Names can be misleading. From a handle like Laserhawk, I guess I was expecting something a little heshier—maybe because it sounds like a conflation of Laserwolfs and Firehawk, two Missoula-area bands of yore that leaned a couple licks closer to the metallic center of the butt-rock Tootsie Pop. Portland’s Laserhawk is more like a transition metal, elementally speaking: They display a few of the physical properties commonly associated with more common metal(s), but you probably wouldn’t call them metal if you came across them lying on the sidewalk. As it turns out, the name Laserhawk was keyboardist Tyler Evans’ winning suggestion in an informal cheesy-metal-band-naming contest back in high school.
In chemistry, the fancy name for the transition metals is lanthanides. On the periodic table, they share an island with a related chemical group, the actinides, just off the southern coast of the main periodic landmass. They aren’t much use to humans, or even useful in the life-creating equations of nature generally, and they are so similar to one another that until relatively recently they could be distinguished only with great difficulty. This fairly well describes about a thousand bands like Laserhawk—the towering compost pile of “jam bands” whose whole trip with calling themselves “organic” suggests carbon copies more than carbon compounds—but not Laserhawk themselves. Their organic compounds are far more complex than those of the average bunch of soap-dodgers who bonked their heads falling off the funk wagon and suddenly decided they were jazz-funk fusion.
When I say fusion, in Laserhawk’s case, I don’t just mean a funky bass line or two transposed from something off Headhunters. I mean those aspects of fusion plus the exciting solo excursions of Chick Corea, the crazy rock excitement (sometimes) of Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the humid sonic troposphere at the heart of Miles Davis albums like Big Fun and Get Up with It.
It sounds like it was recorded through a stack of phone books, but the muffled sound quality of the debut full-length album, Fly By Air (released just last week), can’t hide the fact that Laserhawk (Evans, drummer Leb Borgerson, bassist Gus Elg, guitarist Steve Schaaf) have got it together, just-right loose and just-right tight. They’ve learned the hell out of some lessons in songwriting structure in addition to their free-form jamming—refreshing for a group that relies heavily on improvisation, and what sets them apart from a lot of other bands of the same general ilk.
For fans of greasy bass lines: The album has ’em in plenty, and the one at the start of the opening track might be the dopest this side of the Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication. Fusion fans who relish the occasional bone-simple power chord along with the lightning-fast sextuplets of Al DiMeola, for example, will hear welcome reminders of Romantic Warrior-era Return to Forever on the third track (sorry, none of the tracks are labeled on the promo version we received). Anyone into irregular time signatures executed rock-steady at death-defying speeds will flip their wig at the 5/4 dervish that blows through the track right after that, and there’s even a part where it sounds like the bassist is flirting with a Cliff Burton solo off Kill ’Em All!
“Hmm, yeah, I would say there are some fusion influences,” says keyboardist Evans. “A couple of us are fans of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and we’ve noticed correlations between Laserhawk and [Mahavishnu album] Birds of Fire. I wouldn’t say we sound like Mahavishnu Orchestra, but it’s there.”
What do Laserhawk members think sets them apart? “I would say the keyboards set [us] apart,” ventures Evans, modestly, “just because I don’t hear a lot of rock or jam bands that have significant—if any—keyboard parts. Also, I would say the composition also sets us apart. We spend a lot of time working out ideas together. Some songs, one person will bring them in more or less finished and teach everyone the parts. Others, one person brings an idea and we all create our own parts around it and it kind of takes off from there.”