To wrap up 2013 in style I've decided to offer up my very own best-of-the-year list focusing in on the top releases from a musical genre generally referred to as "stoner rock". Stoner rock is a bit of catch all for various styles that include desert rock, traditional doom metal, sludge, drone metal, occult rock, fuzz rock, heavy psych, and so forth. As I noted before here, stoner rock is a genre that was seemingly steeped in synchro-mysticism from its very inception.
Desert rock, for instance, was spawned near the infamous thirty-third parallel north in the desert surrounding Palm Desert area. This region also includes Joshua Tree National Park, a location that became legendary in rock 'n roll lore after Gram Parsons' (of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, among others) body was burned there in a bizarre send-off by his road manager. Less than 20 years later the surrounding deserts would play host to what became known as "generator parties."
Local bands would erect makeshift stages deep in the deserts and use generators to power their amps. Festivities would begin shortly after dark, with local kids making the scene and consuming massive amounts of beer, weed and hallucinogens. Frequently the bands would play for hours, not stopping until the early hours of the next day. For all sakes and purposes these generator parties brought rock 'n roll back to its shamanistic origins and it should come as little surprise that musicians who cut their teeth in this environment would become key members in a host of bands that include Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss, Fu Manchu, the Obsessed, Goatsnake, Yawning Man, Fatso Jetson, Masters of Reality, and so forth.
To this very day the whole Palm Desert/Joshua Tree area remains a musical mecca, with both veterans of the Palm Desert scene as well newer bands with no direct links to region heading there to record. Blaak Heat Shujaa, a group comprised of individuals from France and the eastern United States, even went so far as to relocate there before recording their most recent EP and album so as to bask in the atmosphere.
|Rancho De La Luna, one of the famed recording studios in the palm Desert/Joshua Tree region|
|In the Labyrinth's The Garden of the Mysteries (top) and Sabbath Assembly's debut (bottom)|
Before beginning with the countdown I would like to remark on two trends I've noted in this year's releases. The first is that, despite some serious over exposure, the retro occult rock movement continues to churn out quality releases. This movement began in earnest in the mid-00s with the emergence of Sweden's Witchcraft. Witchcraft took the sound of Black Sabbath and 1970s Pentagram and the occasional prog and psychedelic flourishes and fashioned a sound so retro that it was almost more 70s than many albums that were released in the 1970s.
|Witchcraft's landmark debut|
By contrast, the musicians coming from a metal background were not afraid to tackle the most uncouth aspects of the Psychedelic 60s and the Heavy 70s --the witches, the mythological gods, the dragons, the pot smoking wizards, and so forth. In a way this has created an idolized version of the first great wave of heavy music (which ran from roughly 1968 till 1974), one in which every band seems to operate their own coven on the side.
While the reader may find it hard to believe after reading the upcoming list, Recluse does in fact listen to other types of music other than retro occult rock. Indeed, he contemplated rearranging the list several times to reflect this diversity (as well as making the writing process a little easier), but the fact is the albums put out by this subgenre easily surpassed many of the "modern" sounding releases of this year.
The next trend that bares noting is the reflections upon the current state of rock n' roll several of these bands engage in. Rock is of course approaching 65 (or may have already surpassed that mark, depending upon where you date the birth of rock 'n roll), and more than a few observers believe that it is getting a little long in the tooth. It is of course no longer the dominant style of music in youth culture, having long since been surpassed by hip hop, and even its historic live tradition is beginning to fade away, at least in these United States (though possibly not in Europe). This uncertainty seems to have been at the heart of several of the years best releases, inspiring both defiance and contemplation.
And with that out of the way, on to the list...
#13 --Jex Thoth, Blood Moon Rising
Jex Thoth is both the stage name of Jessica Bowen as well as the name of her band. Miss Bowen is one of the pioneers of the modern occult rock sound. She first began recording in the mid-00s as a member of Vanishing Voice, a collective that also included Miss Bowen's ex-husband, James "Wooden Wand" Toth. Around the time their marriage started falling apart Miss Bowen founded Totem with several other members of Vanishing Voice. After realizing the name was already taken, the group was re-christened Jex Thoth and released their acclaimed self-titled debut in 2008.
#12 --Black Pyramid, Adversarial
On their Facebook page Black Pyramid describe their sound as "Psychedelic War Metal." Its an apt label, having grown out of a fusion of Sleep and sludgier groups such as High on Fire and The Sword. After some serious lineup turmoil the formerly Massachusetts-based power trio delivered their third, and possibly final, album earlier in the year.
|a depiction of the First Battle of Issus|
# 11 --Naam, Vow
Naam is the Sanskrit word for "name" but it is also associated with the divine identity of the Creator. It is also a type of meditation, so it should be unsurprising that much of the music produced by the band Naam seems bent on capturing a journey into inner space.
# 10 --Purson, The Circle and the Blue Door
The debut album of a retro occult act with a sound that is largely more prog than proto-metal. This album recalls early Traffic as well as both the British folk of Fairport Convention and the Medieval vibe of King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King, though it occasionally ventures into heavier territory. The founder and chief figure in Purson, a name derived from a fabled demon, is vocalist/guitarist Rosalie Cunningham.
But the Golden Age of rock 'n roll is long past, having succumbed to corporate masters who initially did everything in their power to reduce a vibrant medium to another soulless commodity. Now they are ready to move on from something they always found rather bothersome and cannot hide their glee. The song woefully notes:
#9 --Kadavar, Abra Kadavar
The sophomore outing of the German proto-metal power trio. While a solid release in its own right, this album is certainly a step down from Kadavar's self-titled debut. The debut, which truly sounded like an album that could have been released in 1968 production wise, was aided immensely by a moody atmosphere that lent mystery to its six compositions. By contrast the sophomore outing, while still suitably retro, sounds to "bright." The additional songs and longer running time don't help matters either.
#8 --Spirits of the Dead, Rumors of a Presence
While certainly retro leaning, Spirits of the Dead's earlier work (that Recluse has heard, at least), offered a modern take on acid folk with occasional heavy rock interludes. The Norwegian four-piece's songwriting is firmly rooted in 60s psychedelia and 70s folk, prog and heavy rock, but the approach to production is firmly modern. Many of the tracks SOTD's last offering, The Great God Pan, are so elaborately produced and mixed that the group can not recreate them live as a four piece.
#7 --Hidden Masters, Of This & Others Worlds
It's almost obligatory to put a band with the name Hidden Masters on a synchro-mystical list. Fortunately, the British trio's debut is one of the most unabashedly fun albums of 2013. Unlike many retro bands in the stoner rock camp, Hidden Masters' sound is more Psychedelic 60s than Heavy 70s. Of This & Other World's ten tracks sound like they could have been a bonus disk for the second Nuggets box set, Original Artyfacts From the British Empire and Beyond, as well as displaying shades of more well known acts such as Cream, Revolver-era Beatles, and the Syd Barrett-fronted Pink Floyd. There are also shades of contemporary retro acts such as the Dukes of Stratosphere and Kula Shaker. In short, this is prime psychedelic garage rock with a thoroughly British sense of whimsical and the absurd.
#6 --Wolf People, Fain
This is the second album from the British quartet, though this author is unfamiliar with the group's debut. Like Spirits of the Dead, Wolf People craft songs that sound like 60s/70s rock, but have a contemporary edge. Throughout Fain they beautifully capture the vibe of a British countryside during the early hours of a winter morning. Wolf People manage a very Medieval atmosphere on this album, calling to mind both Fairport Convention as well as Led Zeppelin's folk-centric third album. There's also a bit of Jethro Tull and early King Crimson.
#5 --Blood Ceremony, The Eldritch Dark
This is Blood Ceremony's third, and best, album. Like several of the other albums we've already considered, The Eldritch Dark is strongly influenced by British folk and prog such as Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull (yes, Recluse has a thing for druggy, Medieval-sounding music). Front woman Alia O'Brien even adds some Ian Anderson-style flute parts to the proceedings, along with her vocals and work on the organ. Blood Ceremony is heavier than similar groups such as Purson and Wolf People, however, and unleash ample amounts of thick, sludgy Sabbath-style riffs.
#4 --Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Mind Control
You can't go wrong with an album named Mind Control from a band called Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats. What's more, Uncle Acid may even be a bit synchro-mystically inclined, if the press release they put out in the wake of being selected to open for Black Sabbath during their latest tour is any indication:
"Formed in Cambridge by media-shy frontman K.R. Stars, in an era of profile building, brand-expanding and over-exposure Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats are a cult genuine phenomena. The dictionary definition of cult, in fact: 'a system of religious worship, with reference to its rites and ceremonies. A group or sect bound together by veneration of the same ideal.' In this case: taking rock music back to its ritualistic beginnings when pagan heathens would stomp out a dirt-rhythm and howl at the moon. When music was the carnal catalyst for orgiastic midnight reckonings."
#3 --Vista Chino, Peace
Vista Chino has its origins in Kyuss Lives!, a group formed by Kyuss veterans Brant Bjork (drums), John Garcia (vocals) and Nick Oliveri (bass) to perform the back catalog of the desert rock giants. After ample legal haggling with Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme (who was Kyuss' guitarist) over the name, the group (which also features guitarist Bruno Fevery) rechristened itself Vista Chino and issued its debut this year.
#2 --Monster Magnet, Last Patrol
What synchro-mystical list would be complete without a band whose founder alleged was meant to do for rock 'n roll what Jack Kirby did for comic books?
"Paradise" is seemingly a melancholy take on rock's storied live tradition and its erosion in the States. "Hallelujah" is a scathing send-up of the Mega Church age of Christianity, followed by "The Mindless One." Whether intentional or not, this track echoes long standing Gnostic sentiments concerning the Demiurge who, in some accounts, is referred to as Samael (a word literally meaning "Blind Idiot"). Closer "Stay Tuned" is as good a reflection on the sheer hollowness of Western culture at the onset of the second decade of the twenty-first century as any yet written:
Hell, Last Patrol even has a Donovan cover ("Three Kingfishers") that more than does justice to the original. In other words, it is a triumph of the highest order. Highly recommended.
#1 --Clutch, Earth Rocker
This selection should come as little surprise to regular readers of this blog as I already posted two in depth blogs (which can be found here and here) on Earth Rocker earlier in the year. As noted there, Earth Rocker is a loving tribute to rock 'n roll as well as a call to arms in the ongoing rock 'n roll wars. Thus, it is thematically linked to Last Patrol, though Clutch return to their hard rock roots on this outing rather slipping into the ether as Dave and company did. Unsurprisingly, both albums make great companion pieces to one another.
I don't have much more to add here other than give this band and album a chance if you haven't done so already. Clutch is truly one of the most intelligent and unique heavy rock outfits to emerge over the past twenty years and is still churning out great releases at a point when lesser bands had long ago become pale imitations of their former selves.
Before wrapping things, honorable mentions go to: Beelzefuzz and Vidunder's self-titled debuts, Blaak Heat Shujaa's Edge of an Era, All Them Witches' Lightning at the Door, Eye's Second Sight, ASG's Blood Drive, and Sasquatch's IV. To my readers, I would like to wish all a happy New Years and offer you a hearty thanks for making 2013 by far VISUP's most successful year. Cheers all and stay tuned till next time.