Big Scenic Nowhere – Vision Beyond Horizon Review

I don’t think of desert rock as an especially active genre when it comes to innovation. Brant Bjork God knows it can be self referential to a fault, conjuring with each release the same core components of fuzzy, jammy riffs, psychedelic woo woo vibes, earth tones and a gritty dryness worthy of the California landscape that hatched it. The creative peak that launched its best known bands is easily a few decades in the rearview mirror, yet this old conversion van keeps driving the same dusty highways, pot smoke and 70’s rock worship rolling out it’s open windows. Done right, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Who doesn’t like to kick back in a sweat lodge, put on some thick riffs and hallucinate a talking coyote telling you in Johnny Cash’s voice to find your soul mate?1 Big Scenic Nowhere is a stoner/desert rock entity that promises something new under the blistering sun: a collaboration between Gary Arce of Yawning Man and Bob Balch of Fu Manchu, two longtime scene mainstays. So does their first full-length Vision Beyond Horizon bring a fresh rain to this parched genre?

If you’re familiar with Arce and Balch’s other bands, you’ll hear snatches of them on Vision Beyond Horizon, although the composite feels quite different from either. This is not nearly as gritty as Fu Manchu, and not quite as trippy as Yawning Man. In fact, large swaths of it remind me strongly of 90’s alternative rock and early 00’s indie with stoner riffs crashing the almost radio friendly party. Opener “The Glim” features one of those fuzzed out riffs, but moments of softer instrumentation and the clean vocal delivery results in a song that would snuggly fit into a Black Keys album. Desert rock has always been more metal-adjacent than metal, and Big Scenic Nowhere’s connection seems even more tenuous, with downright gentle tracks like “En Las Sombras” and “Tragic Motion Lines.” There is, however, one glaringly aggressive aberration on Vision Beyond Horizon, which I’ll address momentarily.

“The Glim” is a decent song and ultimately a good indication of what the album holds later on, but the front half of Vision Beyond Horizon is incredibly spotty. It’s low point is “Mirror Image,” with its lurching, repetitive groove, barely harmonized vocals and laconic talk-shout choruses. Thankfully it’s followed by the album’s highlight. “Hidden Wall” is the seven minute album centerpiece that is everything a combination of the two principle musicians should be. It starts with the soft psychedelia of Yawning Man, including tasteful synths provided by former Opeth keyboardist Per Wiberg—one of many guest collaborators—before a slow build pays off in a full-throated Fu Manchu riff and solo. It’s the kind of track that can put you in a trance, and it’s followed by a more consistent second half, including “Tragic Motion Lines,” which follows a similar template as “Hidden Wall” to affecting results.

But no cohesion late in the album can smooth over the sudden punch to the throat that is “The Paranoid.” There has always been punk influence in desert rock, but this isn’t “influence.” This is a straight up, curled lip punk rawk song that comes out of Big Scenic nowhere right after the opening track. It’s so jarring and unexpected, I thought I’d shuffled into a different album the first time I heard it. If you’re familiar with the gleefully violent 80’s British sitcom The Young Ones, it’s like most of Vision Beyond Horizon is pot loving hippie Neil, trundling loose-limbed around the kitchen, while “The Paranoid” is Vivian blasting through the set wall like an anarchic Kool-Aid Man, a foot from an open doorway, screaming at Neil to shut up and throwing a molotov cocktail onto the stove where the poor hippie was cooking a lovely pot of lentils. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a GOOD punk song—it’s passable—it doesn’t fit the rest of the album’s aesthetic at all.

Vision Beyond Horizon is an uneven album that nonetheless has its charms. With Big Scenic Nowhere, Arce and Balch sound every bit the grizzled scene vets they are, but haven’t quite found what this collaboration wants to be yet. Still, when you compile your stoner rock playlist, there are a few songs here you could definitely consider. Just don’t put “The Paranoid” on there unless you want to give your future high self a jump scare.

Rating: 2.5/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Heavy Psych Sounds
Releases Worldwide: January 31st, 2020

Show 1 footnote

  1. This really happened to me. – Steel
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