How Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme Sparked a Stoner Rock Revolution
Tracing the guitar hero's massive influence within the latter-day metal canon.
Published on August 25, 2017

Listen up, potheads: Before Josh Homme was palling around with the likes of Billy Gibbons and Mark Ronson in Queens of the Stone Age, he was the guitarist for Kyuss, largely considered to be the fathers of stoner rock. Stoner rock is so named because it incorporates psychedelic imagery and heavy riffage—often driven by Orange or Green amps, anything that gets that low end rumbling—that's quite conducive to blazing with the devil down a smoky highway.

Kyuss, like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin before them, is a multifaceted band with plenty of descendants who choose to emphasize one particular aspect of their sound: the riff, imbuing within it a prefrontal appeal that transcends intelligence, upbringing, and consumption habits. Stoner rock bands have a few common qualities—notably, a reverence for the 70s and a general slouching towards some Sabbathized metalic ideal in which the speed-addled 80s never happened––but they're as varied as the bands they were inspired by. Homme has largely distanced himself from stoner rock once Queens began to blow up, and the over two decades since Kyuss ended with …And the Circus Leaves Town and the slicker guitar pop of Villains, Queens' new album out today, were bound to change the man. Still, his fingerprints are all over stoner rock to this day, and as such, he's had a big hand in rendering the overall landscape of rock and metal a slower, much more grooved-out one.

Homme indirectly helped Black Sabbath regain cultural cachet. It may be hard to imagine now, but Sabbath spent much of the 80s shitting their reputation right out their butts and straight into the toilet––with a revolving door of non-Ozzy/Ronnie James Dio vocalists as well as Ozzy's rising solo career providing the Ex Lax. Kyuss' affinity for Iommi-esque guitars, something they shared with their peers Sleep and Soundgarden, created a more receptive environment for the original Sabbath lineup to reunite, and also laid the foundation for more groups to explore the heavy boogie of Sabbath's legendary First Four™. The heaviest of these is English group Electric Wizard. Their self-titled debut was a decent slice of doom metal, nothing real special, but something happened between there and 1997's Come My Fanatics. They morphed into a gnarlier beast, dropping their guitars even lower and embracing a more cynical attitude. 2000's Dopethone is perhaps the greatest stoner metal record of all time, and not just because it had a wizard taking a gigantic bong rip on the cover. It sounds like if you gave Tony Iommi a ton of growth hormones and he broke loose from the lab, shooting the loudest riffs from his mouth. Japan's Greenmachine took their name from one of Kyuss' most popular songs, "Green Machine," and they're like if Kyuss themselves took themselves down a sludgier, nastier path. Greenmachine also shares some of the same punk roots as Homme; Black Flag's My War opened up a backdoor to the same lower and slower realms that Sabbath had conquered back in the 70s.

It wasn't just the heaviness that Homme brought; his knack for hooks has reverberated through the scene as much as his legendary riffs. The Sword helped popularize the more accessible parts of Kyuss' sound, eventually becoming the face of indie-metal's mid-2000s revival. While they've become a parody of themselves in recent years through quarter-assed tales of space travels and lightning their sound to dad fuzz, their first album Age of Winters has some undeniable bangers. It's hard to imagine their success had Homme not paved the way for this streamlined, easily accessible to become fashionable again. Soon, a whole wave of stoner rock bands found small tastes of success, such as Priestess, Saviours, and Early Man. (All of these groups had releases on Kemado Records—probably not a coincidence.) Only The Sword ended up with real commercial success, and their millions of clones that clog the underbill at your local metal venue to this day.

Kyuss' last recording was also the first Queens offering, taking the form of a 1997 double-self-titled split release courtesy of the label Man's Ruin in which Homme essentially bifurcated his musical personas. Man's Ruin was an important label for stoner rock, putting out material from notable bands like Orange Goblin, Fu Manchu, Acid King, High on Fire, and Alabama Thunderpussy. Most of these groups took from the rollicking end of Homme's guitar playing, paired it with a little bit of funk, and played it all at bong-shattering volumes. Man's Ruin shuttered in 2001, but before closing, they put out the first two records from Los Angeles stoner metal legends Goatsnake, whose early releases I and Dog Days both have loads of groove, loads of riffs, and intensely soulful vocals from Pete Stahl. They might be the most Southern band you can find without going to the south. (There is a song on Flower called "A Truckload of Mamma's Muffins." Proof enough?) Goatsnake guitarist Greg Anderson has also had a considerable impact on stoner rock as the head of the Southern Lord label, releasing some of the heaviest records from Boris, Church of Misery, Earthride, and Warhorse. He's moved on to release albums from other heavy genres, including black metal and hardcore, but his impact on stoner metal is undeniable.

Stoner rock reached its peak in the early to mid 2000s, and it's hard to find a lot of newer groups who bring anything innovative. The problem with doing something simple it's that it can be actually really hard to do right. One modern group carrying on Kyuss' legacy for their hooks is Columbus, Ohio's Lo Pan. Vocalist Jeff Martin has a huge voice that puts a grandness on the band's economical playing, equal parts desert rock and Motor City madness. They're one of the few groups who could hang with Queens—lots of the bands mentioned here have the hooks, but only Lo Pan has real crossover potential. Kyuss also weren't afraid to go into spacier territories, as Blues for the Red Sun drifted off into celestial swirls with "Freedom Run" and the instrumental "Molten Universe." San Diego's Earthless carry on that voyage, taking stoner rock to its outermost limits. When they play live, they just plug in and jam for at least an hour, often more. Stoner rock's never been about instrumental flashiness, but you gotta watch these dudes go.

Homme has no incentive to reform Kyuss, partially for the same reasons Henry Rollins will never get back together with Black Flag—he's found even greater success after saying bye to the bros. Stylistically, he's long moved on. Still, stoner rock is worth getting in your head, and he deserves a lot of credit for pollinating it. When you're in the right state of mind (read: extremely high), the only thing better than a good riff is a good riff played loud and raw.

Andy O'Connor
Andy O'Connor is a writer living in Austin, Texas.
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