RED MESA – Partial Distortions

Red Mesa’s second album ‘The Path To The Deathless’ brought the world a selection of finely crafted riffs during the pandemic lockdown of 2020. At the album’s most melodic, tracks like ‘Death I Am’ injected an extra spookiness into a classic desert rock backdrop; at its most groove laden, Red Mesa blended the driving elements of early Sabbath’s faster offerings with an extra layer of fuzz that looked back to classic Corrosion of Conformity, and when occasionally stretching for heavier sounds, their slow and oppressive riffs showed a love for the mighty Electric Wizard. In terms of taking a bunch of key influences and chucking them into a giant stoner metal stew, it was the kind of album that genre fans would love.

This follow up – arriving four years later – pretty much follows the same formula, but as the old saying goes, you can’t fix what ain’t broke. It is, perhaps, a touch heavier in a couple of places – something noticeable on the opening number – but Red Mesa certainly have an approach to riffs than can easily sustain a little extra weight. In the main, what you’ll find here is good, honest stoner and doom, peppered with the occasionally abrasive vocal and a couple of welcome detours into the fuzzy and strung out. By pulling from all of the best stoner and desert-based musical touchstones, the record’s six tracks create a very complete listening experience.

The six minute riff-fest ‘Óðr’ re-introduces the band in style, by delivering a mid tempo riff that blends a doomy approach with a harder edge drawing more from hardcore, but in doing so, gives an already familiar arrangement an extra edge. In keeping with the sharper sound, Brad Frye’s lead vocals take on a slightly more abrasive tone than before – and in comparison to your average stoner metal act – but his tones aren’t at all misjudged. His slight growl fits brilliantly with the chugging edge of his guitar throughout, especially during a heavier hook when the repeated refrain of “close your eyes” introduces more of the band’s “blackened” edge to a desert/stoner sound. Although it sounds as if Frye’s sheer volume dominates on all fronts, the rhythm section also put in some hard yards throughout. Roman Barham’s snare adds a very hard edge, but his playing really brings a pleasingly forceful sound when the band eventually speed up for an instrumental section which features him smashing the cymbals in a manner that’s reminiscent of Brant Bjork on the Kyuss debut ‘Wretch’, and when everything slows to a doomy crawl overlaid with more of a desert rock tone, his toms add a great sound. Once the band opts for pure sludge, introducing a black metal rasp of a vocal, the listener also gets to hear a brilliantly distorted bass from Alex Cantwell boosting the heaviness. Finally, with Frye adding a howling lead guitar, this eventually becomes a slightly frightening opener that packs all of the band’s main musical interests into one intense hit.

It’s hard to resist a stoner metal track called ‘12 Volt Shaman’ and, thankfully, this lives up to its rather macho title with a Sabbath-esque groove used brilliantly as an intro, before everything descends into a tom-heavy slab of desert rock for the verse, where a near-spoken vocal is overlaid by a cold layer of guitar. Bringing back the more melodic riff for the chorus, Red Mesa offer a great mix of heaviness and accessibility, before the track cranks the heaviness a little more to introduce a few sludgy tones that would make the Melvins proud. At the point where you think this number will merely recycle that until its job is considered complete – which would have been great, obviously – this weighty trio take a dog-leg into some massive sounding desert rock where a muscular sounding lead bass weaves a huge melody and Frye’s distorted guitar shares a lengthy, bluesy solo. This is peak Red Mesa. It might rely heavily on a tried and tested sound, but with Alex and Brad clearly relishing a moment to lose themselves in the fuzzy jam, it actually gives the album one of its stronger melodies.

‘Desert March’, meanwhile, clings onto the desert vibe with an even greater intent when a reverbed guitar shares a melodic riff atop a tribal drum groove. With a repetitive riff allowing for increased heaviness and the mid tempo approach allowing for a more complex bassline, the instrumental number quickly introduces many of its strongest traits, but in true Mesa style, there’s a little more on offer. Its heavier moments blend a classic stoner tone with a groove metal rhythm, and eventually, the band gives into their baser instincts and launches into a noisy jam that sounds like an old Sabbath track played back through broken speakers, whilst Roman attacks the snares as if he’s in a black metal act. Rounding out everything with a heavier take on the groove riff and a funeral bell, it feels as if a lot has been wedged into just five minutes. This is, perhaps, a great entry point for first time listeners, and in terms of pure musicianship it’s a genuine treat.

For pure doom, ‘The Assertion’ reaches peak darkness via a slow and heavy approach that sounds as if the band have overdosed on classic Electric Wizard. The mix of deep guitar sounds and heavy drums that power some of the instrumental sections feel interchangable with a number of other doom bands, but Red Mesa aim to mix things up just a little by layering everything with a sheet of drone/black metal noise making this their own. Elsewhere, it’s business as usual, genre wise, with a brilliantly heavy riff that sounds like a number of other classic stoner metal jams, even though a devastatingly deep bass riff attempts to bring back a touch more of the hardcore influence from the opener. With some superb music laid down, its also great to hear Brad trading in his gruffer sound for a more tuneful, almost trad metal vocal which owes more to the likes of John Garcia and Chris Cornell. Overall, this is another weighty tune which is a near perfect showcase for the Red Mesa sound, and an album highlight.

Given how well rounded ‘The Assertion’ feels, ‘Dying In The Cold Sun’ is a little harder going by comparison. It opens with a cold and abrasive guitar part that’s more of a melodic black metal/intense shoegaze sound, and that’s then used to drive a mid tempo arrangement where the band veer closer towards a sludge metal riff. With the really slow and confronting music joined by a throat-caning roar throughout, the band aren’t playing safely on this track at all; if anything, they’re taking their doomier intents into much colder places, channelling the likes of Conan and hoping for the best. It actually results in the album’s weakest track – making it a strange choice for pre-release single – and it’s only really saved by a more melodic middle eight where the trio revert to more of a traditional stoner groove for some great instrumental work. It’s safe to say that ‘Dying…’ is a track for the more committed fan, due to it bringing in more of a black metal undertone, but thankfully, the album’s final offering, ‘Witching Hour’, drops into some of the best doom this time out, with Alex increasing the bass distortion and Brad delivering a severely downtuned guitar throughout. The heavy moments are moulded on the genre’s more obvious tropes, but with the help of a gothy groove, a dual vocal and a pleasing amount of sludge, it catches the ear very quickly. Also, with a hardcore edge applied to the chorus and a very slow riff used to bulk out the middle of the track, it reinforces Red Mesa’s pure commitment to heaviness, before a distorted interlude reminds everyone that the band are capable of some impressive, semi-melodic desert vibes. A near eight minute onslaught of varied riffs, this combination of cold and heavy sounds gives the band the perfect way to bow out.

This is largely great. It’s everything you’d hope a doom-centric stoner album would be. Aside from ‘Dying In The Cold Sun’, it never thinks too far outside of the box, purely because it doesn’t need to. Its main aim is to bring genre fans “the heavy”, and occasionally mix that with the deeply trippy, and on that score – much like a strung out Orange Goblin fighting against a heavy blues band and a bit of goading from Buzz Osborne – ‘Partial Distortions’ scores very highly indeed. With very little filler to be found within thirty seven minutes and the end result being slightly superior to their previous outings, these Albuquerque-ian heavyweights can take an even more assured place within the massive fraternity of devastating riff-makers.

April 2024

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