Best Of – Stoner Metal

Well, here we are – The Weed Day. While we’ve already done a For Fans Of post for Sleep, today we’re finally going to sit down, rip a “few” bong hits and share what we believe to be the best albums stoner metal has to offer. We’re rolling up to all the genre’s classics today, of course, starting with the auditory sweet leaf that first lit it up. But we’ve also aimed to smoke our way through the genre’s hazy history with landmark albums from the past several decades, including modern classics in the making that are equally worthy of being your soundtrack for the day. So without further ado—because we know how short your attention span is today—grab your bowl, bong and/or blunt and celebrate the best music for your lazy, smoke-filled afternoon. 

Black Sabbath – Master of Reality (1971)

Where the fuck else are you going to start this list? In 1971, Black Sabbath released the genesis of stoner rock and what would later become the first stepping stone on the way to stoner metal. This is Sabbath at their absolute pinnacle of power (Dio fans, back away please), all the elements of what made them great at full harmony. All one needs to do is listen to opening track “Sweet Leaf” (Sweet Leaf for crying out loud) to immediately understand how important this album is.

Just as progressive rock was flowering and taking its own approach at the many experiences and perceptions associated with drugs, Black Sabbath were already forging their straight-forward approach to smoke infused guitars. The riffs already contain everything that will one day become stoner rock: the fuzzy main guitar, the backing bass thick with honey, the drums meandering alongside it to complete the rhythm section and, of course, the vocals of one Ozzy Osbourne extolling the many virtues of weed in their signature rasp.

In many ways, bands will circle this album for decades to come, if they don’t still do it today. It set so much of what became the norm for this genre that ignoring its power today is folly. It’s still a highly effective album, even if you ignore its history completely. So, it’s freaking 4/20 day. What other album would you rather play?

Eden Kupermintz

Kyuss – Blues For The Red Sun (1992)

Part of stoner metal’s appeal, at least to me, comes from its production. Sure, you can basically spit in any direction and hit a metal band using some serious fuzz on their guitars, but there’s something special to the deranged, face-melting tone that shows up in stoner metal. But it’s for this sort of production and more that puts Kyuss’s Blues For The Red Sun on this list. Sleep’s Dopesmoker deserves a place here (seriously, I love that album), but stripping it of its production is like cutting Samson’s hair, reducing it to something a little like Angels of Darkness-era Earth. However, if you strip Blues For The Red Sun of its production—made perfectly muddied and stonerific (is that a word?) by Josh Homme playing guitar through a bass amp—you’ve still got a fucking amazing album full of some of  the best songwriting in the game. Just try to listen to “Green Machine” or “Freedom Run“ without banging your head. Josh Homme’s guitar drives this album with bluesy hooks and grooving riffs, made all the more badass by John Garcia’s cool-as-vocal delivery and Brant Bjork’s bombastic attack on drums. There’s a reason that Kyuss is called “desert rock”—every single second of it pulses with songwriting that’s spent time baking in the hot California sun. This is basically the metal equivalent of that scene in The Doors where Val Kilmer and company dance through Death Valley on peyote, and it’s fucking fabulous.

-Jimmy Mullett

Earth – Pentastar: In the Style of Demons (1996)

You could make a solid case that all of Earth’s albums fall under the stoner umbrella. With the walls of distorted guitar drones in their early days and the plodding, meditative Americana of their recent output, virtually everything they’ve written could soundtrack copious bong hits on a lazy summer day. But when it comes to a true iteration of stoner rock, Pentastar: In the Style of Demons stands alone in the band’s discography as their most direct, fuzzed out slab of pot-fodder. It’s an admittedly odd album in Earth’s discography—the Washington band turned up the Southern charm for the first and (arguably) only time in their career, and the straightforward rock approach left some fans with a sour taste in their mouths until the band reunited about a decade later with Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method (2005). Even though the album may not be a fan favorite, it’s still an interesting bisection of the band’s career that also happens to be a solid contribution to the stoner pantheon.

Other than a relatively faithful Jimi Hendrix cover on “Peace in the Mississippi,” the majority of Pentastar is textbook stoner rock tinged with Earth’s signature penchant for intense repetition. The band’s mastermind Dylan Carlson actually makes some vocal contributions on the album, an extremely rare addition to Earth’s music that didn’t resurface again until Primitive and Deadly (2014). The album still contains a highlight track for the band’s drone-doom fans—“Sonar and Depth Change” contains a haunting progression of reverberating piano chords defined by Carlson’s masterfully measured evolution of song structure. In a way, this track brings the album’s narrative full circle; the stoner rock marks a sonic compromise between the two halves of their career, while the resonant piano composition hints towards more grandiose things to come.

Scott Murphy

Electric Wizard – Come My Fanatics… (1997)

In stoner doom, there’s heavy and slow. In some cases, there’s even really heavy and incredibly slow. And then there’s Electric Wizard, which is all of that multiplied by several thousand metric tons. This band needs no introduction to most fans of stoner doom. Their style of plodding, fuzzy, nightmarish doom metal has been imitated for decades, but has rarely if ever been matched or eclipsed. Dopethrone, considered by many their crowning achievement, has long been heralded as a cornerstone of this haziest of metal subgenres. However, I state with the certainty and ill-advised confidence of a fully intoxicated man busting into a bar fight against a group of UFC champs that this particular milestone of doom is not their best album. Their sophomore album Come My Fanatics… is, and it is also one of the best stoner doom albums of all time.

A bold statement, I know. But the music on this exceptional record backs it up. Opener “Return Trip” gives you everything you need to know about the journey ahead. From that first amazing riff, it becomes apparent that Electric Wizard are working on an otherworldly level of heavy. Imagine planetary bodies colliding and ever-so-slowly grinding one another into oblivion, and you’ll have a clear picture as to the immensity of this record’s sound. Headmaster of demolition Jus Oborn’s riffs slice methodically and rhythmically through the absolutely pummeling rhythm section (which is utterly relentless throughout), while his lyrics are drawled and barked in the cadence of a certifiable madman. Album highlights can essentially be boiled down to every track on the album, but “Wizard in Black” and the instrumental bulldozer that is “Solarian 13” exemplify the extremity of the world-annihilating tonnage this album delivers very well. It is an absolutely crushing and mind-bending experience, is one of the heaviest albums I have ever heard, and is a trip well worth embarking on as you partake in a bowl of the good stuff. So roll up a healthy amount of Lucifer’s Leaf, unwind your mind, and let the overwhelming power of Come My Fanatics… send you into the Sun of Nothingness.

– Jonathan Adams

Sleep – Dopesmoker (1999/2003)

There’s something to be said about having the concentration, focus, and sheer stamina to do anything for an overly extended period of time. Humanity has come up with many ways to stretch boundaries of durability and believability whether it’s through the athletic achievement of the type that lends its name to literally every similarly gargantuan effort (that being the ubiquitous “marathon”) or extended works of art.

Dopesmoker by Sleep falls into the latter category and has defied comprehension ever since. Besides the name and the legend behind pissing off their reluctant record label (London) by going through with a project consisting of one song to the point of getting dropped over it, the album itself is a loving treatment of everything that is the heavy riff. Throw into the mix that it was never released in its truest and most intended form until just a few years ago and you have the kinds of elements that make for a hell of a backstory to cloud your brain while sinking ever deeper into the spiraling madness conjured from essentially the same riff shifting like tectonic plates over 60+ minutes.

Somewhere between sheer, bludgeoning brutalism and meditative droning Dopesmoker nestles in quite neatly in the oeuvre of Sleep as a band. That they’re taking it back on the road this year and have teased a new project together only lends to the mystique of this monolithic piece. That, and it’s 4/20, the album is called Dopesmoker, and you could seriously find many worse ways to spend an hour of your life.

That a 3-piece could yield this classic album and spawn two more bands (Om and High on Fire) on this list should tell you all you need to know. It’s time to go to Sleep.

Bill Fetty

Boris – Boris At Last -feedbacker- (2003)

With an obscenely long discography that runs the gamut from J-pop to drone, Japan’s Boris are one of those bands that you’d be hard-pressed to find a genre they haven’t dabbled in. Nonetheless, it’s exactly the sludge/stoner sound that has become their most recognizable and career-defining. So many of their most beloved albums can be boiled down to rambunctious, fuzz-laden riff fests – Akuma No Uta, Heavy Rocks and Pink all come to mind. Then there’s the slower, doomy counterparts, such as the Melvins-aping Amplifier Worship. Of course, Boris has rarely been a band to do things traditionally, and so in my opinion it is their least traditional stoner rock album, 2003’s Feedbacker, that makes for their best contribution to the genre.

More than just string southern-fried riff after southern-fried riff, Feedbacker sees the band integrate a slew of other influences over the course of its runtime. Opening with nearly ten minutes of sheer guitar feedback and reverb, it proceeds down a logical yet unpredictable path. The next track takes a left turn towards melancholic post-rock, while the track it segues into is the album’s chaotic climax, sounding like it might as well be on the aforementioned Pink. In this way, the album follows a pretty intuitive trajectory, gradually building up in intensity until it peaks in the middle and starts falling off. What makes it such a thrilling ride, though, is its delicate balance of moments of roaring upheaval against those of serene beauty, combined with Boris’ penchant for drone which leads to each such section being drawn out for maximum effect. It makes for an album that, even at a mere 44 minutes, is not the easiest entry in the genre to listen to, but in the right circumstances can be one of the most rewarding.

                                         -David Aleksov

Queens of the Stone Age – Lullabies To Paralyze (2005)

Of all the bands Josh Homme has been in, the already-mentioned Kyuss is by far the most deserving of the stoner-rock moniker than his next and far more commercially successful band, Queens of the Stone Age. In many ways the QOTSA model has been to take the fuzzy, hardened edge of Kyuss’s sound and package it in with slick riffs, catchy-as-fuck hooks, and a sexy swagger to create a genuine crossover rock monster. And though their fourth album, Lullabies To Paralyze, isn’t regarded outside of a small group as their best album – that honor generally goes to either the sleek Rated R or explosive Songs For The Deaf – the sprawling and dark stylings of Lullabies is not only still a damned good album, but the one in the band’s catalog outside of their rough-around-the-edges self-titled debut that carries over the most influence from Homme’s stoner rock beginnings.

Taking its title and inspiration from the SftD bonus track “Mosquito Song,” Lullabies To Paralyze fully embraces the theme that the phrase suggests, offering a bunch of tracks that allude to the darker side of fairy tales and overall feature a heavier, more atmospheric facet of Homme’s writing. The tone is immediately set with the gravelly tones of Mark Lanegan on acoustic intro “This Lullaby” and proceeds to kick off like a bucking bronco from there. And though there are a fair share of slicker bangers that sound like they could have been holdovers from SftD like “Medication,” “In My Head,” “Little Sister,” and “Broken Box,” what defines the album are the darker, heavier, and more atmospheric moments. Early tracks “Everybody Knows That You Are Insane,” the sarcastic “Tangled Up In Plaid,” and the grisly “Burn The Witch” offer a taste, but it’s in the back half of the album where this sound dominates. The pair of long tracks “Someone’s In The Wolf” and “Blood Is Love” really revel in building up a sense of pained unease and simply letting the grooves sit and swell over time. You can practically see and smell the smoke fill the air during the atmospheric middle of “Someone’s In The Wolf.” “Skin On Skin” continues and pushes the twisted display further, coming down like a terrible and anxiety-inducing haze of booze and weed. “You Got A Killer Scene There Man…” is music for sitting in a grungy, smoke-filled room at 3am, and closer “Long Slow Goodbye” is nothing but a slowed-down, more anthemic version of the poppier tracks littered throughout their discography.

Lullabies gets knocked for being a bit too sprawling for its own good without the same kind of perpetual momentum that carried SftD through its equally lengthy runtime of around an hour, and the more stoner-y tracks in the back half are the main culprits of that. Though I don’t disagree with that criticism, the darker, dirtier aspects of the album are also a large part of what makes it one of the first QOTSA albums I return to time and time again. It’s QOTSA at their most mischievous and blunt, pun intended.

-Nick Cusworth

High On Fire – Death Is This Communion (2007)

It’s all too easy to put stoner rock and metal in a place of mindlessness, considering the (usually) overt references to marijuana and other drugs, but it can often be a genre that favors consciousness expansion and interesting concepts. Enter Death Is This Communion, High On Fire’s fourth album, and another release that cements Matt Pike as one of metal’s oddest—but coolest—lyricists and most brutal songwriters. While he doesn’t get as concept-driven as he does in 2012’s De Vermis Mysteriis (side note: look into the lyrics of that if you haven’t already), he pulls from some interesting sources—conspiracy theorist David Icke, master of the Weird H.P. Lovecraft, and ancient religious sources such as the Bible and the Enûma Eliš—and creates lyrics that, while still very metal (read: full of destruction and death), nonetheless resonate with an intelligence and aestheticism not usually seen in the genre.

However, if lyrics aren’t your go-to (usually the case with me), you’ve still got nearly an hour’s worth of great music. Although you can hear whispers of Sleep throughout High On Fire’s catalog, Matt Pike has grown as a songwriter—parts of Death Is This Communion take heavy influence from Middle Eastern world music, adding some nice variety to the record, and the guitar riffs are like a grooving, hashish-driven bulldozer in your ears. High On Fire isn’t just Matt Pike, though; while Des Kensel’s drum work ranges from something more world-influenced to your standard metal fare, it’s always en pointe (especially on “Headhunter”), and Jeff Matz adds a beefy undertone to Pike’s riffs. Although you can’t really go wrong with any High On Fire album, Death Is This Communion shines in a special way in the HOF discography, like an eternal flame resting in a hidden Mesopotamian temple—always pummeling and edged with mysticism.

-Jimmy Mullett

Elder – Dead Roots Stirring (2011)

This is a stoner’s fucking wet dream. I’ve listened to every album under the slow metal label from here to the sun and never once have found something that so exemplified just what the sound is all about as much as Dead Roots Stirring. Seriously, it’s got everything you need. Drawn out, monolithic grooves? Check. Molasses-slow blues rock riffs? Check. Insanely good performances from every member of the band? Check, check, and check. If there’s a stoner metal trope, Elder does it, and you can bet your bong they do it well. From the opening chugs of “Gemini” to the last hurrah at the end of “Knot,” there’s nothing here that the band can’t nail.

There’s clearly a lot of heavy psych influence here. Even when the band busts out some insane low-end grooves, the guitar stays fuzzy and overdriven, the bass maintains its slow plod, and the drums teeter on the line between energetic and gratuitous perfectly. It’s clear Elder draw from the classics, but their formula for stoner metal is so quintessentially modern, with its exclusively long-play tracks and cough-syrup-drenched riff-outs, that it manages to feel like the perfect bridge between the genre’s classic days in the ‘70s and their actual contemporaries.

Honestly, I’m not super sure what to even say about this album beyond that it just does everything so right. The band’s debut was good stuff, for sure; this album’s follow-up, Lore, was more adventurous and sprawling; Dead Roots Stirring is where they don’t do anything very different from the norm but just do it so well that it doesn’t matter. The slow, meandering opening of “III” builds into a riff-laden colossus with such perfection that it alone could justify this album being on here. Nick DiSalvo’s soaring vocals hit a gritty Led Zeppelin-meets-Warning vibe that matches the music perfectly; his guitar abilities are easily in the highest (ha, ha) echelon of the genre’s musicians. Just fucking listen to this, okay? It rules.

Simon Handmaker

Om – Advaitic Songs (2012)

Other than Tony Iommi and Jus Oborn, few doom guitarists have been as consequential to stoner metal as Matt Pike. His work with Sleep and High on Fire includes some of the most essential records and pummeling riffs in the genre’s history. But while nearly every metal fan is familiar with HoF, there’s another post-Sleep stoner group that’s gradually elevated their music into something wholly unique and transcendental. Pike formed Hof in 1998, the same year he and fellow Sleep members Al Cisneros (bass/vocals) and Chris Hakius (drums) laid the band to rest after years of friction with their label over releasing Jerusalem (a re-recorded version of which would eventually become the now celebrated Dopesmoker). It wasn’t until 2003 that Cisneros and Hakius reunited as a bass/drum duo under then Om, a telling choice that would become more appropriate as the band’s sound progressed. The band has evolved from shaping stoner metal around Tibetan and Byzantine chant structures on their first two albums—Variations on a Theme (2005) and Conference of the Birds (2006)—into a full-fledged embodiment of spirituality, culminating in the band’s most recent album Advaitic Songs (2012).

While Om began to flirt with these themes on Pilgrimage (2007), it wasn’t until God is Good (2009) that the band—now composed of Cisneros on bass/vocals and Emil Amos of Grails on drums/percussion—truly found their stride. Much of this has to do with the interplay between Cisneros and Amos; on Advaitic Songs, the duo can easily shift from a bellowing stoner romp on “State of Non-Return” to a meditative, expansive landscape on “Sinai.” But the most crucial aspect of Om’s sound is their meticulous orchestration of Eastern and Western religious themes and instrumentation. Along with traditional accompaniment from cello, flute and violin, the album prominently features the tabla (a membranophone pair of drums) and the tanpura (a long necked string instrument producing harmonic drones). The latter instrument is performed by Om collaborator Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (A.K.A Lichens), who also contributes vocals and recitations in Sanskrit and Arabic and brings Om’s spiritual themes full circle.

The resulting album contains some of the most sonically textured and rich doom metal albums ever recorded, and easily the most beautiful album in the stoner pantheon. Though some fans might miss the genre’s standard wall of riffs and distortion, the subtlety of Om’s music creates a much deeper, emotional experience unlike anything Sleep or HoF has ever put out. While Pike may have expanded Sleep’s sound and created one of modern metal’s most (deservedly) popular bands, Cisneros deserves at least as much credit for spearheading one of metal’s most forward-thinking projects.

Scott Murphy

Earthless – From the Ages (2013)

If stoner rock’s roots reach back to the psych sounds of the 70s, this list would be incomplete without giving a nod to a band that showcases more than the power of the riff. San Diego power trio Earthless take the hazy foundation laid by Black Sabbath, Cream, and The Allman Brothers, and builds upon it a temple devoted to instrumental heavy psych worship: persistently and non-hyperbolically channeling Jimi Hendrix-ian clouds of guitar solos with bluesy furies and accenting swirls, and indulging in lengthy jammy compositions that are representative of the live sounds that (probably) made some tye-dyed dude coin the phrase “freak out.”

What makes From the Ages such an essential listen is that this four-track 65-minute journey feels so authentic, so live, truly capturing the magic of improvisation on record, hiccups and all. These mammoth songs – the first duo over 14 minutes (followed by a 6-minute Om-like chill session), and a 30-minute closer – show that the jam isn’t just for hippy-dippy bands like Phish and Widespread Panic, though fans of said bands would probably find a lot to like here. And while most instrumental stoner rock fans look to blast something like Karma to Burn or Bongripper to satisfy the urge, there’s something liberating about the unpredictability and freedom that come with abandoning a riff-driven sound.

From the Ages wastes no time introducing you to guitarist Isaiah Mitchell’s Hendrix-laced leads and shred, of which you’ll be getting slathered in over the course of the next 64 minutes. It’s an exhilarating open to a record, an unforeseen start to a rollercoaster ride. It’s startling, thrilling, and you’re not quite sure where any of this is going next – things speed up, slow down, change direction on a whim. The beauty of Earthless’s craft is that there’s no submission to typical song structure, and Mitchell’s virtuosic playing serves as the perpetual focal point, flowering every nook of the jam. Not to sell the other dudes short, drummer Mario Rubalcaba and bassist Mike Eginton are excellent counterparts to Mitchell’s off-the-cuff and rambunctious style of play, setting pace and dialing things up or down depending on direction of the song (of which there are many), flexing between pummelling classic rock blasts, delicate slow burning Eastern-tinged adventures, and driving punk rock scorchers.

The most mind-blowing thing about this record is that there’s never a dull moment, no fluff solos, no cakewalks. It’s kaleidoscopic, layered but engaging, constantly ramping things up and disintegrating. Guitar effects change things up as if chosen by the shake of a die, making the record simply ideal to get lost in. As much as Sleep seem to have cornered the market on gigantic compositions that can lull listeners with Dopesmoker, Earthless have similarly packed in beefy, amoebic compositions where getting lost in bemusing guitar solos becomes an opportunity to enjoy the grounded, locked in rhythm section. Things get loose, but never really off the rails. It’s an impressive feat for what’s basically an hour of guitar soloing, but as more time is spent with the record, it’s intricacies emerge from what was once a smoky mystery. Just put it on, take it easy, and discover what awaits you, dude.

-Jordan Jerabek

Bongripper – Miserable (2014)

If you tried to listen to every record suggested in this list, it’s gonna be 4/24 before you realise you’re still baked. So pick and choose wisely. Make sure you get your choice in early because if there’s a stoner in your entourage who gets everyone too high too quick, he’s probably gonna put on Miserable. The Bongripper “EP” will bring the pace down to an hour long funeral procession, leaving corpses of leaf injectors riffed to death. 

The stoner doom is never too sludgy and never too vacant, surprisingly, considering the three tracks have about 8 riffs between them. It’s jam band riffing in a bedroom, way too small for three instruments and a wall of herb seasoned amplification. “Endless” works around one riff with enough variations in dynamics and force that it’s easily forgivable; the main body of this track is one 70’s metal riff, played slower than every second drug dealer when they’re five minutes away. “Descent” and “Into Ruin” bring more of the booming doom just in time to wake up the weary of the crowd, bringing them soaring into a new high – primarily because of the volume but don’t let the simplicity of the riffs fool you ‘cuz they are primo grade, air guitar material of the Blackest Sabbathest variety.

While Miserable might be a bit “too lazy” for some of your stoner pals, if they haven’t heard it then at least wait ‘til they are suitably gone; when someone has started to turn a bit green them self perhaps. Definitely an album for anyone out there who plans to get stuck in the couch today and that’s cool if so. It’s also gonna be great background music if you’re out and about. Be that person with a portable speaker having your own smoke procession down the street. Own it. Plug in Bongripper and let them support your blaze with a haze of their own. Dank, sticky riff haze.

-Matt MacLennan

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better – pushing right back.” – Albert Camus