Burn one up: The Obsessed and Kyuss

Josh Homme of Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age notoriety famously rejected the stoner rock label. Rife with subtext that this is music exclusively by and for stoners, to be enjoyed whilst high. But it seems the more you resist, the stickier the tagline becomes. Kyuss are now considered one of the archetypal stoner bands to this day in spite of – or maybe because of – the short lifespan of their original incarnation. But people have a habit of reading too far into the subtext of genre labels. The value of words in this context can be measured solely through their shared meaning. As long as we have a common understanding of what “stoner” means in a musical context the label serves a purpose.

The “stoner” in stoner rock and doom is now understood to mean a very specific set of musical traits. It also co-opts other subgenres in its wake. The Obsessed played a down-the-barrel form of biker doom, steeped in Americana and often far closer to rock than other doom bands of the 80s. But with a certain aesthetic, plenty of references to famous stoners Black Sabbath, they became absorbed into a genre that they predate by a long shot. When we call a band “stoner” we mean many things, the least important of which is whether the music should be enjoyed whilst lighting up.

Taking ten years to put out an album is one way to ensure that you emerged fully formed into the world. So it was The Obsessed, master minded by one Scott “Wino” Weinrich. Having enjoyed a tenure as singer in Saint Vitus’ during the late 80s, his own project only got round to putting out its self-titled debut in 1990, showcasing a dirty combination of hazy doom metal, Motorhead style roadhouse rock, and a good dose of heavy blues into the mix. With the material for this album being written back in 1985, The Obsessed didn’t miss a beat in putting out a follow up in the form of 1991’s ‘Lunar Womb’. The riffs became hazier, the tracks longer, the melodies were more pronounced, with lead guitars looking to NOWBHM for cues, see for instance the instrumental track ‘Spew’.

Doom can be an unhelpful descriptor at times, applying to albums as diverse as ‘…Into Darkness’, ‘Nightfall’, ‘Stormcrowfleet’, and ‘Sleep’s Holy Mountain’. But the colour of doom The Obsessed are touting is mellow, rich, and warm, bringing it closer to stoner doom on an aesthetic level. And the production goes some way to strengthening this association. The guitar tone is focused toward texture over clinical precision, the drums are deep and bass heavy, and Wino’s vocals are melodic but lackadaisical, furthering the sheen of mellow textures that colour the entire album.

However, even a cursory glance at the riffs will reveal a much broader range of influences from across the rock spectrum. Wino is not the most technical player, but his arrangements are solid, with each passage flowing intuitively into one another regardless of the style being referencing. There are elements of energetic punk and classic heavy metal with galloping tempos and lead melodies that are almost euphoric. The Obsessed are also not afraid to mix up the tempos, for instance on ‘Jaded’, which swings from loose grooves to a tight, Judas Priest style finale of frantically chugging rhythm guitar and boisterous leads.

Underlying it all – and ultimately making this album a triumph – is a dignified celebration of American rock music with respectable nods to British punk and metal in the process. It is both a summation of the lighter variants of hard rock and metal stripped of the crass excesses of the previous decade, rendered with an understated but richly layered approach to arrangement and song writing. Groove, aggression, energy, all the best facets of 80s metal and older blues influences are integrated into a dignified and fully realised work of heavy rock. A crowded sphere of influence has been brought to heel by an overarching stoner vibe, one that disguises the diversity of music on display here for the sake of reaching a certain aesthetic that brings it adjacent to stoner doom. But it remains very much its own creature after even a cursory glance at the many riff traditions on display here.

Sometimes there’s no substitute for young blood. And in 1992 Kyuss were still young indeed when they put out their second effort ‘Blues for the Red Sun’. This is a band fraught with legend. From the mythology of gigs held in the Californian desert spearheaded by Mario Lalli and his band Yawning Man, to their adoption by Chris Goss of Masters of Reality fame, who took guitarist Josh Homme under his wing and became a long time collaborator, beginning with his production job on this album. Since that time Kyuss has become the creation myth of a desert rock institution stretching from flame of 21st Century heavy rock Queens of the Stone Age, to the raw punk energy of Nick Olivera’s Mondo Generator, to the trippy roundtable jams of The Desert Sessions. It’s a journey that has involved some of modern rocks most famous faces from Soundgarden to Dave Grohl to PJ Harvey, and even John Paul Jones.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s sit back and look at where much of this began, with an album called ‘Blues for the Red Sun’ back in 1992. Following the energetic but childishly sloppy debut ‘Wretch’ (1991) comes this surprisingly mature and diverse work. There is still evidence of youth and simplicity throughout, most notably in some of the dry humour of the lyrics, the playful fretboard slides of ‘Thong Song’, and the decision to end the album with a track called ‘Yeah’, which is just vocalist John Garcia saying “yeah”. So far, so on trend for the deadpan sarcasm of early 90s Gen X alt rock. But Kyuss were shooting for something more ambitious here. A swirly haze of muddy guitar tones, riffs diving to the heaviest grooves possible to fit alongside the delicate clean arpeggios and idiosyncratic melodic inflections cutting across the murk.

John Garcia’s vocals are equally capable of switching from the throaty bark of American heavy rock to ethereal, melodic lines shaped by elongated notes that fly over the swirly riffs beneath him. Brant Bjork’s drumming switches from punk overdrive to the repetition of complex and lengthy patterns in the blink of an eye, adding a layer of depth as well as solidity to a mix that sometimes threatens to fall apart completely.

The threat of entropy comes chiefly from Nick Olivera’s bass. His was the most metallic influence on the band, being a fan of Motorhead and Slayer as well as old school punk. Whether its dirty stoner rock held together by the loosest of grooves on ‘Green Machine’ or the epic desert rock of ’50 Million Year Trip (Downside Up)’ his overpowering bass is a constant presence throughout. Josh Homme was still finding his feet as a guitarist on this album, and whilst his unique character as a musician already shines through here, he often opts to simply ride along with Olivera’s bass, with both instruments fudging together in a wall of sloppy psychedelia.

That being said, Kyuss are surprisingly experimental for a stoner band, and a young one at that. This is no mere presentation of static textures inviting us to switch off for fifty minutes. There’s the heavy punk battering ram of ‘Allen’s Wrench’, the driving, pulsing rhythms of the instrumental ‘Caterpillar March’ set in perfect contrast to the eerie guitar noise intro to ‘Freedom Run’ before the Led Zepplin grooves kick in. It’s debatable whether Kyuss only truly managed to fully articulate their vision of creating music worthy of the awesome desert landscapes that were their chief inspiration on the follow up ‘Welcome to Sky Valley’. And whilst it’s true that that album is a masterpiece of heavy rock, both riff-laden and atmospheric, it is on ‘Blues for the Red Sun’ that we see a band co-opting many different colours of rock and making them their own. Whichever style they turn their hands to it still comes out sounding like Kyuss.

This is ultimately an unfair comparison. On the one hand we have an older doom metal band steeped in metal and punk influences understood through the lens of heavy blues rock. On the other we have young and sprightly teenagers fresh out of the desert with no concern for tradition, looking to push the boundaries of the known world of heavy rock. Kyuss fans can be guilty of overhyping their limited body of work. If for no other reason than it being the creation myth of one of the institutions of modern American rock music. But these albums remain special, offering an experience no other artist has quite been able to match for immersion alongside playful variety. For that reason it is the pick of the week. But this selection is caveated with an acknowledgement that the comparison does not offer an exact mirror image, and a hard plug for the first Obsessed albums to boot.

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