Metal puts a lot of stock into geography. We’re always ready to slap a locale on as a label or adjective to canonize a sound or cadre of bands: Florida death metal or British heavy metal. We hear unique or new sounds and root them into environmental mythologies, like the leaden air of Birmingham in the United Kingdom or the rawness of 1970’s New York City. At the very least we do it for the sake of having a shorthand reference at the ready, like Gothenburg death metal or New England hardcore. It’s reductive but I think there’s something to it. There is so much sweat equity that goes into building up and sustaining a scene that having that kind of recognition becomes its own reward, and even more so when you can graduate a group of local heroes to bigger stages to evangelize all that hard work and lean living.
Imagine how it must feel when against all odds your homegrown idiosyncrasies and musical dialects become almost a state of mind? Case in point, this past week is an almost homecoming for me, even though the connection to this “home” stretches the very definition of tenuous. But who says home has to be a time and a place? This week we’re tearing up asphalt with Deadly Vipers, the sun-kissed southern French foursome hailing from Perpignan, as we ride their sophomore album Low City Drone as far into the desert as eight roaring tracks can get us. Released this past September through Fuzzorama Records, Low City Drone guzzles the classic Palm Desert sound for fuel and rips out the same monstrous riffs and big, fuzzy blues progressions that have captivated audiences since Kyuss made its way out of southern California.
So how does Deadly Vipers stack up to this perpetual diaspora of desert sound? With tight rhythms and grooves, vocals that are simultaneously gritty and soaring, and delectable guitar and bass tones, the answer is a confident “very well”. All the vital ingredients are here and presented in the highest quality. The band successfully carves out its own niche without alienating or trivializing any core tenets of their influences and delivers both what you want and expect as well as some unexpected flourishes. Deadly Vipers tack towards a graver tone than the norm, which speaks to the album’s themes of dystopia and defiance. The band’s occasional use of synthesizers is also slightly unorthodox, but their inclusion never becomes extravagant and is a welcome addition whenever they push to the top of the mix. Considered as a whole, nothing Deadly Vipers does on Low City Drone is so unique that desert rock’s boundaries get wiped away or even pushed a little bit.
This last aspect, “sameness” or “cookie-cutter” if you want to be derogative about it, is something that’s turned me off of an album or band before. I have metaphorically docked points for albums that have felt like dispirited copies of existing blueprints. But in the case of Deadly Vipers, I think this adherence becomes a strength. For one, the album’s production quality and all the recording performances are proof that nothing was half-assed here. But also, the blueprint that Deadly Vipers is following is so much an amalgam of specific influences and elements that calcification has already been achieved. Unlike other veins of metal that vacuum up and blend any dissimilar styles that aren’t welded and nailed down, desert rock can’t support anything wildly different lest everything fall apart. On the other hand, emphasizing any one existing aspect too much knocks the existing balance off, making the whole thing less than the sum of its parts. Desert rock’s aura is a fragile thing, and the Palm Desert scene is so revered and emulated because it was such a lightning moment that has been trapped in amber through enthusiastic adoption worldwide.
I’m not the sharpest lightbulb in the toolbox, so maybe there are more similarities between the southern California desert and the south of France than I realize. But even if the mileage between the two is their closest connection, the irony that the vast and empty landscape which serves as Deadly Viper’s inspiration is not big enough for all its acolytes is very real. Take it from the kid who grew up in a veritable rainforest while cutting his teeth on the same stuff that influenced this album and playing out with folks who had played with some of the OGs: the reach and love for desert rock in all corners is indomitable. Any measure of success, therefore, must consider how close Deadly Vipers sounds like they’ve been living near Joshua Tree without straight up pilfering from the big-name acts. I think they nail it, and anyone with an affinity for big, fuzzy guitars is likely to eat it up and ask for seconds. I would bet that even some folks who have reach terminal fuzz are liable to perk up a bit on a listen. Regardless, Low City Drone feels like Deadly Vipers have made their home here.
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