Friday, 30 January 2015

ENCASED IN SOUND (HOW PUNK MET METAL - AND BOTH BEGAT DRONE): 4. “THE EARTH BREATHING FIRE...”


Our punk/metal/drone comparison timeline concludes. And as the young people say, dude, where ya been? You've missed sections taking us up to the Sixties, the Seventies and, logically enough, the Eighties. But it's here where the dial really goes up to eleven...

Kyuss: 'Thumb' (1992)


The Doors may have gone to the desert to find their mojo, but Kyuss essentially came from there. Long-haired freaks from Palm Desert, California, they started out playing generator parties in some sandy stretch of nowhere, or anywhere else where the authorities weren't. As guitarist Josh Homme commented “there's no clubs here, so you can only play for free”. If Homme's successor band, Queens of the Stone Age, came to be better known, to me its Kyuss who had the edge.

Kyuss made the music of giants, but laid-back cool-guy giants. (As if to prove the point, Homme was 6' 4”.) Even with the diss tracks, of which this is one, I still picture them boldly toasting one another with beer flagons the size of barrels. They mostly remind me of the Frank Quitely cover to 'All-Star Superman', (below) which shows the mighty-muscled man of steel not in some heroic pose but relaxing nonchalantly.


This is the opening track off 'Blue For the Red Sun', and if Sabbath were the soundtrack of blackest night Kyuss wrote paeans to the brightest day. For the day can be pretty mighty too. It doesn't start up so much as shimmer in, as if arriving through a heat haze. If Sabbath were the soundtrack to a breakdown, Kyuss always came across as assured. For all the heaviness, the weightiness of the band there always seemed space for... well space in their sound. Which is pretty much the definition of the term 'stoner rock' the band became so associated with. (Presumably because, out in the desert, they encountered a lot of stones. I expect that was it...)


Meanwhile, across the water in Liverpool, four mop-haired youths were about to change the course of popular music as we know it...

...whoops, sorry, wrong list...

Sleep: 'Holy Mountain' (1992)


Even when you make up apparent micro-genres like 'stoner rock' it always ends up not precise enough. It's like isolating the atom, you only end up having to split it anyway. While Kyuss were a rock band assured enough to stretch out riffs, Sleep simply dealt in riffs. They play music so metronomic you think you'll never wake up.

Alas, record company indifference caused the band to split early. The rhythm section went on to form Om. Whose direction, as the name might suggest, was less metal influenced and still-more trancy. With sleeves and lyrics that reflected religious mysticism, they make the music all those New Age fakers seem to imagine they are making. Their defining moment might well be playing a five-hour gig in Jerusalem.

Probably the finest Sleep album is the follow-up to this, 'Jerusalem' (aka 'Dopesmoker', but its one long track which makes it a little unwieldy for our format. So I've gone for 'Holy Mountain'. Given the music we're talking about, it surely must refer to the cult film by Jodorowski.


Electric Wizard: 'Funeralopolis' (2000)


The one exception to the West Coast rule mentioned earlier and – as I expect you've already guessed – they're from Dorset. If other bands combined Black Sabbath with all sorts of then-unexpected things, Electric Wizard's mission statement was almost to sound more like Black Sabbath than Black Sabbath did. Their name came from combining the Sabbath song titles 'The Wizard' and 'Electric Funeral'. But a better name still might have been just to condense the name Black Sabbath – Blabbath or Blasab.


Sunn O))): 'Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia)' (2009)


I would be the last to suggest that this list, or any other aspect of musical development, makes for some kind of linear progression. As the diligent reader will already have discovered, all that's here is more journey than destination. Nevertheless, somehow I feel like it had to end like this. Music comes from the drone, the single held note, the way all the land masses we live on know came from the original super-continent Pangea. Those thudding riffs were like the first breakaway continents, separate but still grand and massive. So it kind of stands to reason music will revert to the drone from time to time. In music, you can go home again. And it sounds something like this...

This track was named the Heaviest Song of All Time on The Jason Ellis Show. You'll see why. If you could get any more encased in sound, I simply can't imagine it. As you might expect from a band named after a brand of amplifier, there's also an abundance of feedback and electronically generated sounds. They make music from the equipment you make music from, and make no bones about it. Live, they are wont to hold their instruments aloft like religious artefacts (see up top). One of the many things about the band which might sound ludicrously ostentatious, but works in context.

Yet, in effect if not always in source, they can also approximate music concrete – weaving together natural sounds. The guitar line here is so primal and such a force of nature that it barely sounds human-made enough for you to imagine it being composed, its more akin to rockslides or earthquakes. And other sounds on the album, 'Monoliths and Dimensions', do seem to have natural sources – such as the tightening of the rigging of a ship. Perhaps the genius of the thing is the way it stops you even noticing.

Similarly, rather than black, Satanic, nihilistic or any other of those terms that are so often slung at them, Sunn O))) seem more the perfect pitch-point between crushing force and transcendence. However pulverising the riff or guttural the lead vocals, put it with the choral singing and the two just fit together. Drone and ambient music is often divided into 'light' and 'dark', whereas as is probably obvious by this point I prefer 'weighty' and 'weightless'. ('Light' works best in terms of 'lightness', absence of weight.)

Yet the advantage of the light/dark analogy is that they're part of a spectrum. It can suggest our natural state is twilight. I love the way the official heaviest track of all time is followed on the album by an ambient piece dedicated to Alice Coltraine. Not content with just sounding like punk and metal coming together, Sunn O))) are like the soundtrack to the marriage of heaven and hell. The whole myth of Lucifer the fallen angel effectively plays in reverse in my mind whenever I listen to this. I could happily have it played at my funeral.

(More from me on Sunn 0))) here.)


Okay, who's missing from the list? Many people will cry Discharge, but to me they're a bit like rock'n'roll - they demonstrate how something can be influential without actually being particularly good. I can hear the metal crossover in them of course, but overall they still sound just like another ranting crusty band. (I came of age in the Eighties, gentle reader, where we had no shortage of such a thing.) I have of course also missed out the 'big four' of thrash. With Slayer and Anthrax, it may well be they're decent bands who just aren't to my taste. While Megadeath were just rubbish. And Metallica were not only rubbish, but rubbish produced by a bunch of arrogant self-important arses who I would cheerfully wish the pox upon.

On the other hand, I've probably missed out much good stuff through sheer ignorance. My listening prejudices have most likely resulted in a list that details punk meeting metal more than the other way round, and I'd welcome any suggestions for a companion metal list. (Tool should be in there? Faith No More? Helmet? Or Celtic Frost?) Reader, please don't be backward in coming forward...

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