They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Well, this basic concept applies to dubious band names not always being indicative of the quality of the said band. And to throw a big goddamn spanner in the works as list season heats up, I recently came across the sophomore album from Nashville’s oddly named Laser Flames on the Great Big News. The term retro metal/rock gets bandied around a lot, due to the over-saturation of bands mining the freewheeling creativity of ’70s rock to varying degrees of success and very little originality. Lumping Laser Flames under the retro label would be a great disservice to the creativity and inventiveness the band conjures throughout the epic stoner odyssey of this self-titled release.
Cherry picking from stoner, doom, prog, classic rock, and sludge, without ever sounding forced, Laser Flames take the listener on an epic journey through psychedelically-tinged soundscapes, progressive gateways and brawny rock pastures, punctuated by seething bursts of metal. Impeccable musicianship, irresistible hooks, unpredictable twists, and complex arrangements set the platform for the quartet to shine. The mostly lengthy compositions are so well written and arranged that they seemingly fly by in half the time. Tasteful use of keys and the occasional banjo and violin serve to accentuate and flesh out songs driven by the engaging, groove-laden rhythm section and propelled to dizzying heights by the wonderful guitar dueling and vocal harmonies of Stephanie “Stevie” Bailey and John Judkins (Rwake). As a vocal/guitar combo, the duo share a unique chemistry and oodles of talent, making their presence felt and complimenting each other perfectly.
Following a short but vibrant intro, the bluesy rock of “31” kicks into life, finding the band at their most concise. It’s a strong primer for the more sprawling material to follow, showcasing the band’s gritty edge, Judkins’ smooth vocal hooks, and Bailey’s silky harmonizing. The song bounces roughly atop a catchy and groovy stoner rock base, sinking its hooks in deep. It proves only the tip of the iceberg, as the meat of the album features the band’s more adventurous, emotionally resonating and soulful moments, cushioned by proggy trips that never succumb to self-indulgence or aimless meandering. “Lashes” is a heartfelt slice of songwriting brilliance, led by the gritty, power and emotion-packed vocals of Bailey. The terrific, multi-faceted song structure finds Laser Flames expertly whipping their genre influences into an intoxicating brew with some truly touching softer passages, ripping guitar harmonies, and affecting melodies. Bailey’s vocals are wonderfully emotive and expressive, regardless of the diverse singing modes she switches between, often gliding from belting melodic lines to bluesy howls, fragile croons, and heavier vocal turns.
Laser Flames is an unpredictable force and just when you think you have the band pinned, they throw a big fucking curveball that fails to shatter the album’s overall cohesion. The dark and doomy “Open, Dead and Doomed” features a much heavier vocal and musical turn, demonstrating their metallic muscle and versatility. Scraping, dissonant guitar work, progressive flourishes, and hefty rock surges give way to a bruising climax of noisy blackened metal and a tortured multi-pronged vocal attack, featuring a guest turn by Steve Austin (Today is the Day). It’s a thoroughly gripping, nearly nine-minute beast, with elements that shouldn’t fit together but somehow do. “Beloved” is an equally powerful, hooky and dynamic number, loaded with memorable riffs, killer vocal harmonies and a gorgeous melancholic mid-section, bolstered by crunchy stoner rock riffage and heavy bouts of nasty sludge.
Laser Flames on the Great Big News are a cut above the retro pack, transcending their influences to forge something special, versatile and unique, not to be missed for aficionados of ’70s rock, prog and virtually every genre residing under the stoner/doom umbrella. Fans of bands like Jess and the Ancient Ones, Royal Thunder, Messa, Queens of the Stone Age, Masters of Reality and Sabbath Assembly should find plenty to love here.
Tracks to Check Out: “Lashes,” “Open, Dead & Doomed,” and “Beloved”