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The opening scene of Highland's music video for "Railroads" centers on singer/guitarist Scott Holmes' slow immersion in a dark beach cave in which moving shadows and other stoner hallucinations abound. Surrounded by the band's waves of slowly mutating soundscapes and washed-out distortion, subtle harmonies and analog synth lull Holmes into a face-numbing sense fulfillment, a feeling the band try their damnedest to re-create live.
Though the Long Beach outfit fancy themselves as a shoegaze act, their tripped-out, guitar-heavy squall seems better suited for stargazing than anything else. Formed from the ashes of defunct Long Beach bands Bearface and Loftus, Holmes and his four band mates deliver Melvin-esque sludge metal with the catchy, echo-filled emotion of outfits such as Swervedriver and the Pains of Being Pure At Heart. It's a ghostly, drone rock-meets-dream pop concoction ideal for a fever dream voyage through a dark hole in the earth—or an inebriated night of dive-bar debauchery.
"We never really wanted to sound too much like any one thing, but our love for My Bloody Valentine put us all on the same page," guitarist Stephen Edmunds says. "We wanted to be something loud, with soundscapes and guitar and drum and bass."
Highlands' members have proven their commitment by going the distance for their sound—literally. Edmunds drives up from San Diego for practices and gigs. When they were first getting started, bassist Travis Cheney, who'd briefly relocated to Hawaii after graduating college and leaving Bearface, moved back to SoCal just to be in the band.
"They sent me some demo tapes, and they're like, 'We're starting a new band, and it's for real,'" Cheney says. "So I was like, 'Fuck it, I'm coming back.' I didn't want to play reggae."
With the recent addition of percussionist/synth player Beau Balek, the band have spent the past year crafting an independent debut album, Singularity (released June 26), a project that challenged them to construct their wall of sound slowly, then re-evaluate it brick by brick.
"Every song became something completely different by the end of [the process]," Holmes says. "If you listen to the demos we turned in and the final product, it was completely breaking everything down and building it up."
The band like to say they engaged their "Brian Eno pedal" on a number of tracks in the studio, taking their sound, which already causes walls inside local haunts such as the Prospector and Alex's Bar to rumble, and adding about 10 percent.
"We'd literally be pushing our engineer in the studio: 'Louder! Louder! More distortion!'" says drummer Chris Figlewicz. "We almost wanted ['Railroads'] to sound like an obnoxious drunk person pushing everyone around."
When listening at maximum volume in your creaky old sedan or windowless stoner-rock van, the result is something that pulls you in. This is especially true for the song "Evil," which, despite its title, takes you on a blissful voyage with emotive, Verve-style chord progressions. Singularity is a must for local fans who witnessed the band perform at several key festival gigs, including Desert Daze in Indio during Coachella and Moon Block Party in Pomona's downtown Arts Colony a few weeks ago.
As they prepare to ride the rest of their wave of summer shows, including a record-release show later this month, there are no solid guesses as to how more time onstage will transform the band's hybrid, shoegaze sound. Then again, Highlands were never really into following a particular sonic plan. In fact, Edmunds only has two simple criteria to keep him fired up about this band: "Keep it loud. Keep it weird."
This column appeared in print as "Stonergaze."