[5 September 2013]
What is in a band’s name? Does a name hold all the power or is a name only a way of branding the collective will of the musicians involved? According to Queens of the Stone Age’s leader Josh Homme, a band’s name holds plenty of power (and money), as he and bassist Scott Reeder slapped a federal lawsuit across the faces of their former Kyuss band-mates—John Garcia (vocals), Brant Bjork (drums) and Nick Oliveri (bass)—in 2012 for hitting the touring circuit and festivals under the guise of Kyuss Lives! The “trademark infringement and consumer fraud” lawsuit resulted in the remaining three sons of Kyuss changing the band’s name in order to record new material together, and so the odd moniker Vista Chino was born. But when a band is comprised of musicians that played a significant role in one of the most important rock bands of the past 20 years, the name under which they create music is completely irrelevant: You can label the band what you like but the spirit and the chemistry lives on…or so you would hope.
Back in the ‘90s there was no other band that could touch Kyuss. Blues For the Red Sun and Welcome to Sky Valley took the sounds of Sabbath from the gloom of Birmingham to bake in the desert heat of California and by doing so, Kyuss and their producer Chris Goss’s band, Masters of Reality, pretty much invented the “stoner rock” scene that followed. Kyuss’s legend has grown exponentially since their break-up—as is the case with a lot of bands—and they are more revered now than they were when they were inspiring bands the magnitude of Metallica, who tried and failed at mimicking Kyuss on their limp Load and Reload albums. And even though Homme has constantly dismissed the possibility of his inclusion in such a reunion over the years, Kyuss fans the world over still hold their breath in hope of a reformation of the original line-up. Mercifully, those short of air can stop from turning blue because Vista Chino’s debut, Peace, is upon us and it is as close to a new Kyuss album as we are likely to get from the past members of the band—especially considering Oliveri left and has been replaced by Corrosion of Conformity’s Mike Dean, who contributed to the album.
What folks tend to forget when it comes to Kyuss’s history is that Brant Bjork was as much of a creative force as Homme. In fact, it was the butting of heads between these two personalities over what direction to take Kyuss that caused Bjork’s departure from the band after ...Sky Valley. So, what you hear on Peace may be in-line with the vision Bjork had for Kyuss before he left. In the past, Bjork’s drumming was such a wild affair; his Bill Ward-esque jazz swing and cascading fills were unstoppable. Bjork favours a mellower approach for Peace and as a result, Vista Chino’s sound is rhythmically loose and more laid back than Kyuss, who, amongst strains of psychedelia, loved to increase the temperature of the music to boiling point (“100 Degrees”) as well as channel the power of the elements (“Whitewater”). This relaxed vibe is a double-edged sword, however. It proves to be charming trait of songs like the blissfully up-beat “Adara” and the instantaneously catchy “Barcelonian”, yet the sprawling yawn of “Acidize - The Gambling Moose” fails to release the lysergic effect expected and there is a persistent longing throughout Peace for Vista Chino to really put the boot down at least once and drive full throttle; most frustratingly during the first half of “Planets 1 & 2”, which sounds like Kyuss’s “Green Machine” without the required injection of high octane.
Filling the sizeable shoes of Homme is guitarist and long-time Kyuss fan Bruno Fevery, who prior to playing with Kyuss Lives! was a relative unknown. Fevery does an admirable job at aping the characteristics of Homme’s guitar playing: the growling, bass-heavy guitar riffs (“Dargona Dragona”, “Sweet Remain”); the short bursts of sun-kissed solos that Homme utilized to great effect on Queens’ first two albums (Dargona Dragona”, “Planets 1 & 2”); and the same understanding of quiet/loud dynamics (“Dark and Lovely”). And although Fevery’s playing rarely shows hints of his own personality save for the odd flicker, he carries the songs along with a respect for those who have riffed before him and this re-interpretation is what was needed for Vista Chino’s debut. Unsurprisingly however, the main draw of Peace happens to be John Garcia’s memorable melodies transmitted through his leathery, Southern drawl; a voice that belongs to him and him alone. Garcia’s catchy vocal refrains burn deep into “Adara” and “Barcelonian” and his delivery greatly compliments the serpentine guitar leads and the sultry swing of the bass and drums of “As You Wish”. And it is during these three songs—as well as the Kyuss-worthy “Dargona Dragona”—that Fevery, Bjork, Oliveri/Dean and Garcia play with real purpose and show the song-writing skills expected of well-seasoned musicians with years of experience.
When Kyuss fans first step up to give Peace a whirl, there may be an immediate itch that rises to throw on Blues… or ...Sky Valley and relive the personal memories that are engraved into each fuzzy guitar lick, rolling groove and red-hot vocal. Turning Peace off to scratch this itch is understandable and not a negative slight at what Vista Chino have created here, as once you satisfy this urge, intrigue will cause you to return to Peace and with each spin this album slowly begins to speak and reveal its own personality. What will then become apparent is that Vista Chino have written an album that holds Kyuss close to its heart yet has memorable songs of its own and therefore avoids the pitfall of sounding like a pale imitation of the band members’s past glories (ahem… Sabbath). But in saying that, because of the past achievements of Chino’s players, the impression that this talented line-up can do even better than the 10 songs (two of which are rather disposable instrumentals) they gift us here lingers on. The band sounds like they are holding back to some degree and should they continue to make further music together—and let’s hope they do—there is potential for a classic album under the name Vista Chino. For now, the spirit of Kyuss lives on through Peace, even though it doesn’t shine as bright as it used to—or should.