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Kyuss and the continuing legacy of stoner rock

legacy of Kyuss, one of the pioneers of stoner rock, heavy metal fused with psychedelia, is still alive and kicking

Members of the rock band Kyuss at the Riviera Theater in Chicago, in 1992.
Members of the rock band Kyuss at the Riviera Theater in Chicago, in 1992. (Photo: Getty Images)

One of the pioneers of the genre known as stoner rock was a band called Kyuss. Stoner rock? Kyuss? No? Well then, here goes. For those unfamiliar with the genre, stoner rock is the name given to a style of music that combines elements of heavy metal with the sounds and styles of psychedelic music. Except that in stoner rock, more often than not, cannabis is involved in the conceptualization of the music.

Sleep, a stoner rock band from San Jose, California, have a song titled Dopesmoker (from an album with the same name) that runs for more than 63 minutes. Highly viscous guitar riffs and sludgy drums and cymbals create a soundscape over which singer Al Cisneros sings: Drop out of life with bong in hand/ Follow the smoke to-uh the riff-filled land/ Drop... out of life with bong in hand/ Follow the smoke to-uh the riff-filled land.

Sleep’s brand of stoner rock can be repetitive, hypnotic, and with often abstruse lyrics. On Dopesmoker, the words go on to reference the “creed of Hasheesians" and a “procession of Weed priests". When Dopesmoker was first recorded in 1996, the band’s label refused to release it. Many bootleg versions followed till a formal, official release by another label in 2003. Sleep’s trademark sound has a higher proportion of doom or heavy metal combined perhaps with less of the psychedelic element. Kyuss’ sound is different.

Named after a fictional demigod from the role-playing game Dungeons And Dragons, Kyuss (pronounced kai-uhs) originated in the Californian desert in the late 1980s, jamming in small, isolated towns. Their sound reflected both the desolation of the locales from where they originated as well as trippy, weed-fuelled psychedelia. The band’s core line-up comprised singer John Garcia, guitarist Josh Homme, drummer Brant Bjork and bassist Nick Oliveri. The line-up lasted only five years. During that time, Kyuss released four albums, none of which found any notable commercial success.

It was only later that Kyuss became influential. Their second album, Blues For The Red Sun, released in 1992, with down-tuned guitars, best captures their singular gentle-heavysound on songs that build up slowly before reaching a heavy rock apex, while their third album, 1994’s Welcome To Sky Valley, showcases their ease at both whipping out fierce metal riffs and meandering psychedelic space jams.

During their career, Kyuss became a cult band, finding devout followers but not in large numbers, owing to limited radio play and other means of propagation. Today, however, they are considered desert metal gods who have influenced several other bands that have tried their hand at stoner rock—fusing the heavy and hard with the gentle and soft.

After the break-up, and a short, revived spell as Kyuss Lives!, prominent members of the band went on to other projects. Homme went on to form the successful Queens of the Stone Age; Garcia got involved with several other stoner rock groups; and Bjork embarked on a solo career. It is Bjork’s ongoing solo career that has resulted in 15 albums in a span of 21 years.

Some would say Bjork has been too prolific—and that has had an impact on the consistency of his albums. But if there is a legacy of Kyuss as one of the earliest proponents of stoner rock, it is Brant Bjork who is probably carrying that torch for the erstwhile band.

It is difficult to navigate Bjork’s discography because of its size. Cherry-picking may be the best way to get acquainted with his work. Start with Bjork’s latest, the self-titled Brant Bjork, which came out in early May. With eight songs over 37 minutes, the album has a few gems—such as Jesus Was A Bluesman, a ballad that narrates a story (Jesus was a bluesman/ His daughter was his biggest fan…). Bjork, essentially a drummer, plays all the instruments on the album where heavy rock fuses not only with psychedelia but also the blues. Produced and performed entirely by him, Bjork’s new album is stripped down but has fuzzy (and occasionally funky) guitar riffs; and deep bass lines.

For Bjork’s other explorations post-Kyuss, check out 2010’s Gods And Goddesses. A short, 32-minute album, it is packed with groove and often sounds like a throwback to the 1970s. Each of the eight tracks goes in different directions, evoking the laid-back ethos of an era that may be long gone, with the distinctive riffs and soundscape that marked the music of rock’s greatest musicians from the 1970s: You can hear the influence of Jimi Hendrix and Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top) but also the heaviness of metal bands, including, of course, Kyuss.

It is curious that the legacy of Kyuss continues, though the band broke up in 1996. Bjork was only the drummer in that pioneering band but he’s quite the multi-instrumentalist. He has spewed out albums at an impressive pace. Not all of them are of near-stellar quality but if you choose carefully, his discography is probably the best way to traverse the progress of the Kyuss brand of stoner rock that first emanated from the deserts of southern California. Palm Desert bands in the early 1990s began mixing elements of heavy metal with psychedelic and acid rock, punk and alternative rock.

For those who want to explore Kyuss’ oeuvre, Bjork’s vast discography could be a starting point to move back to the four-album discography of stoner rock’s most prominent pioneers.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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