By Keith Henderson
Desert Sessions - Volume 5/6 (1999) Man's Ruin (MR123)
Terra Firma - Terra Firma (1999) The Music Cartel (TMC19CD)
DNaevus - Sun Meditation (1998) Rise Above Records (UK) (CDRISE 16)
On Trial - New Day Rising (1999) Delerium (UK) (DELEC CD071)
Sons of Otis - Temple Ball (1999) Man's Ruin (MR159)
Datura - Visions For The Celestial (1999) Cranium (NZ) (CRM004)
From Aural Innovations #9 (January 2000)
This joint review will act as a kind of 'stoner rock' report for this issue. Every day, more of these bands (that generally-speaking speed up the subterranean sludge of Black Sabbath and add an extra dosage of old-style psychedelia) appear on the scene, but it's questionable whether we really need to hear this many permutations. One of the earlier stoner bands was California's Kyuss (recently dissolved, but then reinvented as Queens of the Stone Age), whose guitarist/leader Josh Homme has also presided over multiple all-star recording sessions at his desert home studio in the Joshua Tree area of southern California. In fact, it's Homme's prominence in the genre that has led some folks to dub the style 'desert rock.' Each of the Desert Sessions (rumored to eventually number 12) was released in order on 10" vinyl, subsequently doubled up on a series of three CDs.
Together, DS5 & 6 total 11 tracks of some bassy sludge rock (of course), some punk tunes, and a couple more oddities. Most of the lyrics were apparently derived from poems that various people around the world submitted for just this purpose... Homme and Co. chose what they liked and adapted them for the music I guess - interesting idea. Lots of Homme's friends from the 'biz' appear on the album, like guitarist Dave Catching and drummer Brant Bjork (also from the QotSA/Kyuss family), but no John McBain (ex-Monster Magnet) this time. A bunch of different guest vocalists are featured, several of which aren't particularly good. The punk tunes on the DS5 portion are quite nasty in fact, and the "Letters to Mommy" is downright awful (have you ever heard Meat Puppets' "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds"?). I did like "Goin' to a Hangin'" even though it's not very stonerlike, rather more like 80's Minneapolis punk/alternative (Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum). The second half (DS6) is more interesting... "A#1" and "Rickshaw" are both grinding rockers with decent vocals. "Teens of Thailand" is my favorite, like a gentler "Electric Funeral" at the outset - all laid back and trippy, only to crank it up again at the end. But these are interspersed with more bits of strangeness, like the silly surf-flavored "Take Me to Your Leader" (sounds a little like fIREHOSE actually). An odd collection of things which always keep you guessing...must be fun hanging with Josh in the desert. On the web: http://www.mansruin.com.
Terra Firma is from Stockholm, Sweden, a country known for its fair share of stoner rockers (and even moreso in the realm of doom metal). Straight from the opening bars of "Rainbow Ride" leading off their self-titled debut, I detected a little dash of Hendrix flavor added to their Sabbathy brew. And these psychedelic guitar stylings of Freddie Eugene are persistent throughout the entire album of energetic metallized tunes. "And the 8th Seal Was Her's" is the one where he squeezes his axe through the phase-shifter big time - you knew that was coming sooner or later! Singer Lord Chritus has a touch of that same mocking tone Ozzy is famous for (perhaps a little less helium-charged), a decent-enough singer for this outfit anyway. "Separate Graves" is the one acoustic offering, a lilting waltz (i.e., 3/8 time) with a nice dreamy flavor and soft vocals revealing little in common with Chritus' full-bore voice on the other tracks. Terra Firma's brand of stoner rock is prime air guitar material, complete with a little hair tossing if you like. Let 'em open for Monster Magnet perhaps, but I can't see them making much 'noise' on the global scene, esp. given the glut of competition. Contact: Terra Firma, P.O. Box 6211, 102 34 Stockholm Sweden.
Germany's Naevus released their debut (?) "Sun Meditation" last year, so I'm a little behind on these guys. This quartet plays music that's every bit as hard-drivin' as any other stoner outfit, but their sound is a little cleaner. The dual guitars of Uwe Groebel (also the band's vocalist) and Oli Grobhans are wonderfully punchy and thickly layered, but still give room for the bass and vocal tracks to exist on their own. Songs like "Mirrordancer" are quality headbanging feasts with just enough psychedelic flavor to tease my palate, but quite a few are pretty much classic metal (albeit good ones). OK, the titles of these songs (also including "Dreamworld Wizard" and "Dreamrider") gives you the hint right away that Uwe et al. have been listening to too much Dio in the pursuit of inspiration for their lyrics, but c'mon, who cares if the songs are inane? (I don't even wanna know what "Sleeping Juice" refers to!) In "The 3rd Sun," we learn about the "planets and stars" being the "mountains of the universe." Um, ok, on the right track here; and one of my favorites on the album as it turns out (obligatory Sabbath reference: "Hand of Doom"). Naevus is a talented group of musicians that sound like no other German group I've heard, but they don't really offer anything different from their labelmates (e.g., Orange Goblin) or the rest. It's just that Germany is evidently a little behind in jumping on the stoner bandwagon. On the web: http://www.tyler.demon.co.uk/riseabove/.
On Trial is an impressive heavy psych quintet from Denmark, now making its first appearance on the venerable Delerium label. 'New Day Rising' begins off with two less aggressive retro-psych tunes, both rather fun and worthwhile, but then "Pot of Gold" kicks into the hyper fuzz-fest mode and the album takes off from there. A good decision I think. "Long Time Gone" is near breakneck speed and really gets your motor goin'. Here, vocalist Bo Morthen apparently recorded his vocal parts twice (once with and once without effects) to try to match On Trial's twin-guitar attack of Morten Aron and Hobitten. Following the respectable ballad "Doubt" and another rocker, we're treated to the heavenly "Sleeper," all quiet and dreamy, yet without being stripped of its meaty core - outstanding. The lengthy raga-style title track provides another taste of psychedelia and builds nicely towards a 'stone-drone' finish... neat stuff. It's debatable whether On Trial should be lumped in with the stoner gang (their last album 'Head Entrance' was a bit heavier on average), but this one should appeal to anyone who took the time to peruse this column. On the web: http://www.mdb.ku.dk/ontrial. (See Scott Heller's full review of this disc in AI #7 for more.)
'Temple Ball' by Toronto's Sons of Otis (amazingly their second work, following 1996's 'SpaceJumboFudge') was recommended to me by a local record store owner who felt that it was right up my alley. When I learned it was released on Frank Kozik's Man's Ruin label, that's all it took and I had it within the week. Well, I'm sorry to say that I found it to be a pile of worthless sludge. The songs are excruciatingly slow, stagnant and not even perfomed well. Vocalist Ken sings in a death-metallish style often with heavy effects. But the worst aspect is the constant cymbal-crashing from drummer Emilio. Man, if he wanted to find a good way to get on my nerves, he found it! It sounds really amateurish and downright annoying. Sons of Otis are such a one-trick pony, that it's hard to come up with a high point to at least give the appearance of objectivity. I could point out that the guitarist had a bunch of floor pedals that create some really wild sounds, but I'm afraid that's besides the point... this album is just plain bad. On the web: http://www.dreaming.org/~starry/otis.html.
New Zealand's Datura are back for their sophomore effort ("Visions for the Celestial"), and just as I challenged them to do (as if they listened to me!), the Kiwi trio have broken away somewhat from the L.A. stoner style. Given Craig Williamson's ballsy vocal style and the leisurely-applied power chords of Brent Middlemiss' guitar, I still feel that the group has a Danzig flavor in addition to the massive psychedelic attack, here laid on even thicker than on their debut, 'Allisone.' Apart from the more uptempo "Reaching Out," Datura stick to the more deliberate approach here, which works best on the quieter spacey "Mantra." Sharnay Moxey guests on keyboards, presenting some nice galactic morsels for the listener to chew until the fuzz-wah guitar strands eventually weave their way into the mix - a really nice effect. Also, the gracefully-applied vocals and an overall trippy laid-back feel make "Mantra" an outstanding work that makes me a little less sorry that the Dead Flowers broke up. All in all, this followup proved to be an improvement over "Allisone" (and it's also 13 minutes longer), but again I get the impression that the band can achieve even greater works with a bit more experimentation and evolution of their stoner style. It'll soon come I bet. Contact: Cranium Music at http://www.cranium.co.nz/.
In summary, I'd have to conclude that the On Trial and Datura efforts are the strongest of the bunch, though I believe you can still find better recent examples of this same sort of material from one or two other bands I believe (let me mention Orange Goblin *one more time*). However, what Josh Homme did in his spare time interests me enough to think about tracking down the other volumes in the series. It appears to me that the Desert Sessions serve as his outlet for experimenting in ways that probably wouldn't be acceptable to fans of his main act. (Hence, I accept the occasional dubious outcome.) And as I see it, that's the only way the stoner genre is going to have *any* life at all in the next millenium. Without these new approaches, stoner rock is doomed for oversaturation and banality.