I ride a commuter train into downtown Chicago to get to my office. (Yes, I am going somewhere with this.) Several years ago – likely late 2019 or very early 2020 – there was a new ad campaign rolled out on giant billboards and digital displays in the terminal at Ogilvie Transportation Center aiming to promote tourism to Scottsdale, AZ. (Who in the hell is Scott and why does he get his own dale, is what I want to know.)
This was all fine and good, taunting frostbitten Chicago commuters with airbrushed scenes of warm, spontaneous good times with statistically sexier than average friends. But then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic ground it to a halt. The trains still ran, but they were ghostly. Footsteps echoed in the atrium. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to continue our work remotely, the realities of commuting became almost a faded photograph.
This is all a rather roundabout way of saying that the desert rock scene that emerged in Southern California in the early 90s via bands like Kyuss and Fu Manchu communicates a similar feeling. That dense, propulsive, windblown, heat-weary, bleary-eyed, bluesy trance can feel, at its best, like musicians tapping into some atavistic, primordial spirit of the arid earth itself. Albuquerque, New Mexico’s Blue Heron are clear descendants of that lineage, and on their debut album Ephemeral, they bring the amplifier hum and swerving groove as if the desert itself compels them.
Mike Chavez’s guitar tone and riffing on album opener “Futurola” sizzles and shimmers like a thick pat of butter dropped onto a cast iron skillet. The double-tracked vocals provide some nice depth as well, mirroring the way the lead guitar sometimes snakes up out of the rhythm bed like a heat mirage rising off sun-baked asphalt. “Sayonara” stretches out into spacier territory across its 13-minute run time, particularly for about three minutes in the middle of the song where Steve Schmidlapp’s bass sketches out a spare, melodic frame against which a restrained, post-rock-leaning guitar lead and tom-heavy fills from Ricardo Sanchez fill in a muted psychedelia.
Throughout the album, Blue Heron hits an excellent balance between laidback, meditative grooves (like on “The Buck,” or instrumental interludes “Infiniton Field” and “Where One Went Together”) and heavier, more aggressive lunges (“Push the Sky,” “Futurola”). The blissed-out weight of these cruising jams will likely call to mind echoes of Kyuss, Sleep, and Acid King, but sometimes when they dabble in harsher vocals, you might be reminded of High On Fire’s Surrounded by Thieves (see in particular the opening of “Black Blood of the Earth,” with its cross-meter bass drum rolls).
Jadd Shickler’s vocals hit just the right spot throughout Ephemeral. They are generally folded in with the thick, enveloping grooves so they don’t become a distraction, yet they still provide enough stylistic variation and big moments to help shape a song’s narrative. Shickler goes from classic, John Garcia-esque singing to a more overtly grunge-inflected tone, and from harsher, sludge howling to hitting some higher notes not too far off from Yob’s Mike Scheidt.
If there’s one minor complaint about the album, it’s that it comes across as a bit front-loaded with the excellent opening tandem of “Futurola” and “Sayonara.” The rest of the album maintains a similar level of high quality, but those first twenty-ish minutes just shine a touch brighter. That said, album closer “Salvage” is an impeccable display of Blue Heron’s ability to fuse the two sides of their sound – the cloud-watching contemplation and the foot-to-the-floor driving – in one song, and it builds to a satisfying conclusion.
Desert rock, stoner metal, heavy psych – whatever you call the style, it can be easy to paint a caricature of it in your mind. Maybe you even make it out like a set of billboards apparently frozen in time, and you write it off as a peculiar time capsule, a curiosity gathering dust in the catalog of some nebbish acolyte. But the desert is not a monoculture, and neither is this music when it comes from a place of careful craft and deep affection. Sometimes you see the same thing in a different light and realize that it has changed almost imperceptibly (as have you). Blue Heron’s richly compelling music lives in that desert you have probably constructed in your mind, but it turns out that the desert has actually already shaped both them and you. The sands pool past the horizon, tracing a line that skirts eternity. This is a good place to be.