Thank You For Not Smoking: Variations on a Stoner Doom Theme

As a genre, stoner doom has some fairly definitive characteristics: slowed-down tempos, rumbling low-end bass and rhythm, a focus on mountainous, hypnotic riffs, and a certain intangible haze cast over it all, creating a psychedelic-glazed listening experience. But perhaps most importantly, stoner metal worships at the altar of marijuana. Proudly wearing its influence on its sleeve (and name), stoner metal varyingly employs marijuana as a muse, a political rallying cause, an artistic aesthetic, and generally as the raison d’etre for the (sub)genre as a whole. From the smoke-filled cough intro in Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” to Sleep’s epic journey to Jerusalem to Dopelord carrying the genre’s torch in one hand and a bong in the other, stoner doom is fundamentally and un-apologetically intertwined with marijuana. And yet, as firm of a grip as the green leaf has on the genre, there are contingents within the stoner doom scene that don’t embrace weed with the same fervor as their counterparts. Indeed, as counter-intuitive as it seems, examples abound of bands in the stoner doom realm that either explicitly or implicitly eschew the very association with marijuana that the scene largely views as a prerequisite.

 

From the outset, an important disclaimer: this article deals with genre labels, sub-genre distinctions, and the intrinsically subjective nature of describing individual bands using broad-brush categorizations.  A discussion could just as easily be had about the flaws and inherent limitations of genre labels writ large and the problematic nature of sorting bands into such categories (and, indeed, we’ve had those on the blog in the past). Resolved: no band ever fits perfectly within a genre or sub-genre. This is in large part because there are no set, universally-agreed upon definitions of music genres or clear distinctions dividing certain genres. That being said, most music lovers and readers of this site operate in a world where genres are discussed freely and with relative understanding. The constructs of doom as compared to grindcore as compared to OSDM are well defined and not particularly controversial. I’m not here to fight the good fight against genre categorization and freely admit that the parameters in which I define stoner doom may differ from another person’s understanding.

Reefer-Free Riffs

But, really: stoner doom without weed? What kind of world is this? A well-populated one, as it turns out. The number of bands playing un-stoner doom is high (no pun intended) and can broadly be categorized in three ways: (1) bands that play tried and true, traditional stoner doom but simply don’t incorporate the marijuana culture into their act, (2) bands that began more firmly as stoner doom but have evolved beyond the hazy confines of the genre proper, and (3) bands that explicitly reject or, at least, intentionally disassociate themselves from the marijuana associations of stoner doom.

One of stoner’s genre hallmarks is the focus on riffs. Lots of riffs. Riffs upon riffs upon riffs until the overwhelming repetition forces you into a trance and you wake up hours later with a sore neck from slow, steady headbanging. The symbiotic relationship between marijuana and such a sonic palate is obvious: thundering, heavy repetition enhances a zoned-out, weed-enhanced listening experience. But those looking to climb the riff mountain without being bogged down by the bong can thankfully turn to bands like Monolord and Slomatics. Both bands play pure stoner doom that prioritizes monstrous, slowed down riffs that beat you into submission with an equal mix of force and repetition. The fuzz is tangible, the haze is palpable, the smoke is… dissipated? Although the music is true, neither band makes an effort to highlight any special devotion to marijuana, either in lyrics or visual aesthetic. Over the course of several albums, Slomatics have been building an intentionally ambiguous, sci-fi infused concept story that culminated in 2016’s epic Future Echo Returns and the Belfast powerhouse seem more interested in celebrating the cerebral and celestial than any earth-bound pot-related fascinations. Similarly, Monolord traffic in the slow-and-low mammoth sound. And Monolord also seem largely indifferent to the weed-focused preoccupation of the genre they firmly inhabit. All of the stoner sonic signifiers are present, but Monolord’s topical focus is somewhat more traditional: general evil, dark spirituality, depression, and, more recently, a surprising turn toward more geopolitical concerns. Just as the same could be said of the almighty Conan, neither Slomatics nor Monolord seem to explicitly reject the inherent marijuana association of the music they play. Instead, they seem content to let the riffs do most of the talking and focus their collective gazes beyond the smoke and into broader horizons.

 

Instead of sticking with the well-established stoner style and riding that into the hazy sunset, bands like Pallbearer and Elder have existed, at one point or another, within the stoner doom framework but have broken the couch lock and evolved beyond the genre’s strict weed-filled focus.  Admittedly, none of these bands were ever singularly focused on marijuana or issuing clarion calls for greater weed celebration. Instead, for example, Pallbearer evolved from a fairly straight forward stoner-infused doom band on Sorrow and Extinction to something more resembling a modern prog band with doom influences on this year’s Heartless. The thudding, psych-tinged grooves in tracks like “Devoid of Redemption” are largely abandoned for a more soothing, clear eyed – ahem – plea for understanding as the band developed its sound and vision across albums. Likewise, Elder’s most recent album Reflections of a Floating World is unquestionably a high-water mark for the band. But the album’s cerebral, angular, and progressive take on doom represents the terminus of a long evolutionary process the band has undergone, one that began in the decidedly more dark and dank realm of stoner doom. 2011’s Dead Roots Stirring and, particularly, the band’s 2008 self-titled full length debut are albums deeply indebted to blues-based, stoner metal. Where they previously sought answers in a “cosmic blunt,” Elder has developed into a band concerned with more existential questions, wondering “are we waiting just to leave? Is there an answer which eludes?” As their questions become more focused, so too has their sound refined.

 

Ancestors, too, has undergone a similar trajectory. While 2008’s Neptune with Fire is an enjoyable, if not particularly unique, breeze through bluesy stoner metal, 2012’s In Dreams and Time is a stratospheric philosophical leap outward and upward into the astral. Classifying current-day Elder or Ancestors as stoner doom is a questionable prospect, but it seems clear that whatever style of enlightened heaviness each currently create, it is a sound that emerged from the sweaty, smoke-filled rooms of stoner doom.

Beyond the weed-indifferent or the evolved-beyond is yet another stoner doom strain: bands that affirmatively shun the association to marijuana. Frankly, this crowd isn’t too large and there’s an honest question to be debated about whether a band that actively eschews an association with marijuana can fairly be labeled stoner metal. Putting that debate aside for now, it’s curious enough to consider that such a niche exists. For example, Lost Hours is an Atlanta-based doom band that identifies as straight edge. Presumably foregoing any marijuana intake (as well as any other psychoactive substance), Lost Hours brings an ethos more closely associated with punk and hardcore into the realm of doom. The crushing layers of fuzz on display in the band’s most recent ep, III, may seem more properly labeled as drone, but there’s no denying the fuzzy, spaced out monotony of stoner doom influencing the sound as well.

Smokeless in Denver

But perhaps the most prominent example of (non)stoner doom is Khemmis, the Denver stalwarts who exploded onto the scene in 2015 and haven’t slowed up since. For the uninitiated, Khemmis play muscular “doomed rock ‘n’ roll” with both feet firmly planted in riff-heavy, bluesy stoner doom. Their debut, Absolution, immediately established them as scene leaders and the 2016 follow-up, Hunted, broke through the achieve mainstream acclaim, from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone to snagging Decibel’s album of the year. On the surface, it seems perfect for Khemmis to assume the throne as one of stoner doom’s most promising up-and-comers. They hail from weed-friendly Denver, their merch and album covers are replete with fantastical, long-bearded sorcerer types, and the music is pure head-banging, crunchy awesomeness.

And yet, Khemmis seems to resist a direct association with weed. Speaking with the Sludgelord in 2016, guitarist and vocalist Phil Pendergast said that one of the biggest misconceptions about being in a band is that “not every band from Denver is inspired by marijuana.” And when asked by Bruder Des Lichts about the potential impact of marijuana legalization on the music scene in Denver, the band demurred, stating that there had been no effect at all, other than maybe with “hippie jam band weirdos.” Not exactly proselytizing for the cause. To be sure, Khemmis have no obligation whatsoever to campaign for, or even associate with, marijuana – nor does any other band. Hailing from Denver and performing the type of music they do, it’s likely Khemmis get asked questions about weed often and are simply tired of talking about it. But there’s also reason to speculate that the band’s marijuana-averse posture may be more intentional. After all, the final track on Absolution, “The Bereaved,” can easily be interpreted as a cautionary tale about drug use, warning against “push[ing] too far past a glorious high into a void devoid of light . . . [where] there is no savior.” Regardless of the reasoning or the severity of the conviction, Khemmis seem content to sip brews, bang heads, and leave the “stoner” out of their specific blend of stoner doom.

 

Genre purists and marijuana connoisseurs can rest easy. Despite the examples above – and others not mentioned – weed will likely always have a very special place in the heart and lungs of stoner doom. Bands like Weedeater, Bongzilla, Dope Smoker, and Weedruid are all proudly carrying the modern green torch forward, subtlety be damned. But it’s also comforting to know that there’s room for everybody in the smoke circle and that the genre’s reaches are broader and more inclusive than they may initially seem. Partake or not, all are welcome to nod their head and get lost in the glorious haze of stoner doom.