When we’re looking to Sweden or Ukraine we’d usually be after a very different flavour to the tasting tray we’ll be sampling today. But once again we’re gonna reluctantly don our stoner hats, and forage back a few years to a time when this genre was still a big ticket pull; even if signs of a slow, lackadaisical departure were already apparent by the early 2010s. For a more seriously minded metalhead, it’s easy to lampoon stoner. The unnecessary self-limitation the style places on the artist. The focus on static tone and texture over musical story telling. Lyrical clichés tiresome even by metal’s standards. The instantly regressive philosophy of many of the leading artists, aping a bygone age when metal was only just separating from its blues and rock roots. But much like a troublesome dog, we could say the fault lies with the owners, not the animal itself. The fact that so many stoner doom bands are lazy and unimaginative, phoning it in on feedback and low BPMs; this does not mean the genre is inherently barren of potential. If you consider your time to be a valuable commodity, I could understand how the quest for quality stoner doom may seem like a fool’s errand. But this fool is happy to undertake such errands. And on this particular jaunt, I’ve come up with two instructive tales, one of praise and one of caution.
After the half-finished debut ‘First Communion’ (2010), Stoned Jesus’s return in 2012 seemed to come out of nowhere with the release of ‘Seven Thunders Roar’. Gone are the tired, minimal loose blues riffs with little dynamics or colour to recommend them. Instead this Ukrainian outfit added a layer of rich psychedelics and an earthy, folksy sincerity that flows through many of the guitar leads and lyrics. Far be it from me to speculate on the intent of these musicians during the writing process (although I do it all the time), but one feels a deliberate degree of distance from the contemporary crop of stoner doom was sought by this band during this album’s creative process. The guitar tone has a sharp, clean quality to it, the mix is writhe with empty spaces where one would usually expect fuzzy, ringing chords. The drums are tight and place a great deal of value on rhythmic precision over swaying, loose grooves. Sidorenko’s vocals have a mournful, almost tragic air to them, which speaks of graceful pathos more than it does crass self-pity.
And worked through these immediately striking choices in timbre are intricate, spacey melodies that are articulated through the playful interaction of the clean guitar, bass, and subtly distorted guitar tones. What unfolds before our ears is an understated mastery of classic rock riffs, psychedelia, some well placed but not over-done nods to groovy stoner doom, and a marked talent for long form composition, which is particularly apparent on the track ‘I am the Mountain’. But this slow build epic piece is offset by the more down the middle ‘Electric Mistress’, which comes across as a latter day Kyuss track along the lines of ‘Supa Scoopa and Mighty Scoop’, and the whimsical ‘Indian’, which functions as a transitional jam linking the two halves of the album. Stoner’s calling card of overly elaborate jam segments are tempered somewhat here, largely because they are competently sown into the narrative of each track, with the exception of the needlessly long outro to ‘Electric Mistress’.
Despite this album’s epic qualities, and the complex dance performed by the interweaving guitar and bass lines, this is a very intimate album. The production values are clean and crisp but not synthetic. The instrumentation is rich and layered, but still comes across as a band thrashing out some raw numbers in the garage next door. ‘Seven Thunders Roar’ is not a bombastic spectacle, nor is it a definitive statement of mind tripping sonic hypnosis. It comes over as the simple yet honest process of three musicians articulating ideas that are at once spontaneous yet carefully premeditated. As a result, it outdoes many albums in the same style and era for complexity and relistenability, precisely because there is no sleight of hand. There is no boisterous guitar tone dominating and hindering proceedings by demanding the lion’s share of the air time. The music is comes over as a harmonious collaboration of talents, both complex and enjoyable, in a manner entirely devoid of trickery.
On an unrelated note, have you checked out Sweden’s Monolord? Well…don’t. This is for fans of discarded Electric Wizard riffs and those that by into the tedious, unwarranted hubris of Conan. At least that was the case on their first LP, 2014’s ‘Empress Rising’. It’s honestly a highly instructive and revealing manual of all stoner’s doom’s failings as a genre. At least for the vast majority of individuals that have approached the format thus far. The guitar tone is fuzzy as fuck, which of course places intentional limitations on the complexity and speed at which the riffs can unfold. Only the simplest handful of droning chords are required to fill out the sound, and link us from moment to moment. The bass follows suit, displaying fat, distorted tones which, whilst not quite as limiting as the guitar, largely follow their lead by sticking to root notes. That, or unimaginative licks to accent a chord’s apex if proceedings are becoming a tad tiresome. Of course all these things are commonplace for stoner doom. But herein lies the problem. The very calling cards of the genre are used as a cover for lack of ideas. A sticking plaster over the void. This relationship between matter and form is not a necessary one, despite how common it is.
The vocals are clean and distant, with a vocoder effect applied throughout. Drums are a disastrous showcase of the average. When a style of music is defined by tempo – slow or fast – the drums’ role is placed centre stage, and can often make or break the entire piece. Their importance to carrying off good doom metal cannot be overstated. But here, they slog through off-the-shelf patterns and fills, endless ride cymbals, the most basic of rolls. They exist in stasis, applying no pressure or release to the rest of the music, and therefore no tension, and therefore no motivation for us to continue listening. When comparing this drum take to Winter’s ‘Into Darkness’, Yob’s ‘Catharsis’, or even Sleep’s ‘Dopesmoker’, and the sheer laziness and lack of imagination and character on display in this performance becomes apparent.
Of course, the intention is to make everything sluggish, spacey, suffocating. And when carried out by an artist with a modicum of intellect this vibe can work. Many have succeeded with the exact tools Monolord are working with here. But the problem with ‘Empress Rising’ is that each track – all lengthy numbers in themselves – has about one riff to recommend it, which is usually the opening riff. Once the life is squeezed out of that via repetition beyond reason, only the most basic of variants is applied, either a slight shift in pitch or key, in order to justify the next slog of repetition. Of course, Monolord attempt to mix things up as the album progresses, sometimes an instrument will stop playing, the drums will drop out, before crashing back in, or the guitars will offer the music some breathing space, obviously in the hope that their return will be made all the more dramatic and ‘heavy’ as a result. But these tricks are so rudimentary, so unimaginative, and often deployed so late into each piece, that they achieve nothing by way of redeeming this music from utter tedium.
This is a clear example of two diametrically opposed approaches to a genre. And I honestly cannot think of a clearer demonstration of the idea that stoner doom as a style in itself is not at fault when it comes to discussing its limitations or lack of diversity, it is simply that lazy minds started nesting within it, and churned out endlessly average material that many lapped up for some reason. Monolord, although not the worst iteration of this, go a long way to demonstrating these vices. Labouring under the belief that if enough fuzz is applied to the guitars, the groove swinging enough, the vocals spacey enough, the lack of musical life beneath this veneer will go largely unnoticed. This is to misunderstand the philosophy of the ‘heavy’. Stoned Jesus on ‘Seven Thunder Road’ by contrast, strip away all these common genre trappings, and go for a much more down the middle and naked sound palette. But on top of this they apply a creativity, technical skill, humour and degree of storytelling through the medium of sound, that the result transcends the back to basics production values of the album, achieving an epic emotional range without pretension.