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Where there's smoke

Cutting through the haze of stoner rock



High on Fire
Surrounded by Thieves
Relapse Records

You never want stoner rock to sound too polished or overproduced. That’s lethal, because it detracts from the delinquent aura generated by a bunch of potheads jamming in the basement of someone’s mom’s house, knee-deep in empty beer cans and surrounded by the iconography of ’70s heavy metal. The guitars should sound deep and dense—in other words, heavy—but a few degrees of crispness duller than optimal. That way the listener has to fill it out somewhat using his imagination—and I do mean his, as the ratio of male to female stoner-rock fans seems to be about ten to one. The best riffs lumber along in 4/4 time without being too clever. Like the solos, they should never be too busy, and they should be in the key of C as often as possible.

Singers of stoner rock typically fall into one of two categories: the laid-back surfer type and the smoker’s-cough kind who also sounds like he’s straining to move a week’s worth of bowel backup. Fu Manchu’s Scott Hill falls into the first category, High on Fire’s Matt Pike into the second. His vocal cords must look like two Triscuits glued together.

In any event, stoner rock singers should never sound too angry—at least not in a topically-focused way, because that would mean they obviously aren’t stoned enough. An agreeable vagueness in the lyrics is preferable, particularly if those lyrics allude to some sort of mythological or metaphysical construct that can only be appreciated—if not fully understood—by listeners who smoke a ton of weed. Cool song titles are of paramount importance: “Twin Earth,” by erstwhile Ur-drug-rockers Monster Magnet, is a kick-ass name for a song, even if the meaning is far from clear after a hundred listens. A significant part of the appeal is that it’s anyone’s guess how earnest the band is about its subject matter, a quandary made even funnier by the fact that many stoner bands write lyrics half in modern English and half in some archaic tone straight out of an entmoot in The Fellowship of the Ring. Consider High on Fire’s “Thraft of Caanan” [sic!], which contains the uninflected fragments “forged of blackened steel, wields the iron hand” and simply “stoned again.” Then there’s “(Ballad of) The Yeti,” about a “creature of frost” whose “feet take flight upon the tundran ice” as he races to climb aboard a flying saucer. A certain unsticking in the space-time continuum, tempered with a selective interest in imaginary shunned texts and alternative cosmologies, characterizes these and most of the other songs on High on Fire’s Surrounded by Thieves album. As does a strong dose of D&D fantasy—the cover features what looks to be a warrior’s-eye view of impending massacre at the hands of orc-like creatures.

In its previous incarnation, High on Fire was a similar-sounding trio called Sleep—the band for which the term “stoner rock” was popularized, and possibly invented. After securing a major-label advance for their second album (lore has it that the band actually smoked its way through the money in fairly short order), Sleep delivered Jerusalem: an album consisting of a single, glacially slow, mind-melting 52-minute meditation on marijuana and the Old Testament. When the band further announced that it had no intention of touring to support what was essentially an airplay-proof album in the first place, London Records dropped them in 1998. Since then, Jerusalem has been released on a succession of smaller labels, most recently The Music Cartel. Fans of the Melvins at their slowest crawl are advised to seek out a copy. Individual mileage may vary; if nothing else, Jerusalem is a monument to singlemindedness. It consists of perhaps a half dozen variations on the same pounding riff, and vocalist Pike wavers not once from his chosen pitch.

High on Fire is somewhat more diverse—Pike sings at about three different pitches, and the monolithic quality is broken up only slightly by a handful of tempo changes from song to song. They never stray too far from their chosen formula, though. Which is probably fine with fans of Sleep. Fans cherish consistency over diversity anyway—look what happened (or, rather, didn’t happen) to Fu Manchu once they started fiddling with a new sound. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I like stoner rock myself, although I’ll be the first to admit that the boat is getting pretty full. I would even go so far as to predict that if, at some future date, cannabis prohibition suddenly comes to an end, legalization might actually put a dent in the popularity of this genre. A large part of stoner rock’s popularity stems from the music as kind of a shibboleth, a self-referential loop predicated on something most fans and musicians can both agree on without too much haggling over specifics. Namely, weed—after all, the working title of Jerusalem was the one-size-fits-both Dopesmoker. Then again, the deathblow might be not decriminalization, but desymbolization—as the illicit appeal of the drug dries up, so might the steady flow of this kind of music. When it becomes more acceptable to publicly confess one’s cannabinolic proclivities, perhaps a deluge of drearily confessional “drug experience” journalism will also gush forth.

Then again, maybe there will be a surge in stoner rock as more young bands stumble across whatever universal stoneralities are bound up in this kind of music. And then everyone will be writing songs about the Yeti.

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