Instead of running from the shadow of Kyuss, Hermano's third album settles right down and enjoys the shade.
While Josh Homme and (for a while there, anyway) Nick Oliveri have used the style of their old band, groundbreaking stoner rock outfit Kyuss, as a launching pad for more adventurous musical endeavors with Queens of the Stone Age, when it comes to their two former bandmates, though they're not exactly haunted by the shadow of Kyuss's early '90s legacy, they're not making any concerted efforts to escape it, either. Brant Bjork has gone on to have a rather healthy career since the band split, first contributing his inimitable drumming style to such bands as Fu Manchu and Oliveri's Mondo Generator, and ultimately singing and playing guitar for his likeable, Latin-infused stoner rock outift Brant Bjork and the Bros. As for singer John Garcia, although he's never disappeared, his musical projects have been considerably more sporadic. His most consistent work has been with Hermano, a side project he formed in 1998 with a bunch of fellow stoner rock veterans. In spite of its loosey-goosey approach, the band has started to gel in recent years, and Hermano's third album, …Into the Exam Room, doggedly tries to continue the Kyuss "desert rock" tradition while incorporating more variety, with mixed but mostly enjoyable results.
Unlike the huge majority of stoner rock records, which tend to maintain the same vibe throughout (compelling fans to declare it consistent while detractors simply call it boring), …Into the Exam Room is a decidedly schizophrenic affair. While much of the credit goes to Garcia, who turns in a dazzlingly versatile vocal performance that ranges from searing screams, to lower-register crooning, to an audacious falsetto, the arrangements of the songs themselves are often all over the map as well. Take opening cut "Kentucky", for instance. Starting with a tetchy Queens of the Stone Age-style opening riff, the song then launches into a terrific blooze rock groove reminiscent of classic Clutch, only to be suddenly interrupted by a flamboyant Garcia vocal overdub, the central riff inexplicably fading in a few seconds later. As the song collapses under its own weight a couple minutes later, a lone guitar facetiously playing the "Dueling Banjos" lick from Deliverance (not exactly the most original gag), it's enough to make one wonder if these guys can pull themselves together for an entire album after such a haphazardly arranged track.
Thankfully, they right themselves pretty damn quickly. The funk-fueled stomp of "Exam Room" underscores Garcia's flamboyant falsetto perfectly (it's easy to forget how he can trounce Homme in the vocal department so effortlessly), while the 6/8 swagger of "Left Side Bleeding" is more cock rock than stoner rock, Garcia emitting the kind of confident snarl few singers this side of Sebastian Bach are capable of. "Out of Key, But in the Mood" and "Hard Working Wall" both fly a little too close to Kyuss's red sun, but "Adoption Boy" is inspired, an uptempo chugger again dominated by Garcia's charismatic delivery, this time awash in distortion and delay effects, further enhancing the song's hallucinogenic vibe.
Although Hermano is far better when they're plugged in, the band rolls out several acoustic numbers for a deliberate change of pace. "At the Bar" is on the tepid side, hamming up the done-to-death barfly cliché. "Dark Horse" attempts to project a murky blues vibe, but it comes off sounding as trite as so many '80s pop metal bands sounded when they tried a similar stunt to give their music "authenticity". Much more effective is the darkly shuffling "Bona-Fide", a distorted slide guitar solo contributing to the song's ominous atmosphere.
For all its weaknesses, they're relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, as …Into the Exam Room manages to hold itself together just long enough to maintain our interest throughout. Sure, Garcia and Hermano tread familiar territory, but when it's done this confidently, it's very easy to forgive. Besides, would we actually want John Garcia to give us anything but good, solid desert rock? As one song goes, "Our desert home is all he knows".