Time to fire it up and crank your speakers to ten as we take a journey through the history of stoner rock…
“You gave to me a new belief and soon the world will love you sweet leaf.” – Sweet Leaf by Black Sabbath
Forty five years ago Ozzy Osbourne sang those lyrics over the fuzzed out riffs of Tony Iommi, rollicking bass grooves of Geezer Butler and heavy hitting drums of Bill Ward. The quartet, known as Black Sabbath, were ushering in a post-hippy culture and unknowingly kicking off a new musical genre years later known as ‘Stoner Rock’ or ‘Stoner Metal’. The era of optimistic change was gone and in it’s place the dark reality of the lower working classes was being exemplified in new cultural paradigms. Black Sabbath personified this change. Four guys from the industrial city of Birmingham, England, kids of working class families destined for a life in a factory, helped pave the way for heavy metal music and culture. While much of their music addressed social, political and philosophical issues, they also wrote heavily about their personal experiences. Marijuana was a pretty typical part of Black Sabbath. And the fact that they sang about it and made music that was great to get high to made them an early icon of stoner rock and metal. That is not to say the seventies did not provide many other examples and inspirations, as numerous bands contributed to the sounds to come. But it would take a few more decades before that genre would fully take shape.
Before we go into more history, a brief description of stoner rock would be appropriate. The most defining feature of stoner rock is ‘fuzzed out’ guitars. The riff-laden melodies are drenched in heavy and often low frequency distortion, often accompanied by lower string tuning and other ‘fuzzy’ effects. It is white noise funneled through tonal shenanigans that would feel at home in a Bach fugue. Often the riffs will rely on the cage of thunder provided by the sound and meander along at a stoney pace. Yet gracefully acrobatic and exuberant guitarplay also is prevalent, and the two extremes often meet in a fiery crash of pure rock fury many times within a single tack. The bass guitars follow the same sonic omnipotence as their six stringed brethern, while also interweaving layers of schizophrenic counterpoint and shattering crescendos. And the drums provide solid rhythmic accompaniment while creating highlights and adding new styles, flavors or shades beyond what the strings have to say. While the musicianship in the genre is more often amazing than not, it does not rely on so much of the hyperbole and excess that had come to define much of heavy metal today. Surplus notes and beats are rare and there is not some machismo competition to play faster than everyone else. Just louder. This is also represented by the typical stoner rock vocals, which tend to be ‘clean’, which is a fancy way of saying ‘actually singing’ and not just growling, screaming, grunting or any of the other adolescent vanities that plague most hard music today. Now I am not saying these guys could compete on American Idol, nor reach the operatic depths of Ronnie James Dio or Bruce Dickinson, but there is more often than not an attempt to recognize normal human speech patterns and vocal melodies in an honest and satisfying way. Which makes it the perfect kind of metal for people who thought they had to give up on metal when it strayed too far from its 70’s roots.
The emergence of grunge in the early nineties was the first hint of what most people would identify as modern stoner rock. The traditionally hard rock band Trouble began experimenting with psychedelic elements and made and early contribution, but the biggest push would not come from members of the old metal guard. Combining the musicianship and sounds of the seventies with the attitude and energy of punk rock, grunge paved the way for what came next. And many in that genre were inspired by a band considered to be godfathers of stoner rock, The Melvins. One most notably. Nirvana occasionally showed qualities of this sound, as can be heard on all their albums to some degree, but certainly throughout most of the second half of Incesticide. But their fellow Washingtonians Soundgarden were a clear early contribution to the fuzzed out madness to come.
While the boys in rain-drenched Seattle were dealing with opiates and existential angst, some kids in California were setting up generators for their amps in the desert and throwing epic live music parties for their friends. Inspired more by punk and the late work of Black Flag than Black Sabbath, the Palm Desert Scene became a thriving birthplace for stoner rock. And one of the bands at the center of this fuzzstorm, Kyuss, would become the icon of its genesis. The music of Kyuss envelops you like the sensation following a questionably huge bong hit. You are momentarily suspended in the swells and recesses of its effects, unable to do anything about it but relax and enjoy it or struggle and get pulled under anyway. It is a juggernaut of explosive insanity tuned to the key of zen. The power of their music combines with its earthly accessibility to entrance and evoke imagery, emotion and synesthesia. It is heavy, but not aggressive. It is forward, but not narcissistic. It is a humble ode to getting high with a guitar and Dungeon Masters Guide. And after their demise the members of the band branched off into new projects that carried the torch of the stoner rock sound, with Josh Homme’s Queens of the Stone Age being the longest lasting and most successful.
While bands like Monster Magnet and and Corrosion of Conformity were laying the architecture of the sound in mainstream music, underground bands like SoCal’s FuManchu and Maryland’s Clutch were busy paving the way in the underworld. FuManchu took full advantage of their 70’s roots by introducing elements of California culture not so unlike the Beach Boys, but in decidedly less wholesome ways.
While west coast weed metal was busy exploring the virtues of slack, Clutch was laying down serious psychedelia with themes of philosophy, history and culture filtered through poetry and clever wordplay. A mainstay to this day in the realm of stoner rock, Clutch all but wrote its anthem in their classic headsong Spacegrass.
And while Clutch may have written the ultimate stoner rock song, a band named Sleep was busy contributing an album that defines the creative experimentation and sonic mindfuck of the genre. Dopesmoker is the final album by the band Sleep, and though it took years to get released, it is a classic full hour of sonic stonergasm. Without much in the way of structure, vocals or any trappings of ‘songs’, it meanders through air from speaker to ear like a hashish unicorn and then explodes in the mind like a fractal zoom. After this the band broke up and went on to form Om and High on Fire, both of which are still making heady metal today, with rare Sleep reunions.
Going even a shade darker than their forbearers, Electric Wizard took their formidable sonic swamp to the edge of stoner rock at the turn of the century with the instant class Dopethrone. Written in the throes of heavy drug and alcohol abuse, existential malaise and pure hatred, its darkness is unquestionably sincere. Yet at the same time the layers of distortion, reverb, fuzz and unlimited phasers, flangers and whatnot all work to make it a masterpiece of metal psychedelia that stoners will generally get so lost in that the darkness is all but irrelevant. Even despite the fact that the vocals sound like a drunken and meth-addled biker ‘telling it like it is’ through a cheap bullhorn.
In the 2000’s the popularity of stoner rock continued to rise, spawning a number of great bands. But since mainstream audiences and the radio were not picking up the vibe, the success of such bands relied mostly on constant touring, playing shows to audiences of loyal fans at a reliable circuit of venues. Two of the bands that carried stoner rock into the twenty first century in this manner and continue to this day are the bands Weedeater and Bongzilla.
While most of the bands listed here have continued to tour, they have been joined by a number of great new bands. My favorite new addition, Red Fang, have taken stoner rock in a more light-hearted and playful direction. Taking advantage of the type of new video formats popularized on the internet, the band is able to mix their music with humorous skits and visuals that incite stoner giggles.
And the most celebrated of recent stoner rock bands is The Sword, whose music encompasses elements of psychedelic and prog while still maintaining an almost pitch perfect version of stoner rock.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of stoner rock was rescuing heavy metal from its aggressive excess. In doing so it has created a path for a number of genres outside of stoner rock to make hard rock or heavy metal music that does not rely on speed and hyperbolistic vocal styles. Most notable are the retro/doom metal bands emerging from Sweden that take old school metal and infuse it with other influences and modern themes. While bands like Witchcraft and Graveyard are such great reimaginings of classic sounds, the band who has taken the clean vocal and moderate metal music trend to its greatest heights are the band Ghost. Ghost sound like Black Sabbath meets Blue Oyster Cult meets King Diamond, but they do it anonymously in costumes with a Satanic schtict so over the top it cannot be taken seriously like black metal or other extreme metal bands that do it. I call it Scooby Doo Satanism, and it is the greatest thing to happen to heavy music since Josh Homme. And so on April 20th this year, that is where I found myself, rocking out to a skeletal pope -Papa Emeritus- and five ‘Nameless Ghouls’ in Omaha.
I only touched on the many great bands that exist in the stoner rock genre and its parallels in dessert rock, doom metal, sludge, drone, retro and more. I hope you enjoyed the music enough to explore further and end up with a whole new musical library to light up to! As marijuana becomes increasingly legal, heads may soon be putting together stoner rock festivals much as they have with reggae, hip hop and other weed-drenched music; which won’t just be great for stoner rock and its fans, but for vendors of marijuana, accessories related products.