It’s been a long way to here. San Antonio doom-metal outfit Las Cruces has spent the better part of 16 years battling limited budgets, a revolving lineup, and frequent hiatuses. But 12 years after their last record, they’ve returned with their excellent third album, Dusk.
Fittingly, the record sat unreleased for three years. When pressed for a dramatic explanation for the delays — say, an OD caused by a failed expedition up Coke Mountain — lead guitarist Mando Tovar jokes that there were no deaths.
“But let’s not glorify drugs,” he adds.
Las Cruces, being a cult, underground outfit, often took breaks because band members had to get back to work.
“After the `eight-week, 1999` Ringmaster tour, several of the band members needed to catch up on bills,” Tovar said.
Back then, rhythm guitarist George Treviño performed double duty as the band’s public-relations dude. Armed with a phone book, album copies, and a recently purchased van, he booked the Ringmaster tour from scratch.
“Everything was based on one upcoming festival,” he said. “`We had` no support from any agencies. … Sometimes promoters skip out on you or you don’t sell that much merchandise. Sometimes we stayed with friends. Sometimes we slept in the van.”
Appropriately, this winding tour — which took Las Cruces to Canada at one point — ended in D.C., the home of hard-core punk and DIY. They played on Labor Day.
Maybe keeping their day gigs is what prevents Las Cruces from sounding jaded on Dusk. The band’s latest lineup unites Treviño and Tovar with bassist Jimmy Bell and drummer-vocalist Paul Deleon. The studio group is different, however: Treviño, Tovar, and Deleon with singer-songwriter Mark Zamarron, and bassist Marilyn. That’s right, Marilyn. One bass. One (sexy) name. All man.
Whatever the cast, Dusk pulverizes without alienating — it’s badass but not intimidating. The guitars are murky, the beat slow, and the band is always in pursuit of hard-rocking ecstasy. Album opener “Wizard” treads through mid-tempo guitar sludge before galloping into double-kick-drummed verses and choruses. Meanwhile, Tovar’s floating solo helps the track reach its peak when the tempo is at its slowest. Las Cruces builds anticipation for high-speed ax-grinding, but it never comes. The tune descends instead into a ritardando and segues into the opening riff of “Revelations,” a full-on rampage.
Frequently, Dusk feels like a history lesson in heavy rock. “Burning Bright” and “Farewell” chug along like lost ’80s anthems. “Wings of Gold” recalls Facelift-era Alice in Chains, with its limping chords that explode into an “Ironman”-style freak out.
“Roll of the Die” is a terrific standout. Marilyn and DeLeon lay down a bluesy opening that evokes early Zeppelin. After everybody else joins in, the sound is grin-inducing, the simple joy of hearing a funky, heavy band in lockstep.
“I don’t give a damn ’bout your thinking man,” Zamarron sings. “It’s my life.”
Zamarron mostly sticks to the Sabbath lyrical playbook. It’s witches and wizards, fuck-yous and bloodshed, but the real magic comes from his vocal shape-shifting. On “Cocaine Wizard Woman,” his talk-singing is as soulful as it is grungy. He can begin a lyric howling like Bruce Dickinson and end it growling like Scott Weiland. He sings “Wings of Gold” like a dark angel’s battle cry.
“The heaviest chains can’t hold me, my blood will never boil down,” he bellows on “Revelations.” As Las Cruces forms a metal hurricane around him, Zamarron becomes the eye of the storm. Zamarron is a hawk of a vocalist, and it’s a shame he’s no longer in the band. But like many past and present members, he left to tend to more important matters: family, income, etc. It’s typical of the industry, Treviño said, and to stay in, you need to get out sometimes.
Hearing Dusk, it’s easy to see why Treviño keeps Las Cruces alive. The new record exhibits the sort of artisanship you’d expect from a band with more than 80 years of collective rock experience, but if Dusk is a new beginning, we can only wonder what the next step will be. Tovar and Treviño think DeLeon is great on vocals and drums, but they’re looking for a new singer. If you think you can replace Zamarron’s pipes, drop them a message at myspace.com/lascruces.
“You gotta be willing to take the punches as well as give them,” Treviño said. “This business is a lot of work, but it’s well worth it.” •
A. Coronado writes about politics and media at brutestomp.com/the-brute.