Stoner rock, as a genre, welds the rough revolt of rock to the trance-like rhythms of a drugged man’s mind – yielding copious walls of brain-numbing electric chug.
In short, it’s heavy, loud rhythmic rock dipped in doom tones and altered with acid.
No man’s land in a cloud of noise… Stoner rock grabs you by the skull and screams from far, far away. It’s both relaxing and aggressively innervating at once.
Bass-heavy distortion and shrieking vocals color stoner rock in the dingy, dusty hue of the desert it was birthed in. It all started in a place with palms.
Palm Desert’s Stoners
The stones in the name are a direct reference to weed and what-have-ye; cannabis is as influential to the sub-genre as the desert itself. ‘Desert rock,’ though used interchangeably with ‘stoner rock,’ is not necessarily the same thing. Desert rock was a localized phenomenon; stoner rock a psychedelic one. The birthplace of the two, however, is the same. Palm Desert.
14 miles East of Palm Springs, California, the relatively small city of Palm Desert afforded seasonal snowbirds a prime spot of sunny turf for mid-winter migration. Not a whole lot went on in the area back in the ’90s. It was a quiet retreat; a getaway. The wild “generator parties” thrown by local rock bands some way out in the dust were exceptions, not the norm.
Desert rock was a localized phenomenon; stoner rock a psychedelic one. The birthplace of the two, however, is the same.
Bands rolled into the desert, rolled out their generators and staged rock and roll concerts for intoxicated fans. Such get-togethers were intimate experiences – small groupings of head-bangers stumbling to strange, entrancing rock in a state of self-medicated bliss.
Although the sub-genre’s influences are many – ranging from heavy metal to doom metal, 3 of its pioneers stand out: Sleep, Kyuss, and Yawning Man. All three broke loose from the desert’s sand and shook the nation with a brand new sound.
In the case of Kyuss and Sleep, the doom-styled bass-heaviness of their music set them apart from standard rock bands and its trippy rhythmic sway split them off from heavy metal. They were somewhere in-between. Or beyond…
…the doom-styled bass-heaviness of their music set them apart from standard rock bands and its trippy rhythmic sway split them off from heavy metal.
Sleep went heavy on the funk side – ending up with a weighted tribal-funk sound that’s almost native American if you close your eyes and listen. “Dragonaut” is a stellar example of this, or “Aquarian,” in which effect-smothered vocals swirl over distorted sludge-style riffs like a funky rhythmic tidal wave. They packed a double-dosage of doom too. “The Druid” harnesses shrieked vocals and muddy chugging rhythm to maximum effect.
Kyuss were similar to Sleep, though less funky-tribal and more all-out wall-of-sound-tastic.
John Garcia’s far-out vocals and guitarist Josh Homme’s bass-amplified riffs shaped Kyuss’s sound into less of a sludge-fest – pushing the burgeoning sub-genre’s limits to the outer edges of rock. “Phototropic” and “Whitewater” show their style: drawn out, guitar-driven rhythm easing into an all-out assault on the senses over distant, shouted singing.
…drawn out, guitar-driven rhythm easing into an all-out assault on the senses over distant, shouted singing.
Kyuss, like shrooms, split and spread spores across the desert – each of the band’s members going on to play in additional bands later on. Perhaps most notably, Josh Homme formed Queens of the Stone Age and The Desert Sessions project. Wonder where he got the names…
Yawning Man took a slightly separate path with their own sound – indulging further in the mellow feel of psychedelia, often sans vocals. The surf rock sound is definitely a prime constituent of Yawning Man’s music, but a heap of trance-like repetition and set back drums take you to another dimension with each listen.
…a heap of trance-like repetition and set back drums take you to another dimension with each listen.
With Yawning Man, you get a full-on psychedelic treatment, touched by cool, chill tones. The psychedelic element was also pretty intentional in Yawning Man’s performances – verging on shamanic in style and sound. Try “Catamaran” for a taste of what they’re all about (or Kyuss’s epic cover), “Stoney Lonesome” for more or “Perpetual Oyster” if you’re hopelessly hooked.
Though the band got its start way back when aliens walked the streets in the mid-80’s, they released no official albums until 2005 and their first tour of the U.S. was in 2017.
Big Sound, Big Influence
It’s pretty clear the bands that spearheaded the formation of this sub-genre weren’t expecting much at the time. Yet somehow, their obscure, underground rock movement spread from scorching desert to the world at large – inspiring bands like Truckfighters, Colour Haze, and Elder to take up the loosely-flapping, fly agaric-adorned flag onward and upward.
So much sound… All from a handful of low-key bands playing free shows in the dusty mid-section of nowhere.