One severely doubts it’s a coincidence that a Brant Bjork set would start with “Buddha Time (Everything Fine).” That laid back, instrumental, rolling desert groove speaks to an aspect of Europe ’16 that’s apparent before the needle even hits the wax of the Napalm Records release, and that’s the manner in which Bjork — whose career pedigree in as drummer/songwriter in Kyuss and Vista Chino, drummer in Fu Manchu, guitarist/vocalist in Ché and multi-instrumentalist, bandleader and songwriter in the various incarnations of his solo work from Brant Bjork to Brant Bjork and the Operators, Brant Bjork and the Bros. and Brant Bjork and the Low Desert Punk Band has made him the undisputed godfather of desert rock — directly acknowledges the stoner side of who he is and what he does.
It’s right there on the cover of Europe ’16, which is the first official live album of Bjork‘s nearly-20-year solo career which began with 1999’s Jalamanta on Man’s Ruin, a full-length that continues to resonate and inform his soulful, funk-infused delivery to-date, and while so many others of Bjork‘s ilk, geographical cohort and generation have tried to distance themselves from a “stoner” tag, he’s made it a part of his aesthetic. Some might say an essential part, and it’s become a defining piece of the ultra-laid back, groove-ready persona he showcases throughout Europe ’16, which captures 12 tracks and 85 minutes of Brant Bjork on the road last year with The Low Desert Punk Band supporting his two studio albums for Napalm: 2014’s Black Power Flower and 2016’s Tao of the Devil — both of which, it’s worth noting, were of a similar leafy theme in terms of their artwork.
Is it fair, then, to think of Europe ’16 as the third in a trilogy of offerings for Napalm? Bjork has said openly that Tao of the Devil was the final studio outing on his contract for the Austrian imprint, and if one presumes a three-album deal, then it’s quite possible Europe ’16 is the farewell piece. If so, it marks a righteous summary of what Bjork has accomplished as a songwriter and performer over the last few years, returning to solo output after a successful run with Vista Chino following much tumult around touring as Kyuss Lives! and the also-Napalm-backed issue of 2013’s Peace offering with that band.
Highlighting cuts from Black Power Flower like “Controllers Destroyed,” the aforementioned mindset-setting opener “Buddha Time (Everything Fine)” and the later “Stokely up Now,” and even more from Tao of the Devil in “Humble Pie,” “Stackt,” “The Gree Heen,” as well as the later and more extended jams “Dave’s War/Dave’s Peace” (based on “Dave’s War” from the record) and “Biker No. 2,” Europe ’16 finds Bjork, guitarist Bubba DuPree (formerly of Void), bassist Dave Dinsmore (Ché) and drummer Ryan Güt at the proverbial top of their game in terms of chemistry, and of all the times Bjork could have issued a live album over the last decade-plus, it’s easy to hear why now would be an obvious choice.
Joined by guest vocalist Sean Wheeler in the second half of the set, this incarnation of Brant Bjork and the Low Desert Punk Band saunter through pieces from Bjork‘s substantial catalog like “Low Desert Punk” and “Lazy Bones/Automatic Fantastic” from Jalamanta, “Freaks of Nature” from 2007’s Somera Sól and “Let the Truth be Known” from 2005’s Saved by Magic, and while live albums rarely exist that don’t make the performing act come out on the positive side — that is, nobody wants to put out a shitty-sounding show — neither does Europe ’16 shy away from the rawer side of the band’s presentation, especially as regards Wheeler‘s vocals in “Biker No. 2” and “Freaks of Nature” and the natural movement and flow of the group’s jams, which unfold beginnings and endings organically here, sounding unretouched and all the more engaging for that. Whether or not it’s the last in a series of three, Europe ’16 is a document of an era in Bjork‘s career that has not only seen a rise in his profile, but resulted in some of the most memorable material he’s ever written.
To wit, songs like “Stackt” and “Humble Pie” not only stand up to the landmark riff of “Automatic Fantastic,” but they underscore the progression that’s played out over time and a span of 11 LPs in Bjork‘s approach, and by embracing a jammier vibe later in the set in “Dave’s War/Dave’s Peace,” “Biker No. 2,” “Freaks of Nature,” “Low Desert Punk” and “Let the Truth be Known,” which includes a finale take on the Rolling Stones‘ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Europe ’16 sets an immersive trajectory that feels true to the live experience. Of course, there’s a big difference between watching a band onstage and soaking in an 85-minute live record, and the latter process is no minor undertaking, but even if one thinks of Europe ’16 as a fan piece, it more than earns its place in Bjork‘s catalog, and the poise with which the band handles its turns and the commanding presence of Bjork at the forefront speak to not only the well-earned maturity of his craft but a showmanship that a studio outing simply wouldn’t be able to bring into focus.
Not saying much in terms of stage banter throughout, the man himself gets on mic before the get-your-ass-stoned advising of “Let the Truth be Known” to thank Berlin specifically after several “dankeschön”s earlier on, and that brings to mind the relationship between desert rock and the EU heavy underground. There’s a bit of irony there, since the Palm Desert scene, as it was in the ’80s and early/mid ’90s and as its legacy has grown in the years since, is so much based on the Californian landscape and American suburban culture, but no question Bjork has become the key ambassador for that movement and for the unique creativity and sound those sands helped to foster.
He’ll head back abroad this fall to mark the release of Europe ’16 and perhaps take a victory lap with The Low Desert Punk Band before moving on to other projects and ideas (or at least another outlet), but that stint, like this live album built from the last one, should only serve to reaffirm what Black Power Flower and Tao of the Devil continued to establish: that when it comes to desert rock, there’s only one Brant Bjork. Nobody else brings the same level of soul to their sound, the classic feel and the steadiness of vibe that he does, and on Europe ’16, some 17 years after first embarking on a solo career, he continues to show that in new and exciting ways.