Any music fan who grew up listening to rock music on vinyl during the “album era” can summon up memories of lying on a bedroom floor with a pair of headphones clamped to their skull staring at a particularly vivid 12-inch record sleeve. If you listened long enough and looked hard enough, you were sure you could decipher an extra layer of meaning behind the band. Who could forget such indelible combinations of sound and image as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. Or the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (complete with functional zipper, courtesy of Andy Warhol). Or the trippy photographs from British design company Hipgnosis on a host of mind-expanding Pink Floyd albums (Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother, Wish You Were Here, Animals) Or just about any prog rock effort Roger Dean’s otherworldly paintbrush touched.
From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, the 33 1/3 rpm long-playing record album was the standard format for popular music. It reached its height in the ’70s when record labels filled albums with liner notes, lyric sheets, gatefold covers and other mindblowing extras. By the mid-’80s, the format was fading away, replaced by new technology like cassette tapes, compact discs and digital downloads. But a funny thing has happened in the last few years: Vinyl has experienced a startling comeback. That’s particularly true among serious music fans who prefer the sound quality and durability of an analog storage device. Since 2018 a tiny record label right here in Albuquerque has fought this good fight, producing a string of high-quality, limited-edition record albums by mostly New Mexico bands.
Desert Records owner and operator Bradley Frye has released 30 albums in the last few years. “I didn’t realize that until I counted just now,” says Frye with a laugh. “It’s a ton of work and truly a labor of love. The response has been really great from the small population that even knows about Desert Records. We are down in the underground. Rock music is not popular anymore, so it means everything to me when people find a band or a release that they love.”
Frye’s label concentrates, appropriately enough, on what he calls “desert rock.” The term sprang up in the Palm Desert area of Southern California in the mid-’80s. Bands that, according to Frye, were “living in the Mojave Desert around the Joshua Tree, Palm Springs, Indio, Palm Desert areas didn’t have bars and clubs to play in, so they played out in the desert.” These “generator parties” under the stars gave rise to a dark, droning, quasi-psychedelic form of heavy metal known as “desert rock” or “stoner rock.” It sounds a bit like what might have happened if Jim Morrison and Black Sabbath had met at a late-night Anton LaVey orgy and started jamming together. The first band to really kickstart the scene would have been Across the River, led by Mario Lalli. The band didn’t last long, but spawned the “soundtrack of the desert” band Yawning Man. Lalli would bring the generator to the shows, the kids and the bands would show up and, according to those who were there (or at least say there were), the stories are legendary. Frye believes the “most famous and influential” of the Palm Desert bands was Kyuss. “After Kyuss broke up in 1995, the guitarist Josh Homme formed Queens of the Stone Age, and they became a huge rock band worldwide. The majority of the Palm Desert musicians are still living in the area and are making fantastic music to this day. These bands, and the fact that the desert environment inspired them, have been extremely influential for me to start Red Mesa and Desert Records here in Albuquerque.”
Red Mesa is Frye’s own band, a heavy rock trio that incorporates the elements of desert rock, stoner rock, doom metal and guitar-driven psychedelia he loves. On Friday, Aug. 13 (Friday the 13th, don’t you know!) Downtown’s Launchpad bar hosted the official release party for Red Mesa’s new album, Path to the Deathless. Although Path to the Deathless isn’t actually Desert Records’ latest release (it came out in 2020), a little thing called COVID prevented the band from celebrating the album release and playing in front of live audiences. Frye considers Path to the Deathless “a really special album.” It even attracted the attention of some major guest stars. “We had the opportunity to write a track with the American doom metal legend Scott “Wino” Weinrich (The Obsessed, St. Vitus, Spirit Caravan) for the song ‘Disharmonious Unlife.’ We wrote and recorded the music, Wino wrote the lyrics, laid down the vocals and four guitar solos. We are not worthy!”
But Desert Records is anything but a vanity label. Frye has released albums by a rapidly gathering haboob of artists. There’s the Italian movie soundtrack guitar twang of Betty Benedeadly’s From the Mesa. There’s the sandblasted psychedelia of GRAL Brothers’ Caravan East. Book of Wyrms, Dizygote, Red Beard Wall, The Horned God: they’ve all put out releases on Desert Records. Many of the albums from Desert come on collectable colored vinyl manufactured in the Czech Republic (home to the world’s largest surviving record pressing plant).
“I work with many different artists for the album artwork (front and back covers). I commission them,” says Frye. “If it is a Desert Records release such as Legends of the Desert series, or Women of Doom, I have a hand in the direction of the packaging. For many of the bands’ releases, they will work with an artist and turn in the album covers. The bands have a keen sense of what I’m looking for with album artwork, so things have been pretty smooth in that regard.”
One great example of the power of album art is Andiamo Nel Deserto from the Albuquerque band L’uomo Nero. The EP (and two upcoming releases) form an “occult rock trilogy” relating the Lovecraftian story of a woman who disappears from New Mexico under mysterious supernatural circumstances. All three albums together assemble the framework of a “gloomy occult crime investigation illustrated by special artwork and layouts that reveals some missing clues.” All of Desert Records’ pressing are limited to 500 copies or less, making them instant collector’s items.
“I grew up in the ’80s, and I loved music since I was a kid,” says Frye, brimming with nostalgia. “I loved the physical format of vinyl, cassettes and CDs. I could hold an album in my hands while listening to the music, read the lyrics and see the photos of the bands. It would transport me to another place, and I loved that feeling.”
You can relive that feeling yourself by picking up Desert Records releases at desertrecords.us or desertrecords.bandcamp.com.