The desert is the antipode of the Garden of Eden, an inversion of paradise—it is where we exist at our most adrift, having wandered away from everything and everyone we know. It is as barren as our lost souls.
As we desert dwellers know, however, the desert is not a cruel and unforgiving wasteland, home to nothing but death and despair. There is profound beauty that lies at the heart of it; there is life. This is true symbolically, as well; it is only in the barren chaos of the desert (and of ourselves), abandoned by all but the immensity of creation, that we can interact purely between ourselves and some divine power.
Most potently, in a religious sense, the desert is the cradle of the devil; it is the place where his seductions hold the most allure, where we may be the most tantalized by his temptations. It is only in the desert that we might find and confront the devil—and only there where we may either succumb to his charms or vanquish his deceit.
‘Desert rock,’ on the other hand, is not rooted in any sort of religious symbolism, but in the experience of the desert. Driven by the danger and desolation of the desert, it is simultaneously repetitive and unpredictable. It is the psychedelic, spaced-out sound of windswept plains, tinged with the surreal shades of heat-induced delirium.
On their latest full-length release, aptly named The Devil and the Desert, local rockers Red Mesa—impelled and empowered by the tenacious Brad Frye—merge these symbolic and somatic conceptions to lead their listeners on an intensely intimate journey into the heart of the spiritual desert. The result is a cohesive, cathartic creation that speaks both to the despair that can lead one into the heart of the desert—and the answers one might find there.
Over the course of 7 tracks and 38 minutes, The Devil and the Desert constantly evolves its musical and lyrical themes. Opening track “Devil Come Out to Play” is a bleary plea for escape from this world, its gentle bluesy twang betrayed by a sense of mounting desperation.
The song’s urgency is satisfied by “The Devil’s Coming Round,” whose acoustic tranquility dissolves into heavy distortion as the devil emerges in all his infernal glory, Frye’s vocals warping into a perverse rasp to snarl, “The chains around your neck/Can be removed easily/You can leave anytime you please/But stay with me forever.” Suddenly, speaker and listener alike are devoured by the devil, thrust into a freaky phantasmic adventure that blurs the lines between the grotesque, the surreal, and the corporal.
“Springtime in the Desert” is a gripping instrumental tribute to the fulfillment of satisfying desire; as the name suggests, it is the sound of the desert at its finest hour, standing in peaceful serenity. It is the sound of blissful ignorance, of action without reaction—the calm before the storm.
With its introduction of psychedelic elements into the mix, “Desert Sol” serves as an inflection between sides A and B of the album; while not delving into heavier territory—yet— the song insinuates impending danger, the usually-optimistic promise that “the sun will rise” instead seeming to be a prophetic threat in the torrid desert landscape.
The second half to the album strays from its soothing, almost serene origins to delve into progressively heavy and psychedelic material; the raging riff that storms through “Sacred Datura” is based in the diminished fifth—a sinister, unsettling tritone once infamous for being the “devil’s interval”—and that insidious power flows through the track. Frye’s vocals follow this sonic trail of sludge and grit, distorted nearly to the point of possession as he marches further into the desert’s heart.
This half of the album feels less controlled, more erratic, more explosive; there is a distinct unpredictability between songs, even within individual track, that signals a deep cognitive dissonance. All narrative semblance disintegrates into discord and disruption, absorbed and enveloped by the tormented sonic vortex.
The volatile, ambitious odyssey culminates in the epic titular track, a 10-minute long swirl of grungy grooves, pounding riffs and guttural aggression. The track is an immaculate incarnation of the album and of the desert itself: equally spacious and heavy, repetitive and expansive, severe yet beautiful. Frye’s vocals fade ominously into the murky atmosphere, warping into a freaky incantation: “Into the desert I go/Into the desert I go/To lose my mind/And find my soul.”
The Devil and the Desert is a harrowing, yet hopeful, voyage into a desolate world of self-destruction and existential confusion. It hovers at the intersection of the spiritual and the somatic, profoundly using the desert as a metaphorical arena where one may confront and explore their vices and pernicious tendencies.
When we feel forsaken and forlorn, exiled like dejected and dismal rejects to our own personal hells, it is easy to believe that the only comfort we have left is the devil; after all, the desert we find ourselves in is his home. This album powerfully reminds us that the very same desert is the home to great truth and spectacular revelation; that only within that desert might we might defeat the devil that lies—sometimes dormant, sometimes raging—in each of us.
Red Mesa will be hosting a vinyl release show for The Devil and the Desert tomorrow night, June 15, at the Launchpad (618 Central Ave SW) from 8pm-12:30am. Join them to celebrate this conceptual triumph and subsume yourself into their groovy, gritty world.