You don’t need a medicinal prescription to enjoy these thick, crushing tunes
Whether a casual smoker, a daily toker or a straight-edge lifer, almost everyone can agree on one thing; stoner culture is pretty damn toxic. From the excessive commoditization of Bob Marley flags and wear to the almost childlike opposition of the status quo and its rules, it’s all fairly insufferable.
Well, almost. Though the subject matter may not appeal to all, stoner rock and stoner metal were undeniably instrumental to the development of many popular genres, namely heavy metal and rock as we know them today. With genre pioneers Sleep stopping by Montreal’s Telus Theatre on Jan. 24, there’s no better time to look back at its origins.
While the genre’s foundations are in early traditional doom metal, stoner metal’s roots stem from a very specific scenario: a few years before the seminal Master of Reality, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi had the tips of two fingers severed in a factory incident. Not ready to give up his other gig as a musician, Iommi downtuned his guitar from E standard to C# in order to relieve string tension and put less strain on his injuries.
To say the results were astounding may sound crass, yet songs such as “Children of the Grave” became essential in establishing the downtuned, bass-heavy tones associated with stoner rock and metal. Starting in the late ‘80s, tons of bands, many hailing from the Californian heat, emerged pushing forth a chunkier, slower and more intensely psychedelic riff on Sabbath’s winning formula.
Of these bands was none other than Sleep; though originally a quartet, Sleep quickly reformatted to the winning three-piece behemoth that thrived on their three studio albums. While Sleep’s Holy Mountain—the band’s second full-length album—pushed the Sabbath formula into heavier, foggier territory, their follow-up was a Herculean accomplishment and a landmark album in its own right. Entitled Dopesmoker, the album consists of a solitary 63 minute-long recording, glacial in pace and elephantine in scale, all engulfed in thick billowing smoke. Made up of only a handful of riffs yet played at a snail’s pace and laden in atmosphere and marijuana-laced imagery, Sleep take the formula to its illogical extreme, delivering something of a masterstroke. This is stoner metal in its most literal and extreme form.
Of course, not all stoner metal is as unwieldy and ambitious as Dopesmoker. Take England’s Electric Wizard for instance: marrying the stoned, crushing riffs of Sleep with ferocious guitars down-tuned to an absolutely guttural A# standard (among other tunings) and themes of religion, fantasy and the leaf, Jus Oborn’s brainchild is as mammoth-sized as it is straightforward. Come My Fanatics opener “Return Trip” is a stunning example of efficiency over acrobatic fretboard excess, its buzzing guitars sounding like an atom bomb, while Dopethrone staple “Funeralopolis” is an instantly iconic, doom-infused spin on the classic Sabbath formula. Reliable and consistent, you just can’t go wrong with Electric Wizard.
Not all stoner metal is as deeply indebted to Black Sabbath as these two however. Take genre-benders Boris for example; based in Japan, this powerhouse trio has a veritable laundry-list of releases spanning virtually every genre you can think of (yes, even J-Pop). Though the quality and consistency of their output is somewhat debatable, a surefire entry point to it is their 2005 release Pink. Combining the noisy sonic theatrics of Boredoms with the aggressiveness of hardcore punk and the crunch of sludge metal, Pink is Boris distilled down to its purest form. Whether hammering out some head-bobbing stoner rock on “Woman on the Screen” or embracing wall upon wall of buzzing, ear-shattering feedback on the exhaustive finale “Just Abandoned Myself,” Boris are as fun and innocent as they are artful and boundary-pushing.
Though stoner metal often isn’t complete without a handful of oblique references to the plant that spawned it, one shouldn’t mistake it for the culture it’s unfortunately attached to. As with almost all forms of music, lyrics are but a facet of the entire package. Don’t let the fumes dissuade you; inside lies an onslaught of tasty riffs, colossal percussion and some endearingly corny lyrics.