The desert has always been a place of spirituality and mystery, where wanderers seek truth and solace and eclectic art and music are made. On one hand, it invokes deep creativity and a refined type of swagger. On the other, it creates a divide, a feeling of every man for himself.
This is how Arizona developed its unique brand of rock 'n' roll. There's a deep talent pool that's barely been tapped — but a lack of camaraderie and misdirection of energies may be holding it back.
Music industry maverick Alan Niven wants to change that. The veteran producer/composer/manager had a significant part in building the South Bay/L.A. rock scene in the early '80s.
He is credited with kick-starting the careers of Mötley Crüe and Dokken and recognizing talent in Great White, the first unsigned band to get regular airplay on major L.A. stations — 1986's "Face of the Day" was the most played track of the year on three different stations. Then there's Guns N' Roses, which Niven managed from ground up to selling out England's Wembley Stadium. Singer Axl Rose dismissed him on the eve of the Use Your Illusion release, rated by Loudwire as one of the 25 Most Destructive Guns N' Roses Moments.
Niven has a knack for recognizing raw talent, producing music that's timeless but also contemporary — or as he calls it, "fortunate to be in the right place at the right time with the right experience."
Tru-B-Dor Records is that place, and this is the time. Niven and wife Heather Vincent-Niven, also a keen eye and ear for talent, founded the Prescott label a few years ago. Since then, they've been handpicking desert bands and observing the rock community.
"What do I see in Phoenix?" asks Niven. "The possibility that we can generate the kind of activity from L.A. in the mid-'80s."
He recalls a time it was possible to live in L.A. and pursue music. Bobby Blotzer of Ratt lived right next door, and Niven babysat his kids. The Great White boys moved into the area, and the Crüe's Tommy Lee, Vince Neil, and Mick Mars lived just down the street.
"There was a camaraderie, but also a sense of competition. Each band raised the bar for the other," says Niven. "Now L.A. is impossible to afford, and that's why it hasn't had a good music scene in ages. But in the Phoenix socioeconomic environment, you can put your energies and focus into making good music, and you can just about get by and do it.
"The yardstick of that is, are any of these bands what you would call 'national quality'?"
Two desert bands on Tru-B-Dor's roster, Storm of Perception (Prescott) and Razer (Phoenix) already have proved as much, raising the bar for AZ rock in general. Both receive regular props on social media by musicians like Bumblefoot and Slash (both bands have played on stage with the latter) and garner national rave reviews.
Storm of Perception is no stranger to the pages of New Times — the band comprising astronomers, martial artists, gunsmiths, and metalheads has gained a steady following since its 2013 debut, Into the Sun. Don't be surprised if you see the band in the future opening for Amon Amarth — the soaring melodies, tight intricate instrumentals, and occasional on-stage cigar and Viking helmet would fit right in. Recently, the group opened for Saxon at Club Red and released "Akasha," a track that had Bumblefoot commenting, "Great players, very tight and solid, very legit metal, and great vocals."
"I think what we all respond to is artists with personality and character," says Niven. "There are really only six songs that exist: I love you, I hate you, I feel good, I feel bad, the world is great, the world is fucked up. We respond to those statements time and again, because we fall in love with the idiosyncrasy of the artist and how they express those points of view."
For Niven, it isn't about what appeals to the market. In fact, he loathes the word. In his mind, it isn't about gauging the trends — there will always be a response to music, as long as it's good. Quality songwriting, drives Niven's psyche, and it also led him to Razer.
Razer bassist Chris Catero was working as a rep for Krank Amps, and after Catero set up guitarist Dylan Doherty from Storm with an endorsement, Niven gave Catero a quick thank-you call. They hit it off. Niven grew interested in Catero's work, and that material eventually became the new Razer album, which is scheduled to debut on iTunes on Tuesday, June 23.
"Alan has that old school fan mentality backed by probably the smartest music business mind I've worked with, and that's something rock music desperately needs today," says Catero.
Razer's lineup is just as eclectic as the other Tru-B-Dor acts: Vocalist Chris Powers brings that '70s/'80s hard rock swagger and was the voice on "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" (downloaded more than 10 million times) on the Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock video game. Bassist/primary writer Chris Catero is a regular bassist in former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman's touring band, and ax slinger Jordan Ziff will be joining the lineup this winter. Drummer Eric Bongiorno and guitarist Paul Sullivan, along with Catero, were members of Wardog.
The self-titled debut album already has received a ton of attention: Three tracks were rated as Tracks of the Week by Classic Rock magazine, including "The Things You Do," described as "coming on like a sinister 'Dazed and Confused' crossed with Alice in Chains."
"Alan always seemed to have a brilliant knack for helping create something that's of the moment yet more timeless in feel," Catero says. "And that was really appealing to me going into the creation of our album."
Partially recorded at Niven's home in Prescott, Razer found him setting up the band in a garden shed turned rehearsal room. The band endured about every condition, from wintry cold to triple-digit heat. The result is 10 songs with everything from atmospheric instrumentals and meaty riffs to dueling guitars and George R.R. Martin-inspired lyrics to minor key acoustics and thick, engaging melodies. The two-year writing/recording process was executed very deliberately — recording with the audience in mind in order to make an album full of great songs, rather than just one or two.
"It's about getting into the audience's psychology," Niven says. "Each song has a reason for being there and existing."
The process takes patience, especially in an age when bands record every jam session. As Storm of Perception's Brian Herring says, the most important things he's learned from Niven and Vincent-Niven are groove, performance, and patience. The duo's ability to be very hands-on is a secret weapon attributed to pure instinct and decades of professional experience in the industry.
Razer will play shows this summer to support the album, and Storm currently is working a mini-tour across Arizona with lots of stops in California. In the meantime, Niven has his eyes set on a 2016 show at Ak-Chin Pavilion featuring only Arizona talent.
Therein lies an additional hurdle. nOne of the seemingly endless list of problems in every local scene is the lack of support in general, be it from bands, radio, or promoters. Whether musicians admit it or not, you'd be hardpressed to find more than a handful locally that go out of their way to support other acts, without expecting anything in return. There are pockets here and there.
"A few diamonds pop out from the coal who've been down for the cause, but generally not enough to put the overall rock scene on the map," Catero says. "It seems Alan and Heather's living room has had more of a musical scene . . . than the Valley has."
Herring from Storm of Perception has a different viewpoint, however. In his mind, a lot of Arizona bands support each other. The important thing is to raise the bar for each other, which only helps energize the scene with more and more talent.
"Everyone has to practice," he says. "Everyone has to engage. The difference, here in the state of Arizona, is that we are at a much smaller scale in terms of presence."
It doesn't seem as though it would be difficult to plan and recruit some incredible desert acts for a show at Ak-Chin Pavilion — there truly is a wealth of talent, and involving that talent from the past, present, and future is what could make it really relevant. Maybe a boost from larger Phoenix-oriented bands, such as Sacred Reich, Roger Clyne, Alice Cooper, Authority Zero, Flotsam and Jetsam, Digital Summer, Eyes Set to Kill, with double the amount of killer emerging bands: Sicmonic, Blessthefall, Chemicals of Democracy, Storm of Perception, Razer, Howitzer, Digital Summer, St. Madness, Frequis, Hogjaw, Tridon, Angel Mary, Burn Down the Charade, Pelvic Meatloaf, Godhunter, Element A440, Death Grip, Sectas, Warhead, Vex, Altered Silence — the list goes on.
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"If we could get a sense of focus, interest, and excitement developed, I think it's entirely feasible," Herring says.
"People say rock 'n' roll is dead, then we go to the Pavilion on a hot summer day when it's 110 and $10 a beer. Yet there are 16,000 people there, coming together in the name of individualism and rock 'n' roll. That tells me there will always be an audience."
Correction: This article originally misspelled Bobby Blotzer's name. Chris Catero is a part-time bassist for Marty Friedman, not guitarist.