Friday, January 2, 2015

The Stoner Rock Mysteries: Top 13 of '14

And so another year has mercifully come to a conclusion. 2014 proved to be a most trying time for your humble author --easily the most difficult one he has had since the maelstrom that was 2002. Setbacks and death were especially prevalent and both came together on one especially horrific date that was naturally littered with numerical significance --both on a personal and metaphysical level.

But by and large nothing good comes from dwelling on the negative turns one's life can take from time to time and it is thus especially fitting that this blog's particular year end wrap-up should concern the one glowing positive of my 2014: blessed music.

As I noted at the onset of the year, I was planning on making an effort into getting back to what has long been one of the great passions of my life: rock 'n roll shows. I will be eternally grateful to Christopher Knowles for his Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll, which helped me to finally understand such endeavors have typically presented me with an experience that at times was borderline mystical. This article and virtually all the pieces on this blog written in the last few years concerning rock 'n roll have been heavily influenced by Mr. Knowles' conception of the modern day rock scene as an unconscious (or in at least one case, conscious) revival of the Ancient Mysteries.

In this context, rock concerts bring some of the awe and terror that the festivals of the Ancient Mysteries as well as the practices of shamans the world over inspire. I'm pleased to say that I followed through on my above stated objective and took in at least ten concerts this year. Things got off to a smashing start when I saw Clutch this past January and tonight I shall once again start off a new year with a Clutch concert, this time featuring the great Torche as support.

But so much about my life. Let us move on to the matter at hand, namely the top stoner rock albums of 2014. As long time readers of this blog are aware, I have something of a fondness for this gerne (which, for the uninitiated, is something of a catch all term for a variety of styles including sludge and doom metal, post-metal, retro heavy and/or occult rock, drone, heavy psych, desert rock, fuzz rock and on and on) in no small part due to its frequently twilight language-laden visual and lyrical bent. While such a gerne would naturally feature a fondness for drugs, especially psychedelics, and has attempted in a multitude of ways to musically recreate the experience, stoner rock has become increasingly fixated upon mythology, Lovercraftian mythos, superheros, archetypes, the occult and the like in recent years as well. Thus, it has become quite fertile ground for both conscious and unconscious explorations of many things arcane and delightfully weird. With this in mind, let us move along to the count down.

Black Power Flower --Brant Bjork and the Low Desert Punks

Brant Bjork is one of the pioneers of what is now referred to as stoner rock. He got his start as the drummer of desert rock trail blazers Kyuss in the 1990s and helped establish the now semi-legendary Palm Desert scene and its glorious "generator parties" --truly a spontaneous modern day Bacchanalia if ever there was one. From there Brant would go onto drum for the great Fu Manchu during some of their peak years before departing in 2002. More recently he once again stepped back behind the drum kit for Vista Chino --effectively a Kyuss reunion sans Josh Homme. This group has yielded one excellent album thus far that made last year's top 13 list

Beginning in the late 1990s, however, Bjork would begin to focus on his solo career. He has taken essentially two different approaches to this: albums, such as his classic debut Jalamanta, in which he played virtually all the instruments; and various full band projects such as Che, the Bros and now the Low Desert Punks in which he is the chief songwriter and visionary. As a general rule of thumb the former albums have been more mellow and even experimental affairs (he's even released two albums, Local Angel and Tres Dias, that were almost entirely acoustic) while the full band works have been more conventional desert rock albums.

Black Power Flower is true to form and is easily the heaviest thing BB has released as a solo artist up to this point. That being said, this is still much more a hard rock than heavy metal album and has the same 70s vibe throughout all of BB's solo works possess. It does, however, featuring a delightfully dirty guitar tone as well --one of which listeners of Vista Chino's debut will immediately see a familiarity with.  

BB is certainly not the world's most esoteric artist, though he is capable of surprisingly potent (if simple) political statements at times. Little of that is present in this outing, however. Rather, BB seems chiefly concerned with kicking out the jams and in that he succeeds in spades. "Buddha Times (Everything is Fine)" rides a steady groove while "That's a Fact, Jack" is wah-wah city. "Hustler's Blues" points towards Brant's more psychedelic side and takes the listener places during its closing jam. "Where You From, Man", the album closer, is even more tripped out but on the whole this is an idea one to listen to in the car while rolling through the country side once spring sets in. And like all the best desert rock, it maintains a delightfully hypnotic atmosphere throughout.

Refractory Obdurate --Wovenhand

Here's your esoterica --dark Americana littered with a conspiratorial world view. Wovenhand is generally described as either an alternative country, neo-folk or post-punk outfit, though in recent years they've taken on a more metallic edge that has drawn the attention of a certain type of metalhead. I'm not familiar with this group's work prior to this outing, so I don't have a point of reference to fall back on but this album could best be described as 80s Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with more fuzzed out guitars. And there's nothing wrong with that folks.

Like Cave, Wovenhand founder, chief songwriter, vocalist and guitarist David Eugene Edwards heavily incorporates Biblical imagery into his lyrics, giving the preceding ample hell fire and brimstone. But whereas Cave frequently adopted the persona of the figures he sang of, Edwards is apparently quite serious in his world view. He has repeatedly described himself as a deeply Christian individual and frequently posts Biblical passages on the group's Facebook page. But based upon a recent interview with the man, one does not get the sense he has much use for fundamentalists.

But regardless, faith weighs heavily upon Refractory Obdurate. Tracks such as "Masonic Youth" and "The Refractory" will no doubt speak to conspiracy buffs though they seem to have a personal meaning. "Hiss", possibly the heaviest track on here, was described by Edwards as "basically just Isaiah 5 just set to music" while haunting closer "El-Bow" is an ode to Nimrod and the Tower of Babal (or perhaps the whole album is meant as a loose concept album concerning such things?). "Good Shepherd" is everything the title indicates set to an almost Echo and the Bunnymen-like central riff.

It probably goes without saying, the spirit of the ongoing American apocalypse is certainly captured within this recording.

Clearing the Path to Ascend --Yob

Cosmic doom titans Yob return with their seventh study album, the follow up to 2011's Atma and also their first outing since singer/guitarist/founder Mike Scheidt's 2012 solo outing Stay Awake. Yob have long been one of the most metaphysically inclined bands linked to the stoner rock community, having practically pioneered the whole concept of "cosmic doom" in the first place. Their songs are frequently epic-length, routinely gong over the ten minute mark and rarely finishing up in under six. A typical Yob album only possess four or five tracks but usually lasts for around an hour.

Yob can certainly bring the heavy with Scheidt's crushing riffs and guttural vocals, but they're also capable of introspective and even psychedelic atmospheres (though less so as far as the latter is concerned in recent years). Their lyrical content is always littered with esteroica and ... Ascend (as the title makes clear) is no exception.

The album seems to be a kind of concept album revolving around the process of initiation. The opening track, "In Our Blood" (which opens with a sample of a voice proclaiming "Time to wake up") seems to be a reflection upon such things after the process is completed. The second track, "Nothing to Win", is driven by a Neurosis-like tribal assault from drummer Travis Foster in which the horrors of the modern world call out for a kind of spiritual release. "Unmask the Spectre", with its cries of "Arise Rigpa!" chronicles the onset of illumination while everything comes together on the epic (what else?) closer "Marrow".  

While ... Ascend is certainly a compelling outing it is easy to overlook as Scheidt and company have churned out so much quality work for so long now. Lesser acts would kill for an album like this, but for Yob this is an almost workman-like production.

Milking the Stars --Monster Magnet

Of all the albums listed here I find this one the hardest to rank. I've probably listened to it much more than many of the albums that will follow but as the title implies, this record is little more than a reworking of tracks from last year's The Last Patrol from these stoner rock pioneers. Patrol, which came in at number two in last year's list, was easily the strongest album Monster Magnet had produced since their 90s space rock heyday and its easy to see why frontman Dave Wyndorf was tempted to get as much mileage out of these songs as he possibly could. 

Essentially this album reworks eight of Patrol's nine tracks (only the Donovan cover "Three Kingfishers" is excluded) while adding an instrumental called "Goliath Returns" and the haunting title track, apparently a leftover from the Patrol sessions. The reworkings are a bit of a mixed bag --Patrol's title track, for instance, is galaxies better than the instrumental version known as "Let the Circus Burn" that appears here. "Stay Tuned (Even Sadder)" is surprisingly more potent, however, than the version that appears on Patrol while the "Hallelujah (Fuzz and Swamp)" is transformed into a truly acid-ified gospel stomp. 

So while this album may be a bit superfluous it none the less captures the spirit of modern America on the brink as well as anything that has come out this year. And certainly makes for a fabulous companion piece to Refractory Obdulate.

Darkness Died Today --Sigiriya

This album marks the second outing for the Welsh four piece. Within the stoner rock community this band gained some buzz when it first formed back in 2009 due in no small part to the fact that the original four members had been fourths/fifths of the legendary Acrimony, whose 1997's Tumuli Shroomaroom is considered a classic, though your humble reviewer has yet to partake of it. My understanding is that Sigiriya, whose name derive from one of the holiest spots in Sri Lanka, is much more rocking than the oh-so-tripped-out Acrimony. Certainly the sound present on Darkness Died to Day is more in line with some of the poppier sludge metal that has come out of the Georgia scene in recent years while new vocalist Matt Williams (who was not a part of Acrimony) and his style echo early 1990s grunge, most notably Soundgarden. But don't let the latter scare you off. 

While this album is suitably crunchy and rocking it none the less manages to be surprisingly catchy and anthemic. Tracks like "Tribe of the Old Oak" and "Obelisk" are pagan delights while "Guided by Mountains" almost brings chills with the refrain of "I get blown away by the face in a mushroom cloud." Fans of the gerne will find nothing here especially surprising, but the craftsmanship behind this record is both first rate and instantly familiar. 

Commune --Goat

This Swedish outfit is a retro folk/worldbeat/heavy psych type outfit with a highly ritualistic live show featuring striking masks. So they naturally belong somewhere on here. Really, I would almost have to include them for their alleged back story alone. The Quietus reports:
"As back stories go, it's an absolute corker. Goat are a mysterious band from the tiny village of Korpilombolo in northern Sweden. According to legend, Korpilombolo has a long history of voodoo worship, after a travelling witch doctor settled there several centuries ago. When Christian crusaders invaded and destroyed the village, the surviving townsfolk placed a curse on Korpilombolo as they fled. It's said that the effect of the curse is still felt today, and informs the highly rhythmic and trance-like music played by generations of villagers, which, in turn, has shaped Goat's extraordinary debut album, World Music."
The Quietus goes on to make the startling revelation that this story is "not entirely rooted in reality." Regardless it is a fact that Commune, Goat's second outing, is a stark improvement over their perfectly enjoyable but oh-so-over-hyped debut. While World Music at times seemed more like a collection of compelling song ideas than the genuine article, Commune makes for a more natural fusion of the contrasting styles.

Opener "Talk to God" sets the tone with its driving afrobeat and acoustic guitars paired with spiritual musings delivered in an almost-chant like faction by a female vocalist (I wish I could be a bit more specific, but names of the band members are a bit hard to come by). Unfortunately I can not make out the lyrics well enough to discern whether the group is in fact serious or very dedicated pranksters, but can you go wrong with how the moody instrumental "To Travel the Path Unknown" (which opens with a spoken word bit musing on "the positive force of the constant creation of evolution" and such like) bleeds into the wah-soaked acid rock guitars of "Goatchild"; or the samples of Floyd Red Crow Westerman (whom X-Files fans are well acquainted with) that introduce the glorious "Goatslaves"? Certainly this album is a trip into something.

Pagan Fruit --Dwellers

The Dwellers have their origins in heavy space rock mavens Iota, who's 2008 Tales has become something of a cult classic within the community. That grouped petered out toward the end of the last decade, spurring singer/guitarist Joey Toscano to focus on this power trio, fleshed out by two former members of the occult doom band Subrosa as the rhythm section. But while Iota was both heavier and more grandiose (with more than a few of their songs going over ten minutes), the Dwellers approach to heavy psych has been a bit more classical in terms of both influences and song structures. While they certainly have their jammier moments, the Dwellers use early acid rock trios such as the Jimi Hendrix Experience and especially Cream as a template to build upon.

Frequently their is a bluesy touch to Toscano's playing, which only heightens the classic feel and his vocals are more upfront and smooth than in Iota as well. But Dwellers are not a full on retro rock outfit and there are plenty of modern day heavy psych and grunge influences present as well. Opener "Creature Comfort" sets the tone with its bluesy and lazy leads set to slow groove as Toscano muses about selling his hair to a witch. Vibraphones are incorporated into the stately "Return to the Sky" while a classic Rhodes piano graces "Son of Raven". 

Despite the album name and some of the song titles, the lyrics seem to be chiefly personal and introspective. But sometimes a hazy atmosphere such as the one found in "The Rare Eagle" can convey things that words simply can't do justice to. This album has a truly unique vibe to it and probably would have been ranked higher a few months ago as it is the perfect soundtrack to a lazy summer day.

 The Conjuring --Wo Fat

If nothing else, this album would certainly be high in the rankings for the best cover art of the year. Fortunately, Wo Fat's fifth studio album more than delivers. Hailing from Texas, Wo Fat is another power trio that fuses elements of the old and new. While ZZ Top, Captain Beyond and Hendrix all weigh heavy on their sound, Wo Fat brings shades of the fuzzed out riffs of desert rock staples such as Kyuss and Fu Manchu as well as the oh-so druggy doom of Sleep. Throw in a frequently swampy atmosphere and you have a group that is both infinitely familiar, but also with their own peculiar niche.

The Conjuring is probably Wo Fat's heaviest outing up to this point, with their Sleep influence being especially evident throughout (epic closer "Dreamwalker" even references the stoner rock pioneers a time or two). The almost ten-minute long title track opens the proceedings with a sample from the 1957 Curse of the Demon over the back of an effects-laden bass and swirls of guitar feedback. From there the song slowly builds until the band locks into a solid groove around the two minute mark over which swampy riffs and druggy leads make their presence known. Coupled with vocalist/guitarist Ken Stump's Southern-fried musing on a magical working gone wrong and you certainly have a most foreboding atmosphere. 

The band is able to maintain it throughout the first half. "Read the Omens", possibly the catchiest and certainly the fastest track here, adds some 80s metal flourishes to the stew while the slow, bluesy "Pale Rider From the Ice" (which inspired the album's cover art) is truly haunting the way the best mythology can be. From there though Wo Fat lose the path a bit. 

The bluesy stomp of "Beggar's Bargain" is compelling in and of itself but rather out of place when compared to the far darker tracks the preceded it. And while closer "Dreamwalker" has many breathtaking moments, it is also seems a bit inconsistent with the first half atmosphere-wise and at over seventeen minutes becomes a bit redundant before its close. Still, the strength of the first half of this album cannot be denied and the flow of it would no doubt be less jarring when listened to on vinyl (the medium for which the tracks were surely arranged for).

Monsoon Season --Biblical

Hailing from Toronto, Canada, this four piece is headed by an individual known as Nick Sewell. Sewell is both the son of former Toronto major John Sewell and the former frontman for a band called the Illuminati. And now he returns with a group called Biblical, the name of which apparently being taken from a line uttered by Bill Murray in the first Ghostbusters movie (which, if "Simon" is to believed, was partly inspired by his discovery of the Necronomicon). Surely these things alone are enough to spur David McGowan and/or Jan Irving to link Sewell to the behavior modification programs of the CIA. 

There does not, however, seem to be an especially conspiratorial bent to Monsoon Season, Biblical's debut album. It more than makes up for it with a spacey atmosphere throughout, however. I've seen this band inexplicably compared to Motorhead a time or two online, and while their may be the occasional similarity between Sewell's vocals and those used by Lemmy, Monsoon Season is certainly far more Space Ritual than No Sleep 'til Hammersmith. Opener "Second Sight" is easily the most rocking thing on here, with things quickly settling into a lysergic haze in its wake. "The Quiet Crooks" is down right Pink Floyd-ian while the cover of "Married Man" rides the back of a spaghetti western-style guitar riff. The ten minute-plus closing title track completes the journey into the stratosphere. 

Stranded in Arcadia --Mars Red Sky

The sophomore outing for this French heavy psych trio. While the group's 2011 self-titled debut certainly showed promise, it is with this album that they have come into their own. Originally the trio had planned on recording it in Southern California so as to soak up the atmosphere of desert rock's birth place after playing a week of shows in South America. But due to issues with the group's visas they were denied entrance into these United States and ended up recording this album in Rio de Janeiro. Hence the title. 

This album certainly has a sunny vibe that runs throughout. Opener and longest track "The Light Beyond" begins with some distant guitar plucking and otherworldly vocals followed by some doomy riffing before settling into its main groove. It also features the first of what will be a series o increasingly catchy choruses throughout the album's first side. "Hovering Satellites" maintains that same sunny and hazy vibe while adding some double bass punch to the precedings. Both "Holy Mondays" and "Join the Race" are insanely catchy, with bassist Jimmy Kinast joining guitarist and chief singer Julien Pras on vocals for the latter. Either of these tracks come off as really, really heavy takes on the Beatles psychedelic pop phase. 

Unfortunately, the album loses a bit of steam in the second half. It is bookended by two instrumentals, "Arcadia" and "Beyond the Light" (an instrumental reprise of the opener) and is thus heavy on atmosphere. But try as "Seen a Ghost" might, the second half can't quite keep up with the jovial first half. Again, this likely wouldn't have been as big an issue when listening to this album on vinyl, but when listened to all the way through one can't help but feel the second half loses a little something. Still, "Holy Mondays" alone is reason enough to check out this album. 

Empress Rising --Monolords

The debut for this Swedish trio. Fellow cosmic doomers Yob and Sleep were surely heavy influences on this group. But Monolords immediately establish their own character, one that is not quite as heavy as Yob and certainly more serious than Sleep. While I've found no indications whatever that this group has a serious interest in the occult this album is as fine an ode to Hekate or any of the other archetypal death goddesses as one is likely to encounter. This album is akin to a nightmare trip of the apocalypse as overseen by some primordial crone.

Things get off to a striking beginning with the open title track, which builds from some druggy guitar runs into a truly pummeling groove. "Harbinger of Death" works another crushing groove while "Icon" even incorporates some tribal flairs. On the whole the album is heavy as a brick yet maintains an ethereal air throughout. Likely will appeal to fans of psychedelia and doom in equal measures.

Universe --Truckfighters

Swedish fuzz rockers Truckfighers return with their fourth studio album. Like many of the Nordic fuzz bands (i.e. Dozer, Lowrider, Brain Police, etc), the Truckfighters started outing aping Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age-style desert rock, but gradually added more prog elements over the years, giving them a rather novel sound by this point. 

While Universe does not mark much of a progress in sound from their last outing, 2009's Mania, it may well be the strongest batch of songs the group has offered up since their debut. And I do wish I could make out the lyrics to this outing as the art work and song titles such as "Mind Control" strongly indicate that this album had some type of conspiratorial theme throughout. But even without such clarity this album makes for a great rock record that still manages to be insanely catchy and even epic. Probably the album's strongest song (and possibly the best one ever written by the band) is "Get Lifted", almost eight minutes of pure bliss that builds from an airy guitar line and almost robotic groove into a finish that is both soaring and heavy in equal measures. 

Closer "Mastodont" (supposedly a tribute to Georgia sludge metal outfit Mastodon) covers multiple sections over its nearly 14 minutes before fading into a gorgeous acoustic guitar bit that closes out the album. And what about "The Chairman", which was released as a single last year? If nothing else it proved to be a perfect glimpse of the robot grooves, fuzz guitars and epic bent of this album. Highly recommended.

Samsara --The Well

The debut album for this Houston, Texas-based occult/doom/garage/heavy psych outfit. At times this album seems like the soundtrack to my research with its Sabbath-y guitars, psychedelic explorations and occult-soaked lyrics and imagery. Opener "Mortal Bones" begins with a sample of Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling discussing a temple dedicated to Amun-Ra that was no doubt lifted from one of the numerous educational documentaries to which he provided voice over narration in the 1970s. From there the band launches into a classic groove punctuated by vocalist/guitarist Ian Grahan's musings on ancient astronauts from Mars kneeling before Isis

This is about as fitting an introduction as the Well could have managed. The ancient astronaut theme is continued with "Refuge" where Graham is joined by bassist Lisa Alley on vocals. They make for a nice pairing and effectively work the dirty bluesy, Sabbathy groove they conjure for all its worth. "Eternal Well" is even more epic and drugged out. Closer "I Bring the Light" is the most rocking track here and possibly the song of the year. And how can any synchro-mystical blogger not dig on the opening verse of:

"My father as a prophet
A diviner and a thief
He taught me all his secrets
And the wisdom of the east
My mother was a maenad
Bleeding magic from the moon
And fed me on the power
That led to her doom"

the Well
If that's not enough, the album even features a Pink Floyd cover from the Syd Barrett era no less: "Lucifer Sam". Fun fact: Years ago when Recluse worked at 7-Eleven, he wore a name tag with the name Lucifer Sam upon it. So yes, if you're a fan of this blog, you owe it to yourself to track this stunning debut down.

And so concludes a list which I hope will give the naysayers who insist that there's no good music being made anymore pause. As a bonus, here are a few honorable mentions:

Old World New Wave --Ides of Gemini
II --Mothership
Spirit Knife --Jeremy Irons and the Ratgang Malibu
Lurar Ut Dig Pa Prarien -Salem's Pot
Trails and Passes --Greenleaf
self-titled --The Socks
Beyond Thule --Blue Snaggletooth

On the whole it was an especially impressive year for the legendary Small Stone Records as well as the upstart Riding Easy Records. Small Stone placed two releases, The Conjuring and Pagan Fruit, in the top 13 while issuing the above mentioned records from Jeremy Irons and the Ratgang Malibu, the Socks and Greenleaf. These are just the latest of many fine releases the label has bequeathed to humanity over the years.

Riding Easy's showing is even more impressive, however. They issued the albums by Monolords and The Well which came in at three and one in the top 13 respectively. The also released the debut by Salem's Pot, which got an honorable mention. The debut album by Electric Citizen, Sateen, was also compelling and probably would have made the cut had I not only just got around to listening to it a few days days ago. I've also heard wonderful things about Hornss' No Blood No Sympathy, another debut album issued this year by Riding Easy, but I've yet to pick that one. On the whole the label is quickly establishing a niche for itself with these glorious and at times sleazy doom and psychedelia records. Hopefully this is only the beginning.

While we're on the subject out shout outs I would also like to give a big thank you to the Obelisk and Fast 'n' Bulbous for their tireless effort to chronicle the heavy underground. If you've enjoyed this list then one is strongly advised to check out the year end lists posted by those two blogs, which can be found here and here.

And with that I shall wrap things up for now. Until next time dear readers and the best to all of you in this new year and increasingly unstable world. 


  1. Seriously thank you so much for this. Been wanting some music suggestions for a long while. With The Well you struck a real chord: being from Houston I recall some really great music from back in the day. Check out Pain Teens, Crust and Dead Horse for some clues. Also Charalambides' "Our Bed is Green." Happy New Year and thanks for a really fantastic blog.

  2. Don't listen to anything anymore but those were some truly great covers. Loved the art.

  3. Anon-

    Houston's music scene really seems to be undergoing a renaissance of late. I knew Wo Fat was based out of there and I think they've developed into one of the best American heavy bands around over the past half decade. Mothership, who is also from Houston, was quite impressive live when I saw this past April and I think they're on the verge of a breakthrough songwriting wise. I actually first heard of the Well after talking to members that group and they ended up yielding the strongest album of the year. Now that Wo Fat has started to establish an international reputation and the Well and Mothership are gaining some buzz, it will be most interesting to see how the scene develops.


    I happy New Years to you and glad you dug the covers. I think Small Stone Records always puts out especially awesome artwork for their albums.