. Four new mind-bending tracks are saturated with wicked guitar riffs that are angular and disjointed, fueled by a thunderous rhythm section that moves and breathes together as one, while monotone vocals deliver lyrical contemplations of life after death. It’s an intoxicating super-sludge sound bath.
“Musically, we were drawn more to heavier influences, which evoked a darker side of our music,” Stratton said. “Lyrically, the album is about a path through death to a new awakening—which is dying spiritually to a rebirth that is free of fear.”
It seems Stratton truly was tapping into the universal energy pool.
“It’s interesting how I wrote an album about a shaman’s path through death to a new awakening, and then upon arrival home, I fell ill and had a near-death experience. Then my body was taken apart and put back together, and I am only now nearly healed. It’s crazy that I could accidentally manifest such an experience. I have to be careful with the power of the mind and its ability to create.”
Read more from Robin Linn, including an expanded version of this story, at www.desertrockchronicles.com.