In the beginning, there was Black Sabbath. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this English band in the development of metal music – countless sub-genres have been born from the macabre vocals of Ozzy Osbourne and the dark, chugging riffs of Tony Iommi. Heavy metal, thrash metal, doom metal – the list goes on and on. And while all those genres are interesting in their own right, today we will be taking a look at the one which is unfortunately often overlooked.
Let’s set the scene. The year is 1971. Popular music dominates, influenced by the hippy lifestyle. Music is emotional, but rarely dark – peace and love are key themes and acoustic guitars are common. Hard rock is gaining steam, with acts such as Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple becoming increasingly popular – but not popular enough. The month is July, and Sabbath release their third album, Master of Reality. It opens with a montage of a person coughing, setting up an uneasy, disquieting feeling – and straight after, we are assaulted by the heaviest sound encountered in music so far.
Sweet Leaf, the album’s opening track, single-handedly creates the stoner metal genre. Due to the guitarist’s, Tony Iommi’s, missing finger (which was cut off in an industrial accident), the band downtuned their instruments a whopping two steps down to make it less painful for him to play. Iommi’s problem also stopped him from playing quickly, leading to the band’s signature sound. And what a sound it is. Sluggishly slow dark riffs, accentuated by a heavily distorted bass, fizzy drums, and dark, trippy lyrics. The mainstream critics hated it – it was nothing like they’d ever heard before. A cult following slowly began to grow, though, and with it, the emergence of heavy metal.
During the 1980s, stoner metal was pushed slowly underground due to the rise of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal – bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Motorhead swapped their marijuana for cocaine, and this resulted in lightning fast metal music, with more conventional lyrics and mainstream appeal. Stoner metal did rise again until the early 1990s – perhaps helped by the popularity of grunge acts like Nirvana and Mudhoney.
During this period of the early 90s, two bands can be singled out through their contribution to the genre – Kyuss and Sleep. In a way, both bands represent the two different sides of the genre, with Kyuss taking inspiration from Hawkind, in their space-y, psychedelic rhythms, and Sleep being more traditional descendants of Black Sabbath, attempting to sound as heavy as possible.
Sleep released their most widely-known record, Sleep’s Holy Mountain, in 1993. The title track embodies the style of the band, with its low production values, gain set so high you have to struggle to understand what power chords the guitarist is playing and intricate bass work. The lyrics are cosmic psychedelia (‘astral steed’, ‘reptile master’). Sleep managed to play a song that was heavier than anything by Black Sabbath – and yet the band still did not forget its roots. The last track on the album is, in fact, a Sabbath cover, and a pretty good one at that. The rest of the songs are less heavy, and are more riff-based, making the album a very good gateway drug into the band’s more complex works.
And the complex work that I’m talking about here is Sleep’s magnum opus – Jerusalem. This hour-long song (yes, you heard that correctly) is the main reason why the band split – their record company was so appalled by the final product, that they refused to release it. This monstrosity is the heaviest thing I’ve ever heard – imagine Black Sabbath’s Iron Man, and multiply it by fifty. Complex riffs tumble in and out of consciousness, all while the crashing cymbals provide a backing to the chanting vocals. In my opinion, this album is a masterpiece, and represents the kind of creativity that the genre provides. It’s at times difficult to listen to, but once you ‘get it’, you will be amazed by the intricacy of this vast work.
Sleep split into two directions after their breakup – the guitarist went on to form High on Fire, while the bassist and the drummer went on to form Om. Both of these bands also provide a new perspective on the stoner metal genre – High on Fire is, as the name suggests, furious and fast-paced. The songs are fairly short, but are packed with a real animal energy. Om, on the other hand, is meditative – a lot of the songs last up to eight minutes, and are very monotonous and trance-like. It’s interesting to see a band split into two pieces so exactly – we are able to see the exact ingredients of the original product, and, in a way, it goes to show exactly what it was that made them so popular.
Before I move on to Kyuss, it is important to mention another band focused on being ‘heavy’ as opposed to ‘psychedelic’ – Electric Wizard. This English band makes angry, sludgy music, which, to be honest, has a lot more in common with doom metal than stoner metal – however, as the two genres often overlap, there are often lumped in with other stoner bands. Electric Wizard is the exact opposite to Om, tonally – the lyrics are full of passion, and lack philosophic reflection. Samples from old horror films are often used, which add to the spiteful atmosphere. This fits very well to the almost surreally fat riffs, which drip with distortion. Take a look at the song Return Trip if you want a short summary of what the band is about.
On to Kyuss. Some believe that Kyuss are the first ‘true’ stoner metal band, and their most important record (arguably) is Blues for the Red Sun. The opening minute is pure Hawkwind – psychedelic bliss – and then we are back to the usual blues-y riffs we know so well from other songs in the genre. In Kyuss, though, they are far more upbeat (with some obvious exceptions), and while they are heavy, they are not so heavy that you have to sit down and mentally prepare yourself before listening. More trippy elements are heard in the song Freedom Run, where you can hear the title of the track being whispered repeatedly throughout. The band’s most famous song is Demon Cleaner, from the album Welcome to Sky Valley – and it’s easy to see why, with the dream-like vocals and blues riff.
When Kyuss finally split in 1996, the band’s guitarist, after some searching, formed Queens of the Stone Age, which is the quite possibly the most famous stoner metal band. While I love QOTSA, their work strays a lot from classic stoner metal, so I will only discuss it only briefly. In my opinion, their best album is Songs for the Deaf, so if you’re interested, definitely take a look.
Stoner metal has been an underground genre from the very beginning. Perhaps people are turned off by the fantasy lyrics, the slow pace of the riffs, or the very title of the genre (although it is very misleading – the music itself is just blues-based 70s rock). Hopefully, I have managed to intrigue some of you with this article. There are countless other fantastic bands that I have not mentioned for lack of space and time (such as Acid King, Orange Goblin and Fu Manchu), but do explore – there are a lot of quality acts out there. The lyrics to Jerusalem mention a ‘riff-filled land’ – and right now, you are on your way to discovering it.