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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

The ultra-heavy psych-rock music scene that is associated with our California desert took root in the mid-’80s. The music of bands like Fatso Jetson, Kyuss, Throw Rag and Unsound helped shape the budding underground local music scene; today, a slew of aspiring musicians are borrowing from punk, acid rock, grunge and metal-new sounds.

Today, type “stoner rock sub-genres” into your computer’s search engine, and a dozen varieties will come up. Black metal, doom, sludge, psych (combined with any other genre, i.e. psych-rock, psycho-billy, psycho-punk), fuzzrock, spacerock, grunge and old-school metal seem to have knocked speed metal and death metal off of the list … or were they perhaps selected by Mother Nature for extinction and rebirth?

The Mojave Desert has been a breeding ground for original hard rock and provides an environment that is ripe for exploring the darker, less-conventional forms of musical expression. In the ’90s, Zach and Erica Huskey’s band Dali’s Llama was one of the few “desert rock bands” that was all about the doom. Dali’s Llama’s sound was thick as pea soup, expressed through deep-droning, drop-tuned, fuzzy guitar riffs and fueled by thick, heavy rhythmic structures that warbled the mind.

Today, the desert is teeming with stoner-rock bands. But the high desert, only 25 miles away, has a very different vibe than the low dez. There are far more hippies and indie bands up there making feel-good music—some of it so sweet you can gag on it.

Then there’s Atala.

Atala reunites Rise of the Willing bassist John Chavarria (Sons of Serro, A’rk) and guitarist Kyle Stratton, and introduces drummer Jeff Tedtaotao (Forever Came Calling). The band formed in early 2013, when Stratton set out to create his own unique style of ultra-heavy desert rock while applying his “off-grid” lifestyle to the music, allowing it to flow from the source—the universal energy pool.

He didn’t want to overthink the music, nor did he want to focus on how heavy it was. He kept his testosterone in check and explored his instrument, dialed in his signature sound and began writing his ass off. Using his guitar, a couple of expression pedals and a wall of 100-watt amplifiers, he wrote Atala’s self-titled debut album and then enlisted the help of producer/bassist Scott Reeder, who carved out a name for himself with Kyuss, The Obsessed, Goatsnake, Nebula, Fireball Ministry and his current project, Sun and Sail Club.

Shaman’s Path of the Serpent will be Atala’s second record, and is slated for release in May 2016. The members left the desert and recorded at Cloud City Studio, this time working with Billy Anderson, who has produced records for Mr. Bungle, Sleep and The Melvins. Four new mind-bending tracks are saturated with wicked guitar riffs that are angular and disjointed, fueled by a thunderous rhythm section that moves and breathes together as one, while monotone vocals deliver lyrical contemplations of life after death. It’s an intoxicating super-sludge sound bath.

“Musically, we were drawn more to heavier influences, which evoked a darker side of our music,” Stratton said. “Lyrically, the album is about a path through death to a new awakening—which is dying spiritually to a rebirth that is free of fear.”

It seems Stratton truly was tapping into the universal energy pool.

“It’s interesting how I wrote an album about a shaman’s path through death to a new awakening, and then upon arrival home, I fell ill and had a near-death experience. Then my body was taken apart and put back together, and I am only now nearly healed. It’s crazy that I could accidentally manifest such an experience. I have to be careful with the power of the mind and its ability to create.”

Watch the band’s website (atalarock.com) and Facebook page (facebook.com/ataladesertrock) about upcoming shows.

Read more from Robin Linn, including an expanded version of this story, at www.desertrockchronicles.com.

Kyle Stratton, the brains behind the band Atala, is a man with bold, straightforward views on politics, the state of the human condition, the economic and social climate of today’s America—and his right to pursue art and music on his own terms.

His diversity stems from adversity, and he expresses himself through multiple mediums, answering only to himself. He seems to vibrate at a frequency that penetrates the middle earth—he’s a true lover of the underground as a painter, a tattoo artist, guitarist and a psych-rock composer. He visits dark places and creates twisted spaces that are oddly welcoming. Once you enter his headspace, you’ll realize he is a master at fusing the dark and the light. Using spray-paint cans and canvas, double-stacks and single notes, he sends out shockwaves as he explores cosmic meltdowns that produce paradoxes. He has a beautiful way of taking simple ideas to complex places.

His American Art and Tattoo Studio in Twentynine Palmsis an amazing place where Kyle and other desert artists showcase their original art; it is also where he operates his thriving tattoo business. Inside, it feels as if you’ve swallowed a little pill and fallen down the rabbit hole: The walls are alive with texture, vines, plants, speaking eyeballs, mad murals and fine works of art. Together, it all seems to tell a story, about a broken-down society turned beautiful through the eyes and imaginations of a special group of artists.

“I came to the high desert in 2003, right after the birth of my son and a divorce. I wanted to start over, slow down and escape from it all,” Stratton said. “I opened my first tattoo store, and everything just fell together for me.

“In 2007, I opened my second shop, American Art Studio. Moving to the desert was the best thing I ever did. Here, I was able to disappear from the radar, hide away from the stressed-out city lifestyle, and avoid the fucked-up system.”

And as for the future? “I will never leave,” he said

I first saw Kyle Stratton, the guitarist, with his former band, Rise of the Willing. The band’s loud, distorted, aggressive approach to music conjured up images of a Mad Max-style existence in the high-desert landscape. In 2014, Stratton felt the calling to create music of a different frequency, and he left to start a new band, Atala.

He enlisted drummer Jeff Tedtaotao, and later added bassist and former Rise of the Willing bandmate John Chavarria. Even before Chavarria signed on, the fledgling project attracted the attention of producer (and former Kyuss bassist) Scott Reeder. After seeing just one rehearsal, Reeder invited Atala to record at his ranch and studio, The Sanctuary, in Banning. Within a month, the group had written the body of work that would become Atala’s debut record, thanks to the pressure to quickly produce songs that would live forever in front of one of their heroes.

“Atala isn’t looking to be the next great stadium favorite,” Stratton said. “We just want to explore new sounds and connect with real fans of avant-garde metal.”

The band has been touring with well-developed psych-rock and doom-metal bands like A’rk, Colombian Necktie, and Castle (a super-heavy and musical duo from the San Francisco Bay Area). Atala has enlisted managerial support from Machine Head’s original drummer, Tony Costanza, who has been the backbone of thrash-metal cult favorites Crowbar, Crisis and Debris Inc.

On Friday, Jan. 30, Atala will open for Karma to Burn at Loaded in Hollywood. Karma to Burn is a stoner-rock band from West Virginia that has intersected with the cream of the desert rock scene crop again and again: The band’s four album, Appalachian Incantation, was produced by Reeder, with one song featuring Kyuss frontman John Garcia.

For more on Atala, visit www.facebook.com/pages/Atala/588684977868736 or www.atalarock.com.

Read more from Robin Linn, including the full Kyle Stratton interview, at rminjtree.blogspot.com.

Scott Reeder is one of the early pioneers of desert rock. In fact, no one man has been more pivotal to the sounds that have gone on to shape the core of our desert's music scene than this drummer, bassist, producer and sound engineer.

Reeder has enjoyed a brilliant music career—as a bassist in some of the most noteworthy bands in metal, doom and stoner rock, and on the other side of the soundboard as a producer. He’s sometimes referred to as “The Magic Man,” because bands travel across the globe to seek his technical prowess in the studio; he’s worked with Karma to Burn, The Freeks, Black Math Horseman, Low Fly Incline and Atala, just to name a few bands. Reeder is known for reinventing the wheel, revamping vintage gear and drawing on fresh technology to achieve unique recordings.

Reeder has been at the heart of the desert’s music scene since its earliest hints of existence. His first bands were Subservice and Dead Issue, which formed in 1981. He actually started out on drums, but he switched when Dead Issue lost its bass player. He relinquished the throne to Alfredo Hernandez and picked up the bass … never to put it down again.

He later went on to form another desert music project, Target 13, and then in the mid-’80s teamed up with Mario Lalli (Fatso Jetson) to form what may have been the first authentic stoner-rock jam band, Across the River.

Reeder recently went through the painstaking process of transferring some of those old Across the River recordings from tape to digital format. Listening to the almost-50-minute recording on YouTube, I was taken aback: The free-form heavy jams were quite sophisticated for players so young and so new to music, and the music was quite reflective of the desert environment where it was created.

In 1991, Reeder signed with doom-metal band The Obsessed, led by Scott (Wino) Weinrich, the first band of many groups with which he would tour overseas. That gig may have gone on forever if not for a twist in fate—a call to replace bassist Nick Oliveri in what may be the most influential band to come out of our desert, Kyuss.

That worldwide influence of Kyuss can’t be overstated. Herba Mate in Italy, Low Fly Incline in Australia, Truckfighters in Sweden, Black Mastiff in Canada, Steak in London—all of these groups call themselves “desert rock” bands. These bands have one thing in common: their love of Kyuss and the music that has come out of our region. Dave Grohl, Chris Goss and some of the heaviest hitters in rock sing Kyuss’ praises again and again. When Josh Homme left the group to form Queens of the Stone Age, that marked the end of Kyuss’ live shows, but the music lived on, and every member of that project has gone on to enjoy fantastic careers.

For many Kyuss fans, the two records that Reeder recorded with the group, Welcome to Sky Valley and … And the Circus Leaves Town, reflect some of the band’s most in-depth work. Reeder seems to lend a darker musical atmosphere to the jams and brings a real vintage desert-rock vibe to the mix.

"Scott is one of the best bassists on the planet, yet (he’s) such a humble man, you would never know it being in his presence,” said guitarist Kyle Stratton, of Atala and Rise of the Willing, who recently recorded at Reeder's studio, The Sanctuary. “His work with Across the River really started the desert sound. Kyuss is one of the most legendary bands of all time. This man has played in some of the heaviest underground bands ever while walking on the cusp of the mainstream.

“As a producer, he is amazing. He really understands how to capture and sculpt an underground band into something listenable.”

Reeder recorded and performed with bands such as Nebula, Goatsnake, Tool, Unida, Sun and Sail Club, and Fireball Ministry; he also pursued his own solo career.

Reeder this year returned to bass-maker Warwick’s Bass Camp in Europe, where he was alongside greats such as Victor Wooten, Dave Ellefson, Gary Willis and Bobby Vega. Reeder has been endorsed by Warwick for some years now, a relationship that has proved to be beneficial to both parties. Reeder reports that the trip was amazing—other than a brush with death when the driver of the bus filled with talent fell asleep at the wheel.

I asked Reeder what he had coming up.

“I have a completely refurbished 2-inch-tape machine arriving at The Sanctuary,” he said. “It will be a big turning point, going back to the way we worked in the late ’80s when I really started out. Hopefully, more great bands will be coming in to work together, and hopefully, I'll be getting to play on more records, maybe with Fireball Ministry and Sun and Sail Club.”

“As in my music, in life it all seems to work out just fine with no plan!"

For more information on Reeder, visit scottreeder.com. Read more from Robin Linn at rminjtree.blogspot.com.