By Eleni P. Austin

The desert is a harsh environment for Rock & Roll. Still, local bands seem to thrive. 30 years ago, this Rat Pack-y oasis was wall-to-wall country clubs, piano bars and meat markets disguised as discotheques.
Resourceful rockers booked gigs in the middle of the desert, armed only with instruments and generators. For a while in the early 90s, Mario Lalli’s Rhythm & Brews club offered a real showcase for emerging talent and refuge for music lovers. Sadly, the club didn’t last.
Fast forward to 2013 and the scene isn’t much different. Sure, the major casinos all have showrooms that host everyone from the Beach Boys to ZZ Top, but only a few intrepid bars (Red Barn, The Hood, Bar) offer local, live original music. Great new music is plentiful, you just need to know where to look.
War Drum is a desert band that is creating a lot of buzz. (Happily, their sound isn’t some tedious variation on “Stoner Rock”) In late 2011, Jack Kohler (vocals, keys) and guitarist Ehren Groban began collaborating on songs. Soon after, they recruited drummer Peter Leighton. Waxy frontman Robert Waldman stepped in to handle bass chores and War Drum was born.
War Drum recorded their debut, At Trail’s End in 2012, played in local clubs, hot spots in L.A. , San Diego and San Francisco, as well as a mini European tour this Spring. The quartet quickly followed up this year with their sophomore effort, Fortune Finder.
The album opens with the impossibly catchy “Show You The Night.” Rattling guitar riffs slither through a stutter step rhythm, fluttery organ chords add kaleidoscope colors. Kohler and Groban trade verses in an effort to impress a “divine electric lady.”
The title track shimmers like a mirage in the desert heat. Tinkling wind chimes open, followed by ominous, rumbling bass lines. Swirly guitar riffs and spooky organ fills roil and reverberate, accelerating on the instrumental break. The titular “Finder,” is equal parts muse and succubus.
With three songs, lyrics take a backseat to ambitious melodies and sharp instrumentation. On “Dream Weave” languid guitar riffs are matched with an urgent tribal tattoo. As the tune picks up speed, Groban unspools a concise coruscated solo.
On “Where We Wake Now/Rosette,” Groban weaves quivering chords into a tapestry of spiky organ tones, eerie harmonica and a rock steady beat. The lyrics pivot between praise for loyal friends and scorn for treacherous enemies.
Finally “Low Light” offers up crackling percussion, desiccated organ fills and sandblasted guitar licks. The track is both bluesy and hypnotic. Groban’s solo is as spatial and arid as the desert landscape.
The best tracks here are “La Santisima Mujer” and “Clara.” The former blends woozy organ, stately piano and soporific vocals. The lyrics are a study in Lizard King seduction. Groban supplies a solo that ping pongs between flange-y sustain and fluttery flamenco. But Jack Kohler owns the track, with his circuitous keys and supple vocals.
The same can be said for “Clara.” The melody is minor key and soulful, reminiscent of sad circus music. The lyrics offer a cryptic meditation on heartbreak. The tempo lurches and shudders and within Kohler’s cluster of notes the listener hears hints of Vince Guaraldi and Ray Manzarek. As well as the churchy tones of Aretha Franklin.
The album closes with “Sun Dipped,” a piquant homage to the desert’s brittle albeit resilient topography. The melody shifts from a Spaghetti western groove to a whirling dervish. As frenetic and chaotic as a sandstorm.
Fortune Finder feels spectral and elusive. It’s clear that War Drum is influenced by 60s psychedelia like the Doors, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, but they seem equally inspired by their desert surroundings.