I always dread being asked how my weekend was, not so much because I dislike inane small talk, but because my mind invariably goes blank and I can’t think of a single thing that happened in the previous 48 hours. I’m having a similar experience trying to think of significant things that have happened in 2019 that would act as a suitable preamble…I mean, I finally finished reading Anthony’s Trollope’s Palliser novels, but that doesn’t scream RAWK quite as much I might like it to.
The obvious highlight of my year is the return of The Sleeping Shaman (I’m sure the same could be said for any discerning heavy music enthusiast) and I’m definitely pleased that I got off my arse (figuratively speaking of course, I’m sitting down while I type this) and volunteered to do some album reviews. I’ve always enjoyed writing and it’s nice to inflict my opinions, particularly those pertaining to music of a stoner rock bent, on the world on a semi-regular basis. Which brings us neatly to my list. It’s surprisingly hard coming up with a Top 10 for the year, but I’m hopeful that I haven’t forgotten anything too awesome:
10. Faerie Ring ‘The Clearing’
The band name had me imagining some twee, folk-influenced metal; I certainly wasn’t expecting the righteous avalanche of doom-tinged stoner riffs that The Clearing delivers. Faerie Ring are a four-piece from Indiana and on their debut album they really bring the riffs. Crushing guitar tone, vocals that seem to be echoing out of a cave somewhere in the middle distance, and more riffs that you could feasibly want to shake a stick at. Did I mention riffs?
9. Gurt ‘Bongs of Praise’
I’ve enjoyed the various EPs and splits Gurt have released over the years, but for me their albums have always fallen a little short. Bongs of Praise addresses that with aplomb. Gurt really up the song-writing ante across ten tracks of bludgeoning party doom, which manage to be both seriously heavy and weirdly catchy. Rolling Stoned is a particular highlight and the epic, album-closing title track unexpectedly conjures up memories of Finntroll.
8. Hazemaze ‘Hymns of the Damned’
It would feel weird for my list to not have at least one Swedish band on, and I’ve opted for Hazemaze. I know this album got a less than lukewarm review from one of my fellow scribes, but that just goes to show how individual musical taste can be. For me, this really encapsulates everything I love about undiluted stoner rock – sweet thick guitar tone, hazy vocals, and that insistent groove that demands your head bang along. I’ll happily concede that Hymns of the Damned doesn’t provide anything startlingly new, but when it’s so downright enjoyable I can’t say I’m too bothered.
7. Salem’s Bend ‘Supercluster’
I loved Salem’s Bend‘s debut album and was really looking forward to the follow-up. Seeing as it’s on this list, you’ve probably guessed that Supercluster didn’t disappoint. Salem’s Bend are a hard band to describe without making them sound really dull – they’re not the heaviest, the most technical, or the showiest. They don’t have a particular gimmick to rely on. Instead, they play heavy rock that owes a hefty debt to all your favourites from the 70s but doesn’t sound quite like anyone but Salem’s Bend. Thanks to their unfussy musicianship and excellent song-writing, this one is a keeper.
6. Rainbows Are Free ‘Head Pains’
I picked this one up to review on the rather flimsy basis that I liked one of their songs on the Stonerrock.com juke box ten years ago, and to say it was a pleasant surprise would be something of an understatement. I feel mildly annoyed that I never followed up my initial interest back in the day as Head Pains is Rainbows Are Free‘s third full-length album and is a genuinely intriguing and enjoyable listen. While Rainbows Are Free are more than capable of knocking out a bulldozing early 70s proto-metal stomp with the best of them, they show an expert hand at building tension and drawing you in with enigmatic lyrics. One to really lose yourself in.
5. Duel ‘Valley of Shadows’
Heavy Psych Sounds have released a ton of really good albums this year, but my favourite, by some distance, has to be Valley of Shadows by Texans Duel. The band’s description of their sound as ‘old school stoner metal’ is refreshingly brief and, perhaps more to the point, accurate, but doesn’t really capture how exciting this record is. Tom Frank‘s mournful voice is powerful and distinctive and really complements the half-retro, half-modern, all-excellent riffing. Black Magic Summer and Red Moon Forming really jump out as brilliantly enjoyable and hugely catchy tunes, but the whole album is rock solid.
4. Holy Serpent ‘Endless’
I would definitely count finding Holy Serpent as one of the perks of writing for The Sleeping Shaman. I was completely unfamiliar with the Australian band’s previous work before reviewing Endless, their third album, and it totally blew me away. The juxtaposition of dreamy, psych vocals floating over an avalanche of pulverising doom riffs makes for a genuinely refreshing sound and an intriguing listen. Most of all though, some serious tunes make this a brilliant album and an immersive listen.
3. War Cloud ‘State of Shock’
I saw War Cloud at Ripplefest back in the summer and was impressed both by their epic moustaches and their music. State of Shock is their second full-length album and delivers everything you loved about heavy metal back in the day, with a few nods towards classic 70s rock. While that might not sound like anything terribly ground-breaking, it’s so well-played and well-written that I defy anyone with the good taste to peruse The Sleeping Shaman to not enjoy this one. The straight-forward metal cuts are all excellent, but I think Do Anything, which should have been massive global hit when Rainbow were scaling the charts, is my personal favourite.
2. Crimson Witch ‘Satanic Panic’
Listening to random stuff on Bandcamp can be a bit dispiriting at times, but finding an awesome band like Crimson Witch makes it worth sifting through all the tiresome generic crap. I can’t claim to know much about Crimson Witch – they’re from somewhere on Vancouver Island, have a singer who sounds like Jon Garcia, and their self-released debut album kicks all kind of metaphorical arse. Imagine your favourite old school stoner rock band teaming up with your favourite old school heavy metal band, spinning some grunge records and then knocking out an album full of awesome riffs, squealing guitar solos and brilliant songs.
1. The Neptune Power Federation ‘Memoirs of a Rat Queen’
I’ve been a fan of The Neptune Power Federation since stumbling across them online a few years ago and Memoirs of a Rat Queen (review), their fourth album, is their best yet. Stylistically it’s much the same as before – a heady mix of 70s hard rock, 80s metal, and a whole host of other suitably rawkous ingredients, topped by the inimitable vocal stylings of the Imperial Priestess – but with the song-writing turned up another notch. Awesome riffs, insanely catchy choruses and frequent cowbell. What more could you possibly want?
I’m never particularly up-to-date on anything, so the biggest challenge I had in drawing up this list was finding out what was and wasn’t released in 2019. Two albums that I really enjoyed this year were Psychlona’s Mojo Rising (some excellent old school stoner rock) and Magmakammer’s Mindtripper (Uncle Acid-style retro doom but with better tunes), but only found out on checking that they came out in 2018.
Of the records that were actually released this year, I can also strongly recommend: Treecreeper, Gorilla’s first album for 12 years – they still sound wonderfully low-fi and suspiciously like Motorhead; Calm Before the Calm by The Lunar Effect – eight tracks of brilliantly written bluesy heavy rock; and Woodland Rites, Green Lung’s debut – a really enjoyable album crammed with occult sound samples, heavy riffs and big choruses.
Scribed by: Liam Blanc