We recently started Monster Riff Presents, a Spotify podcast about everything Stoner Rock and Stoner Rock-related. In our first episode, “Intro to Stoner Rock,” we explore the bands and songs that have helped to shape the genre over the years. Here’s the transcript from the first episode:
Hey everyone, welcome to the first episode of Monster Riff Presents. I’m your host, Pat Schober, the founder of Monster Riff: The Search for the Ultimate Riff.
Now, Monster Riff focuses heavily on a little genre of music called Stoner Rock, so today I’d like to kick things off with an overview of Stoner Rock. We’ll talk about what it is, we’ll explore some of the great bands that play it, and we’ll listen to some of the most important and groundbreaking Stoner Rock tunes.
Let’s start by talking about what Stoner Rock is.
Defining Stoner Rock
Stoner Rock is basically a subgenre of Hard Rock and Metal that took off in the early 90s. It emphasizes fuzz and distortion, psychedelia, and lots and lots of riffs. By its very name, it has a casual connection back to marijuana usage, but that’s not necessarily true across the board.
Stoner Rock is closely related to Stoner Metal, and even though Stoner Metal tends to be a little more aggressive and a little faster than your typical Stoner Rock band, you’ll sometimes hear these terms used interchangeably.
Stoner Rock and Stoner Metal are closely related to Fuzz Rock and Doom Metal—and if all of this just seems like random, confusing terms, don’t worry—we’re going to listen to some examples in a moment.
The major reason most people don’t know what Stoner Rock is is that it isn’t really played on mainstream radio or through major outlets. Now, you’ll occasionally have bands like Wolfmother or Royal Blood explode into the spotlight, but most of the time these bands and the songs they become famous for aren’t your textbook Stoner Rock songs.
Instead, when you hear Stoner Rock songs on the radio, they tend to be Stoner Rock-influenced songs.
Occasionally, though, you’ll find a band who bridges that gap pretty effectively, and, as we’ll discuss in a moment, Queens of the Stone Age did this in the early 2000s with their Songs for the Deaf album.
Because of this, Stoner Rock has really remained a sort of underground Rock genre, despite being home to some incredible musicians. You’ll also find it’s a bit more popular in Europe than it is the US (though you’ll certainly find people like myself in the United States).
If I do my job well today, I’ll have tuned you into a fan of Stoner Rock—if you aren’t already.
And for this episode, I’m going to walk you through a bit of Stoner Rock history by looking at 10 bands that have really helped to shape the genre. I’ll intro each band by giving you a bit of their story, and then we’ll listen to one of their songs that have become remarkably influential within the genre.
Now, I should mention here a few technical details on how this episode is constructed. If you’re listening either without a Spotify Premium subscription or if you’re listening in certain parts of Europe, Asia, or Africa, or South America, you might end up with a slightly different experience than what I’m intending for. I’ll intro a band and one of their songs, and then we’ll listen to that song in its entirety. But if you don’t have a Spotify Premium subscription or if you’re in one of those locations I just mentioned, you might not have access to the whole episode and you also might only get a 30-second preview of each song.
With all of that out of the way, let’s get started!
We’ll kick things off by talking about Black Sabbath. I don’t want this episode to become a dissertation about Black Sabbath, but a lot of things they did, both intentionally and accidentally, really helped lay the groundwork for what would become Stoner Rock. So we’re going to spend a little more time on them than we will everyone else.
So let’s dig into their history. Black Sabbath doesn’t really need an introduction, I’m sure. If you’re listening to this episode, you probably know who Black Sabbath is.
But just so we’re covering our bases, Black Sabbath started in Birmingham, over in England in the late ’60s. Birmingham was teeming with music back then, and it was also the home of contemporary bands like Led Zeppelin and Judas Priest.
Ozzy Osbourne, of course, was their singer, but much of the band’s legacy goes to their primary songwriter, Tony Iommi, who was also the band’s guitarist. In both Ozzy’s autobiography and Tony Iommi’s autobiography, they both mention how Tony just seemed to have this gift for coming up with riffs. In fact, their famous song “Paranoid” was really written in a matter of minutes when they needed an extra track for the album.
Black Sabbath was immediately noteworthy. They were partially influenced by horror movies and made an accidental use of the devil’s interval in the song “Black Sabbath.” But it was their record label that really pushed the envelope on the visuals to make it seem like the band were occult worshipers.
If you think about this in context, this was in stark contrast to the hippie movement and flower power of the ’60s. The band immediately stood out and basically paved the way for Heavy Metal as we know it—partially because of the way their albums were presented, but also because of their distinct sound.
A lot of their sound, especially early on, was accidental or out of necessity. Tony Iommi, for example, is missing a chunk of his fingers on his fret hand (after a work accident), so he played with these makeshift guards that he would slip over his finger tips. It really pushed him to rethink how he approached the instrument, and eventually led to downtuning his guitar to give him a little more slack.
Geezer Butler, the bassist, was broke when the band started off. In fact, he started off playing bass on a cheap guitar and part of the fuzz and distortion you hear from him was because the cabinet he played through was broken.
Today, you have bands in Stoner Rock that deliberately down tune their guitars, often to drop D or drop C—just so they can have a similar amount of bass in their delivery. On that fuzz and distortion side of things, a lot of emphasis is placed on the amplifier and pedals to really capture heavy layers of distortion and fuzz. In fact, some bands will literally use dozens of pedals on a single album just so they can capture the sound they’re after.
I can’t overstate the importance of bass in this genre. In his autobiography, Tony Iommi credits much of his sound and success to Geezer Butler, and he says that his riffs really struggled without Geezer backing them up. Now, it’s not unheard of to find two-piece bands with just a guitarist and a drummer in Stoner Rock (and you can check out bands like Big Business and Birds of Nazca as examples), but these bands often do something, whether it’s through a pedal or their amp or their tuning, to produce some lower tones.
If you zoom out a little further, you can’t overstate how influential Black Sabbath has been. Yes, they’ve obviously been super influential in Metal, including for bands like Iron Maiden and Pantera, but even bands like Van Halen, Gun ‘N’ Roses, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam—all of them were influenced in part by Black Sabbath.
That’s a huge legacy.
And even though you wouldn’t categorize Black Sabbath as a Stoner Rock band, they did lay out many of the blueprint for bands we’ll talk about later in this episode.
So let’s talk about some actual music. Their first album, 1970’s Black Sabbath, was a debut of the band, but it was also a debut of different types of Metal. The song “Black Sabbath” was as Doom as it gets. Even today, if you go back and listen to that opening track with its thunderstorm and bells and then that haunting guitar, it’s all really unsettling. You also had “The Wizard” on that one, and “The Wizard” is a classic that almost sounds like a Led Zeppelin tune with the harmonica and Bluesy guitars. But if you listen to that album from start to finish, you’ll really see that the album as a whole is pretty experimental; they try a bunch of different things out, and this is going to be a consistent thread throughout the band’s career—from song to song and album to album.
They quickly followed up Black Sabbath with the album Paranoid in 1971. This is when the band really begins to hone their sound. The album still opens on this sort of meandering guitar, but eventually we find a few pockets of just low down Heavy Metal. This is also where you get classics like “Paranoid” and “Iron Man.”
Soon after Paranoid, the band releases Master of Reality, and this is when we really start to see them drift from Heavy Metal into Stoner Rock territory.
Now, the opener to Master of Reality is “Sweet Leaf,” and this song, specifically, becomes a Stoner Rock classic.
There are a few reasons this song is important—and why we’ll listen to it today.
Although it may not seem like it on the surface, it’s pretty common for bands in Stoner Rock today to experiment with different sounds and textures, and here, on “Sweet Leaf,” we open with a great audio sample of Tony Iommi coughing up a lung on a joint he was smoking with Ozzy. So we immediately have two references to marijuana on the song—the title and the opening audio sample.
Some other things you’ll hear include the crushing, crushing guitar with the bass over the tip.
Also pay attention to the tempo and delivery of the riff itself, which moves around mid-tempo, and is easy to nod along to.
And, of course, there are the lyrics, which are basically an anthem celebrating weed.
So without any more delay, let’s dig in.
I’ll be honest here. The next slot on this list was either going to Monster Magnet or The Obsessed. On one hand, that seems like a no brainer. Monster Magnet were Stoner Rock darlings at one point, and they even had a gold record in Powertrip. But I’m giving the slot to The Obsessed simply for being a workhorse and paving the way for Sludge, Stoner, and Doom in the ‘90s.
Now, Scott Weinrich, nicknamed Wino, is the biggest reason to talk about The Obsessed. Thanks to Wino, The Obsessed had roots in the late ‘70s, but they performed in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and even in recent years.
Under Wino’s direction, they were one of the early bands to really take the Black Sabbath mold and run with it. They mixed it with Punk, they played with tempo, they even slowed things down to emphasize the Doom of it all.
In short, The Obsessed took that Black Sabbath sound and ironed it out. Although Black Sabbath went in numerous directions after Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Wino and the rest of the band helped get the genre back to its roots.
Wino is also notable for his work with Spirit Caravan and Saint Vitus—both major acts in the early days of Stoner Rock and Stoner Metal. His bands and his body of work really helped to shape Doom and Stoner Rock in the 90s—even if they never quite experienced the same success or recognition as other bands on this list, they were remarkably influential among other bands.
For The Obsessed, we’re going to play “Brother Blue Steel,” the opening track for 1991’s Lunar Womb.
Here, pay attention to the rhythm and the infectious riff. Beyond that, you’ll notice the occasional flourish of a guitar lick, and you might pick up elements of bands like Corrosion of Conformity, which was just starting to hit its stride back in 1991.
“Brother Blue Steel”
OK, we’re traveling to California now, into the Palm Desert. I feel like I’ve written about the Palm Desert scene 100 times before, but let me set the scene for you.
You have a bunch of kids living in the desert with nothing to do. Naturally, they end up throwing ragers.
And these ragers end up happening in the nearby desert. These were called generator parties, because you’d have to bring out generators to power lights and equipment.
These concerts are where a little band named Kyuss cut their teeth. And what’s wild about Kyuss is that they were basically kids when they started off.
Even though they were so young, it’s really, really hard to overstate Kyuss’s influence.
They basically reinvented metal with Blues for the Red Sun. The album was raw, heavy, and held of the heat and anguish of the desert itself.
But as important as their music and sound was, their band members have been just as influential.
First off, you have Brant Bjork and Josh Homme writing most of the songs. Brant Bjork goes on to have a really successful solo career, works with Fu Manchu, and generally just kicks ass. Josh Homme, of course, is now the frontman for Queens of the Stone Age and he also fronted Them Crooked Vultures and played with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and Nirvana.
John Garcia, the singer, ended up playing with Unida, Hermano, and Slo Burn, and he has his own solo career now. Scott Reeder, one of the bassists, played with The Obsessed, Tool, and Fireball Ministry. Nick Oliveri, another bassist, ends up playing in Queens but also has Mondo Generator and does a bunch of other stuff. You have Alfredo Hernandez, who plays in Yawning Man, Fatso Jetson, and had a stint in Queens of the Stone Age.
It’s amazing that all of these guys started off together.
Now, I should point out here that Kyuss really rejected the idea early on that they were influenced by Heavy Metal. They grew up listening to Punk and idolized bands like Black Flag, but there’s no denying what they came up with.
For Kyuss, I’m going to play you “Green Machine” off of Blues for the Red Sun, their 1992 album. This is the second track.
In Green Machine, just listen to the energy they bring to the song. They’re actually playing a little quick for your typical Stoner Rock, but this is a massive jam. In fact, Guitarist magazine once listed the riff in Green Machine among the 50 heaviest riffs of all time. Enjoy.
Next up, I’m really excited to talk about Sleep. Sleep is another band that if you dig into their history, you can just spend hours falling down the rabbit hole.
Sleep and Kyuss were really positioned at one point to really take on all of Metal.
The San Jose band is best known for a song called “Dopesmoker,” which you can find tons of information on, including on Monster Riff. Basically, “Dopesmoker” is an hour-long epic about a weed people’s journey through the desert. It’s massive and monumental and cliche in a lot of Stoner Rock ways. In fact, the opening lines of the song are famously, “Drop out of life with bong in hand.” Because of “Dopesmoker,” many people refer to Sleep as the ultimate Stoner Rock band.
Unfortunately, “Dopesmoker” basically cut the band off at the knees for 100 different reasons. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version: After their successful first album, they courted a few different record labels and they landed with London Records in part because their rep promised total creative freedom. The band went and tried to record an hour-long song which was a technical nightmare made more challenging because the band couldn’t decide on a final version of the song. By the time they got back to the label, their rep had left and the label refused to push it. The band was left with this huge song and couldn’t do anything with it.
It eventually led to the band splitting up, but that led to the creation of bands like OM and High on Fire, which have become respected acts in their own right.
I’m not going to play “Dopesmoker” today because I’m not going to make you sit around for an hour for one song, but you should know this: You really can’t overstate the song’s place in Stoner Rock history. It’s also one of the most iconic covers in Stoner Rock, and you’ll often see posters of it just chilling in the background of photos on Instagram and Facebook of Stoner Rock fans.
Instead, we’ll play “Dragonaut,” which was the opener on their second album, Holy Mountain. In “Dragonaut,” you’ll really get a feel for the band’s respect for retro vibes (especially Black Sabbath), and you’ll get a good sense of their ability to craft their groovy, plodding tracks with killer guitars.
Fu Mancho was from Orange County, CA, which put them about 100 miles west of the Palm Desert scene that Kyuss helped form. Still, they have many of those same Desert Rock tendencies, and they are beloved for their undeniably catchy riffs and incessant jammings—and for helping to popularize Stoner Rock in the ‘90s.
Like some of the other bands on this list, they also found success among the surfer/skating crowd that was popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In fact, you might recognize “Evil Eye” from the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 video game soundtrack.
Although they formed in 1985, they didn’t release their first album, No One Rides for Free, until 1994. Their follow-up, Daredevil, was good enough to get them an opening slot for Monster Magnet, who is another really important, seminal Stoner Rock band.
Now, Fu Manchu hasn’t been quite as influential as many of the bands on this list, but they epitomize much of what makes Stoner Rock great—and they can boast some serious staying power, having been around for 12 studio albums over more than 30 years.
For Fu Manchu, I’m going to play one of their most popular songs: “Mongoose” from 1999’s Godzilla’s/Eatin’ Dust.
There are a few things I want you to listen to here.
First and foremost, listen to that awesome, almost carefree guitar playing.
The drums on this track were also played by Kyuss alum Brant Bjork.
Also pay close attention to Scott Hill’s flat but accessible vocals.
Finally, what I’ve always loved about Fu Manchu is that they don’t just sound like music you listen to when driving through the desert. They sound like music you listen to while ramping over a desert dune. They do a great job of capturing that in “Mongoose.”
Next up is Clutch, and Clutch is a fascinating band with a huge, expansive catalog. Now, Clutch was founded in 1991 by Dan Maines, Jean Paul Gaster and Tim Sult, and they eventually landed on Neil Fallon as their frontman. Although they’d added and detracted over the years, this core has remained the same since their early days. Their early songs were really aggressive affairs. Their first album, Transnational Speedway League, was really inspired by Thrash Metal, Punk, and Hardcore bands.
But by the time they wrote Clutch in 1995, they had a true Stoner Rock gem on their hands. Even today, the standout track, “Spacegrass” is shouted for at concerts. It’s almost like that’s all anyone wants to hear. In fact, half of the concerts that my wife and I go to are just me and her trying to shout “Socrates!” (a request for “Bottoms Up, Socrates”) louder than everyone else is asking for “Spacegrass.”
Their next album, 1998’s Elephant Riders saw them evolve a little more. This is the height of the Alt movement, and they’re definitely some sort of Alt Metal-Funk Metal-Stoner Rock hybrid at this point.
After Elephant Riders, you really start to see the band hone their sound and develop into their current sound. But Clutch and Elephant Riders are two of the best Stoner Rock albums out there.
Clutch has been influential in their career. In addition to building an enormous and dedicated cult following, they’ve influenced bands like Five Horse Johnson, Planet of Zeus, Mississippi Bones, and Lionize.
They still rely on heavy riffing, and some say that their latest albums are Stoner Rock mixed with Blues Rock and more. Clutch has also been one of the more commercially successful bands on this list. For example, Psychic Warfare, their 2015 release, debuted at 1 on the Rock Charts and 11 on the Billboard 200.
In addition, Neil Fallon is known for his lyrics in addition to his voice. You don’t need to go digging very far for some really memorable stuff. “A Shogun Named Marcus,” which was the opening track to Transnational Speedway League, opens with:
If you thought it was boring in Jordan
Then come out here for a day
And by the way the name’s Marcus
But if you like you can call me sensei
Well the emperor’s in the pigsty
And the geisha’s in the shack
And you better believe I’ll hold em there
Till the feds they pay me back
And later, in the chorus, he says:
Yes, I’m a new world samurai and a redneck nonetheless.
On “Spacegrass,” I want you to listen to how thick the bass line is. You also have vocals that are more focused on tone and distortion than actual melody. “Spacegrass” also features some of my favorite Clutch lyrics. You have a fascination with space, muscle cars, religion, and weed—all hallmarks of Stoner Rock.
Like I said, there is a reason people literally scream for this song.
Queens of the Stone Age
After leaving Kyuss, Josh Homme, the guitarist, never really slowed down. He toured with the Screaming Trees, he formed the legendary Desert Sessions, he formed Eagles of Death Metal, and he played with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and Nirvana in Them Crooked Vultures. This is a guy who has collaborated with everyone, including Lady Gaga. But Josh Homme will probably be best remembered for founding Queens of the Stone Age.
If you listen to QOTSA today with songs like “Feet Don’t Fail Me” off of Villains, you’ll find a lot more radio-friendly sensibility to the band’s music. I always joke “Feet Don’t Fail Me” is basically a dance number.
But the first QOTSA record was undeniably raw and heavy. It had this massive fuzz and bass behind it, and for me, personally, it’s one of those records I love, but I can’t listen to it all the way through and turned up to a proper volume without getting a headache.
Even on this first record, though, you can catch glimpses of Josh Homme’s softer, groovier side. You really wouldn’t be surprised to hear a song like “If Only” come out on a new record today.
QOTSA’s real crowning achievement though, was their third album, Songs for the Deaf. I think this is the really the closest Stoner Rock has really come to being mainstream radio like Grunge was in the ‘90s. Songs for the Deaf had hits like “No One Knows,” but it also had these ferocious tracks like “You Think I Aint Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire.”
Like Clutch, Queens of the Stone have been remarkably influential among their contemporaries. We’ve written about this on Monster Riff, but a few examples include bands like Witchrider, Deaf Radio, and Ultima Radio. What’s also fun about Queens is how many people who have played on their studio albums over time. You have people like Chris Goss, who produced Kyuss but also sang and played guitar in the band Masters of Reality, and Troy Van Leeuwen, who’s played in bands like Failure and A Perfect Circle.
Picking a song for QOTSA is like picking a song for Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd. How do you capture all of their greatness in a single track?
For QOTSA, we’ll listen to “No One Knows.” This is their biggest track, and it received massive airplay back in the day.
Really pay attention to its texture. It’s catchy, sure, but it also has that Stoner Rock texture, groove, and repetition behind it, especially when we get to the chorus. “No One Knows” does a great job of bridging Stoner Rock and Pop (sort of like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” did the same for Grunge and Alt in the ‘90s).
“No One Knows”
Electric Wizard is the heaviest band in the universe. That’s partly a joke, but that’s also what people call them. Electric Wizard is one of those bands where the recording process is incredibly important for capturing their sound, and they’ve really done a good job over time of surrounding themselves with professionals who can really bottle their sound.
Now, Electric Wizard isn’t a straight Stoner Rock band. Like Sleep, they do a really good job of bridging Doom and Stoner and Metal. They do so many of the Stoner things well that you really can’t ignore them.
For starters, their name actually comes from two different Black Sabbath songs (“Electric Funeral” and “The Wizard”).
Their 2000 album Dopethrone is really a touchstone in Stoner Rock/Stoner Metal culture. Jus Osborn, the band’s founder said that in recording dopethrone, the band members really weren’t in a good place.
They were dealing with drug addiction and alcoholism and pure hatred against the world. And, sure, you have a bunch of Metal albums out there that present themselves as influenced by something as acrid and destructive as addiction or depression or loathing, but Dopethrone is one of the few that genuinely backs it up.
Dopethrone is consistently ranked among some of the best and most important stoner albums of all time (right up there with Dopesmoker), so I’m going to leave you with the beefiest track off of that album—”Funeralopolis.” And I think for this one, I’ll let the song speak for itself.
Today, the Stoner Rock scene really belongs to the Europeans, especially bands like Truckfighters. Now, Truckfighters is another one of those bands that is a lot of things at once, and when I interviewed them about a year and a half ago, they really didn’t dig the term Stoner Rock. They’re really more Fuzz Rock, and you could even argue that they’re a little Progressive too.
The Truckfighters are from Sweden, which is home to a ton of really solid Stoner Rock acts. We’re talking about bands like Dozer, Greenleaf, Lowrider, Skraeckoedlan, Spiritual Beggars, and Blind Dog. There’s no shortage of great talent, albums, or songs in Sweden.
Now, Truckfighters have a decent sized catalog, and although they can rock out with the best of them, you’ll find a lot of really moving numbers. “Mastodont,” “Manhattan Project,” and “The One” are these long, heartbreaking songs, but the band can also punch you in the face over and over again.
Truckfighters really got onto the map early on in their career with “Desert Cruiser,” which is about, as you might guess, driving through the desert. It’s a pretty common theme in Stoner Rock, but their guitar tone is so cool and the riff is so great, the song is just infectious.
As a side note, what’s funny about “Desert Cruiser” is the band says it’s really annoying to play. It’s really easy to play on guitar and the main riff is really just one chord and then three different notes played in the correct succession. For the band, it’s actually kind of boring, but the crowd always goes nuts, so they end up enjoying it.
With that said, let’s take a listen. This is “Desert Cruiser” by the Truckfighters, off their 2005 album, Gravity X.
1000mods are one of the heroes of Stoner Rock right now. They’re from Greece, and if you haven’t gone down the Greek rabbit hole of Stoner Rock yet, you have to jump down it. Planet of Zeus, Puta Volcano, Deaf Radio, Nightstalker, Narcosis, Honeybadger, there are some excellent bands in Greece right now.
At the top is 1000mods. 1000mods really managed to capture that classic Desert Rock sound, and they stripped it down to crushing blows. So instead of having any sort of Doom, they cranked up the fuzz and distortion and just started delivering these massive grooves and massive riffs. And they’re definitely guilty of the Stoner Rock trap of playing the same riff for too long, but they have written some true modern classics.
Now, I’ll give you a warning at this point. If you dive through their discography, you’ll notice that their 2020 album, Youth of Dissent, was a bit of a divergence from their usual Stoner Rock fare. Youth of Dissent was kind of an ode to the ‘90s. When I reviewed it back in May, I noted that some of the songs sound like they were influenced by Stone Temple Pilots, Foo Fighters, and Alice in Chains. Because of that Youth of Dissent is a sort of Grunge/Stoner Rock hybrid.
If you want to get into the very best contemporary Stoner Rock has to offer, start with early Mods. Listen to Super Van Vacation, their 2011 album.
The best and most popular off that album is “Vidage.” “Vidage,” again, is another Stoner Rock song that mentions driving, but it does a ton of other things well. It’s got an infectious bass line, it’s got a really catchy guitar riff that really goes on for a few minutes, and then in the second half of the song you have these big, chucky riffs that help to tie everything together.
Alright, so we’ve reached an awkward part of this show where I have to conclude without mentioning dozens of other bands, albums, and songs. There are some pretty serious snubs, I’m sure, in the list above.
Blue Cheer. Deep Purple. Corrosion of Conformity. Monster Magnet. Masters of Reality. Colour Haze. Yawning Man. All of these bands and others deserve discussion.
As a peace offering, I’m including an honorable mention section. Consider it an appendix to this episode and another way to broaden your horizons.