Bands like Kyuss, Throw Rag, and Fatso Jetson spawned out of the rich lo-fi music scene in the ‘Low Desert’ of California. The scene – which really thrived in the early 1990s -- frequented bands that mashed together notes of blues, punk rock, alternative, heavy metal, and even psychedelia to make something wholly unique. Lo Sound Desert, directed and written by Joerg Steineck, documents the scene capably with a good mix of talking head interviews, animated interludes, and some good ole’ live concert sequences that will give your speakers some grand sludge to work through. The new Blu-ray of the documentary from ETR Media comes with a decent presentation of the feature and an hour of outtakes. For Fans Only.
Bands like Queens of the Stone Age and Nirvana shaped my music taste in the late ‘90s and early aughts, so it should come as no surprise that a documentary about desert rock is something I’d enjoy. Josh Homme, the frontman of Queens of the Stone Age, cut his teeth on desert rock with his band Kyuss. But what about the other bands that didn’t reach that kind of fame? Or rather, what about the bands that have received a cult following but not the documentation of more-famous bands? Lo Sound Desert sets out to right that wrong with interviews with figures both big and small in the desert rock scene. And while the documentary splits the 94-minute runtime well between talking head interviews, animated interludes, and concert sequences, there’s a degree to which the doc feels a bit short-sighted. Not that it’s not worthy of further introspection, but it brings up a lot of bands, figures and rock movements that I feel could have been expanded upon more.
Of all the talking head interviews, Steineck really does great work interviewing Sean Wheeler, a punk rock icon and irascible personality, about all of his travails in the desert. Wheeler is exactly the kind of subject you want in your documentary, as his thirst and passion for being abnormal situates the audience in exactly the right mood for the rest of the doc. The desert rock scene is filled with figureheads that are larger than life and have the knack to produce music that gets at an audience on an almost-primordial level. If the grunge scene spawned the emo scene and punk rock spawned desert rock, then the world of rock is circuitous; referencing back to previous works but pushing the medium forward into new directions.
Lo Sound Desert plods along nicely for its runtime, with the animated interludes mixing well with the carnival barker nature of many of the interviewees. But where I found the most enjoyment is in accounts from Josh Homme, members of Fatso Jetson, and the aforementioned Sean Wheeler about how they created their signature sounds. To the uninitiated, a lot of their music can feel like jam bands really beating on their instruments. Homme doesn’t dispel that notion, but he expands upon it to prove his point that the unique acoustics of the California desert and that thick, dark and muddy tone he excels in created something he never experienced before. And to audiences, they hadn’t heard it either, and it got them moving and reacting to music in ways never seen before. Think of the way the mid-range behaves on a song like “No One Knows” by Queens of the Stone Age and you’ll know exactly what Homme means.
There’s a ton of concert footage to enjoy within the doc as well. I particularly enjoyed the performances by Fatso Jetson, as their music is of course a major departure from the jam bands they’ve been criticized for being similar to and they can really move an audience like few bands can. The interviews with members of Fatso Jetson also highlight something interesting about the Southern California desert rock myth: some look back and don’t see this era for the experimentation it offered. Instead, they think it was a fun time making their instruments sweat and staving off boredom in an arid, desolate spot in the US.
Lo Sound Desert lacks the kind of focus I’d like to see from a documentary, with a couple title cards popping up here and there to signify a shift in focus, but even those feel loose amidst all the footage. That being said, if you’re a rock fan, you’ll find few music scenes documented with this kind of energy, plus the interviews are really great and insightful.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Lo Sound Desert dives into the muck of desert rock on Blu-ray with a single-disc release from ETR Media, the film distribution arm of Enjoy the Ride Records. The BD-25 disc is housed in a clear amaray case and comes with a limited-edition slipcover with art by Haunt Love (slipcover only available at VinegarSyndrome.com).
The Lo Sound Desert Blu-ray has the difficult task of showcasing a feature that’s comprised of different media formats. You’ll see sharp differences between scenes, as some of the concert sequences are shot on really old digital and film equipment, but the encode does a capable job of handling them all. If you’re looking for maximum clarity, you won’t find it here. That being said, contrast is resolved just fine, even though you’ll see some black crush in some of the grungier-looking scenes.
The only audio track offered here is the English DTS-HD MA 2.0, but it offers an extra surround channel to diffuse the doc’s soundscape a bit better on multi-speaker systems. The dialogue all comes through clean and I can report the extra channel opens up a bit during the concert sequences, which is a nice touch. Make sure to treat the older audio from vintage footage with a bit of patience, as it’s for sure not perfect. The audio track handles it all capably, though.
As we have seen with recent documentaries on Blu-ray, Lo Sound Desert comes with a very limited selection of bonus features. The additional hour of footage is sure to please desert rock fans and those interested in the subject following the film, but it’s mostly outtakes and repetition of some of the points made during the film.
The desert rock scene hasn’t been represented much in documentary filmmaking, and Lo Sound Desert does a capable job of opening the scene up to see why and how it existed. There’s a great abundance of talking-head interviews from rock icons that’s sure to please fans, plus the Blu-ray offers a decent presentation of the mixed-media formats of the feature. This release is For Fans Only.