The 1990s was a hell of an age for Rock music. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and the Smashing Pumpkins redefined what the genre could be. And while these advances largely took place in the northern states (especially Washington (Seattle) and Illinois (Chicago)), even more was happening in Southern California, where Kyuss was running guitars through bass amps to deliver earth-rattling riffs.
It goes overlooked, but Stoner Rock was gifted around the same time as Grunge. Soon after Kyuss broke up, Queens of the Stone Age and Clutch stole the scene. For one beautiful minute, they were rooted in the Stoner Rock vein. And then they tore away. Despite what anyone may say now (and we’ve discussed it a lot at Monster Riff), neither bands are Stoner Rock any longer—though I’ll concede they were and remain important influences in the genre.
Why Clutch Isn’t Stoner Rock (And Why They’re So Influential)
Clutch has always been difficult to define, as they evolved dramatically with each album between 1993 (Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes, and Undeniable Truths) and 2005 (Robot Hive/Exodus). Yes, we did say “Willie Nelson” is one of the best Riffs in Stoner Rock, but Clutch aren’t Stoner Rock—and they hardly ever were.
Transnational Speedway wasn’t Stoner Rock. It’s too heavy, for one. The bass is there, and the distortion is present, but the noise doesn’t wash over you the way you should. Neil Fallon’s vocals are at their absolute grittiest, defying the Stoner Rock standard of clean, melodic pipes. Transnational Speedway crosses swiftly into Metal territory, however you want to pigeonhole it over that threshold.
Their eponymous album, 1995’s Clutch, is where we see the band closest to Stoner Rock. Live show favorite “Spacegrass” contains all the classic Stoner Rock themes—space travel, classic cars, drugs—and a bass that doesn’t quit. It sits right in the middle of the album as an apex, but it also creates complications. For example, the album closer, “Tim Sult vs. The Greys,” definitely isn’t Stoner Rock (in fact, with the clean guitars and organ, it sounds like it could work well a decade later on Robot Hive/Exodus or From Beale Street to Oblivion. “Tight Like That,” only two songs after “Spacegrass” is funky guitar fun, but anyone would be hard-pressed to compare it side-by-side with Kyuss’s “Gardenia” and say they belong in the same exact section of the record store. The rest of the album vacillates somewhere between Metal, Hard Rock, and that special Clutch blend that’s so hard to pin down. Here’s the simple truth: So many of those Stoner Rock elements we love and expect—the wave of guitars, the simple riffing, the clean vocals—aren’t present. Clutch is as much Stoner Rock as Corrosion of Conformity’s Deliverance.
Clutch’s third album, The Elephant Riders, flirts with Stoner Rock as well, but it never crosses the threshold. Just as “Spacegrass” was the closest we come on Clutch, “The Soapmakers” is the closest we get on The Elephant Riders. It’s an absolute banger, to be sure: a heavy, intoxicating riff on repeat, Neil Fallon’s scratchy vocals, and Clutch’s signature storytelling. But, beyond that, the album expands into various Clutch varieties of Hard Rock. Sure, “Elephant Riders” comes close, but its delivery feels more like Hard Rock than Stoner Rock.
By the time 2001 rolled around and Clutch released Pure Rock Fury, their Stoner Rock tendencies—if you can say they ever had them—were stripped away. The guitars were still distorted, but the songs were looser, the guitarwork was a little more experimental in some places, and some songs—like the title track—galloped too fast to qualify as Stoner Rock.
Since then, Clutch has been straightforward Hard Rock, with various influences peppered in.
Why Clutch Is So Influential
Back in the late 1990s, it looked like Clutch was primed to take over the Alt Rock scene with bands like TOOL, but it never happened. Instead of earning Platinum status on their albums, the band earned an incredibly dedicated cult following (your author included), and that’s proved to be enough. The boys are still rocking on stage two decades later.
That cult following includes a huge number of musicians and other bands (a topic we’ll discuss in greater length soon). A small sample of Stoner Rock bands who are obviously influenced by Clutch: Sasquatch, The Heavy Eyes, and Lionize.
Clutch has been so influential in the Stoner Rock community for two reasons:
- They write incredibly catchy, meaty riffs.
- They write hooks.
Of course, there are other things that make Clutch great (a commitment to give 100% to every song, a wildman of a lead singer, relentless touring, etc.), but these are the two biggest. In many ways, Stoner Rock is the celebration of a wonderful, catchy riff drenched in fuzz and kerosene and bowled into listeners at 100 miles per hour. That’s what Clutch delivers on each and every album. If it hasn’t won them international fame from laypeople, it’s certainly made them a musician’s band, with imitators spanning from the Pacific to eastern Europe.
Why Queens of the Stone Age Isn’t Stoner Rock (And Why They’re So Influential)
Queens of the Stone Age is an interesting case because it’s essentially Josh Homme’s band, and he and Nick Oliveri formed it after dissolving the godfather of Stoner Rock: Kyuss. When the band released their eponymous album in 1998, many of the Stoner Rock hallmarks were present: fuzz, groove, bass, and even the soft, melodic vocals many bands of the genre use to balance out some of the rough undertones.
“Regular John” (the album opener), “If Only,” and “Give the Mule What He Wants” are textbook Stoner Rock tracks, and many of the remaining tracks fall under the same formula. Of course, you’ll also find tracks that spill into experimental and atmospheric territory (“These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For” and “Spiders and Vinegaroons” are excellent examples). So even though the album bounces around a bit, it’s a Stoner Rock classic overall.
For all of Queens of the Stone Age’s merits, it pales next to QOTSA’s breakout album, Songs for the Deaf. “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire” won a slot on our list of best Stoner Rock riffs, and “Song for the Dead” and “Gonna Leave You” are Stoner Rock classics.
Although Songs for the Deaf was a return to QOTSA’s roots after 2000’s Rated R, it also gave us a glimpse of what was to come. Single “No One Knows” was a radio-friendly Rock song, with a blueprint very similar to Lullabies to Paralyze’s “Little Sister.” In fact, much of Lullabies to Paralyze followed a similar sound. It was lighter, poppier, and more accessible than the heavier tracks of older QOTSA.
Queens of the Stone Age has become more radio-friendly with each resulting album, and 2017 Villains opens with “Feet Don’t Fail Me”—a song that’s as much a dance club track as it is QOTSA.
Why Queens of the Stone Age is Influential
We’ve already devoted an entire post to highlighting a few of the bands that sound exactly like QOTSA, but we never discussed why bands admire QOTSA.
Part of it has to be the band’s popularity—which exists for multiple reasons. First is the admirable transition from Stoner Rock purists to Gold-certified artists (for Songs for the Deaf). But the group has also had a stream of high-level talent come through its doors, including Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees, and Julian Casablancas of The Strokes. Finally, there’s Josh Homme, the hard-working frontman who’s collaborated with everyone from Lady Gaga to John Paul Jones.
Of course, these are only reasons why the band is popular—not why other musicians have tried to copy QOTSA’s sound. What’s most interesting about QOTSA is that, at its core, it’s an Alternative Pop Rock act. Villains and …Like Clockwork are the most unabashed about their roots in Pop, but you can find other examples in the distortion-drenched work of Era Vulgaris (“Make It Wit Chu” and “3’s & 7’s”), Lullabies to Paralyze (“Little Sister” and “In My Head”), and Rated R (“The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret” and “In The Fade”—both of which follow the old Grunge template of quiet-loud-quiet-loud).
With such an expansive, catchy body of work, imitators are inevitable.