As of late, we slumbering Villagers have been drinking deep of the genres that tend to fall on the more extreme end of the spectrum. And, while there is certainly ample time and place for extremity, it's high time for this particular scribe to slip into something a little more comfortable. I crave the sweet embrace of dusty wind-swept fuzz, and, when I’m in this sultry mood, nothing does me right quite like top-shelf legends of the (then-emergent) scene.
I speak...not of Kyuss. But hear me out. Maybe I’m off my rocker, but I don’t think there are many longtime fans of stoner rock willing to state that Lowrider’s seminal Ode To Io isn’t, in fact, one of the greatest albums the genre has produced. A particularly notable designation, given the Swedish (rather than Californian) origin. While Kyuss may have opened the door, Lowrider swaggered over the threshold, shouldering a massive groove and a cut-to-the-chase approach to composition. In many ways, Ode To Io felt like it boiled stoner rock down to its basic essence: big attitude, bigger riffs. Every track on this classic feels essential in its own right, a massive step into fuzz-ridden stardom for the young band. But rather than providing Lowrider a launchpad, Ode To Io served as a trailblazer, allowing a bevy of other bands to come into their own. Lowrider have been around in the 20 years between then and now--a split or a remaster here, concert appearances there. But a proper followup effort was missing from the picture. And so here we are, history lesson complete, Refractions held tight in our white-knuckled grasp.
So, let’s get the big spoiler out of the way--and please excuse the hyperbole, ‘cuz it simply can’t be contained. I don’t know if it’s just this aforementioned mood I’ve found myself in, but Lowrider’s comeback is disgustingly worthy of the coveted “god-tier” label. If Ode to Io is a good album, Refractions absolutely blows it out of the fuckin’ water/sand. This is an album that establishes monolithic dominance not by slipping in through the back and slitting throats, gaining favor through gimmicks, but rather by tackling the challenge head-on. How does one produce 40-odd minutes of rumbling fuzz that somehow captures both the essence of the past and the essentiality of a modern mindset of genre convention? In Lowrider’s case: by simply doing it.
As a statement of rebirth and/or maturation, Refractions is--bear with me--like unto Lowrider's debut as Fury Road is to the Mad Max franchise. In other words, this effort doesn’t sound like it was written in the early days; far from it, in fact. The production, despite a hearty n’ healthy dose of fuzz, is pleasingly polished. The songwriting feels updated as well, with a greater emphasis on meandering passages and the psychedelic languidity that the teenaged Lowriders would eschew. Take, for example, the spacy outro on “Pipe Rider,” or the brief dips into cosmic waters apparent in the “Ode to Ganymede” solos--not to mention that sexy organ. The vocals have improved remarkably as well, with both Peder Bergstrand and Ola Hellquist delivering with the kind of quiet confidence born only from experience. Refractions also boasts a compelling shift in focus away from the almighty riffage and onto the bass and drums, both of which feel substantial and present. While we’re obviously here for the fuzz, it’s very nice indeed to immerse oneself in a band that feels equally balanced between (and cognizant of) its component parts. Andreas Eriksson’s performance at the kit is particularly deserving of attention--the level of percussive interest here is simply remarkable. I’d point you in the direction of “Ode to Ganymede” or “Sernanders Krog” as prime examples, but frankly the entire album’s dynamism is due in large to the impact of the drums.
Upon listening to the first few minutes of intro track “Red River,” one confronts the obvious: this album has hooks like you wouldn't believe. Big meaty Kyuss-ian riffs mix and meld with silky choruses aplenty. An untamed groove ebbs and flows, as does a distinctly hard rockin’ momentum. And, no matter how monolithic that fuzz remains, an underlying melody persists, breathing a life into the Lowrider mold. While each track has a distinct identity, everything here fits by benefit of maintaining this model. Rather than existing on the basis of explosivity and grit, Refractions is lush and vibrant--almost gleefully so. Beyond the established sense of dynamics, there exists a delicate and deliberate balance between the undulating riffs and the more tranquil moments. When they want to, Lowrider offer a crushing pugilism that, frankly, dominates their heavyweight performance on Ode to Io. But, as a whole, they are less purely bombastic, choosing instead to write riffs that evolve and mutate. As a result, little here feels stale or overwrought. This, even in the case of a tracklist that only once ventures into sub-5 minute territory (and even then, only on the instrumental "Sun Devil / M87* by a measly 4 seconds). And, while Refractions is littered with little moments where the boys are clearly just having a little fun, they know how to avoid going full psych-rock by tastefully reining in the more experimental elements. Restraint looks good on Lowrider.
Refractions is everything I hoped it would be, and far, far more. Dormancy be damned; this is a brilliant return to the fold. Lowrider have successfully projected themselves as a force with which to be reckoned--and in the modern stoner rock arena, that is an accomplishment unto itself. Beyond mere preservation of legacy, however, they have created an album that truly embodies the spirit of the genre. I have listened to Refractions a great deal over the past weeks, and sincerely believe I’ll be listening to it through the remainder of the year with sustained gusto. While I don’t believe in the notion of instant classics--longevity must be proven, not bestowed--Refractions has all the hallmarks of those most memorable stoner rock releases. Long story short? This may be the first truly great album of 2020, and, as such, comes highly recommended.
Lowrider - Refractions will be released Feb. 21st from Blues Funeral Recordings
Providing thoughtful reviews of music that is heavy, gloomy, and loud enough to wake us from slumber. Written by a groggy-eyed, highfalutin peasantry.