The appeal of desert rock as a musical genre has to be understood not just in musical terms, but in terms of the deep vein of imagery and mythology that its evocation of the American West taps into. At its best, desert rock plays it calm enough to summon thoughts of palm trees swaying against the glittering ocean, but also tilts forward with enough of a pulsing, swaggering groove to mimic the undulations of the sun-parched plains of the desert. These poles were also, in a way, implicit in the 19th century rhetoric of manifest destiny: the political project of America’s westward expansion was framed as a period of necessary toil and wandering with great reward upon completion. Music, too, can play that role of secular religion.
On paper, the new desert rock project Zun sounds like a wonderful fever dream: a heavily atmospheric, psych-tinged album uniting the talents of vocalists John Garcia (of Kyuss, Vista Chino, et al) and Sera Timms (of Ides of Gemini and Black Math Horseman) with guitarist and mastermind Gary Arce of Yawning Man, a band sometimes seen as the progenitor of what would become the Californian desert rock “scene” of Kyuss, Fu Manchu, QOTSA, and so on. In practice, however, Burial Sunrise falls far short of its promise.
Most of the songs feel like brief sketches that have been stretched simply for the sake of filling space. At times, that open-endedness works for the album, but like the desert from which the songs take their inspiration, most of the start and end points of the songs feel almost incidental, as though we’re dispassionately examining one unbroken line after another. This is still rightly Arce’s show, but because Burial Sunrise opts for feel over flash, his soft-touch technique too often recedes to the background, which reveals the shaky, directionless foundations of the songs. His tone is a thing of beauty, however, and his picking digs gently like shovel-falls bent and made bleary through a heat-shimmer.
The flat, mannered affect of Timms’s vocals alternating with Garcia’s soulful restraint makes for an unexpectedly awkward pairing, and the fact that they trade off every other song is distracting instead of diverting. “Come Through the Water” is as lethargic as Timms’s vocal melodies are upsettingly angular to the rest of the music, an effect which nearly resolves itself on the final chorus. Even then, though, it seems almost accidental, as if she was wandering around singing her own melody and happened to wind up in the studio at the exact moment her notes finally synced with the band.
The high guitar lead line in “All That You Say I Am” is more than a little reminiscent of Soundgarden’s “The Day I Tried to Live,” which is frustrating because it distracts from an otherwise slinkily propulsive song that eventually spills into an extended but still effectively restrained jam. In fact, “All That You Say I Am” and the closing track “Into the Wasteland” finish out the album in much stronger form than the previous four pieces. All of this is circling gingerly around the unfortunate point, which is that Burial Sunrise is simply not very good, or at least not very successful. Nothing is as hard-driving as the best of Garcia’s work, and Timms’s vocals simply don’t come across as well-suited to this style. Arce’s languid psychedelia, while occasionally engrossing, is simply too unfocused to be the unifying thread that this promising but ultimately disappointing album needs.