Canon of Heavy: Kyuss, Welcome to Sky Valley (1994)

Posted in Canon of Heavy on January 3rd, 2013 by H.P. Taskmaster

Any discussion of all-time essential heavy albums is incomplete without Kyuss‘ 1994 full-length, Welcome to Sky Valley.

Officially self-titled, the Palm Desert four-piece’s third album following 1992’s also pivotal Blues for the Red Sun and 1991’s Wretch debut is to this day the single blueprint on which the desert rock aesthetic is based. The album was recorded at Sound City by Chris Goss and included the  simple instructions to, “Listen without Distraction.” Rarely in heavy rock has such sound advice been given.

You could argue that Blues for the Red Sun deserves induction into the Canon of Heavy first — I’m not sure you’d be wrong. The difference, however, is that where Blues for the Red Sun established Kyuss as a band apart from the grunge movement that was then sweeping radio, print mags and the greater rock and roll consciousness, it was Welcome to Sky Valley that showcased specifically the alternative they presented, the weight of their grooves, the loosely jammed feel of driving, punk-derived rhythms, the sheer power of a riff like that of “Supa Scoopa and Mighty Scoop” to stomp itself into the brain of a listener — I still try to tap out the hits at the end and get it wrong more often than not — and ultimately set the stage for the massive and ongoing influence Kyuss has today on bands all around the world.

Then comprised of vocalist John Garcia, guitarist Josh Homme, bassist Scott Reeder and drummer Brant Bjork, Kyuss would become a standard for those to whom even the commodified strains of alt rock left cold, and the sheer something else-ness of Welcome to Sky Valley continues to resonate and make it one of the best heavy records of all time, the best and most formative desert rock release ever, and an utterly timeless listen.

If nothing else, let the fact that Welcome to Sky Valley is included second to Black Sabbath‘s Master of Reality in the Canon of Heavy be a testament to its standing among the classics. And yet how can we call Kyuss anything but underrated?

“The Desert Sound”

Among others, Kyuss cited local jammers Yawning Man as having an influence on their sound, and one can hear that in Homme‘s guitar work on “Space Cadet” and elsewhere, but in a way that’s both unpretentious and undeniable, Welcome to Sky Valley was representative of the Californian desert to its very core. Weird and a little hippie, there was nonetheless heat in the tonal fuzz of the guitars and an ecosystem at work in Reeder‘s basslines, and while Garcia mused with stoned, brazen abandon about who the hell knows what, Bjork solidified every move the band made with understated percussive brilliance. Whether it was the single-worthy psychedelia of “Demon Cleaner” or the landmark thrust of “Odyssey,” Kyuss was as much about the rhythm section as it was about riffs or melodies.

The closing duo of “N.O.” (a cover of Reeder‘s prior outfit, Across the River) and “Whitewater” emphasized that perfectly, but really, it can be heard throughout Welcome to Sky Valley, and the photos that comprise the album’s artwork, of cracked sands and a foldout of a windmill, only speak to the band’s connection to its geography and their intent in conveying that musically. Whatever it was that did it, Kyuss never quite fit sonically with either the hard rock or the metal of their day. A jammed-out instrumental like “Asteroid,” placed as the second track behind opener “Gardenia” in the first of the album’s three movements, is unlike anything radio would’ve touched at the time, and at the time, radio was how a band like Kyuss would’ve gotten big. So what we have is an act necessitating a new vocabulary that didn’t exist when they did — ahead of their time — an act forcing those who’d approach them to realize that heaviness didn’t necessarily have to come hand in hand with anger or some teenaged grunge moping.

How did all this come from the desert? Hell if I know. Thinking about a landscape like that, beaten by the sun, dry and cracked like in the liner note pictures, it looks heavy, making a subtle, nonchalant threat just by being there. You can get lost in the desert and you can get lost in this music. The two almost can’t help but go hand in hand.

The Movements

Let’s say you’re a rock band signed to a major label. You see that the audience is becoming less and less dependent on a full-album listening experience and to counteract this — because you’ve just gone to the trouble of writing a full-length’s worth of material and perhaps you believe in all of it and want it to be heard — you decide to block the 10 component tracks of your album into three movements, three in the first, three in the second and four in the third. Basically, you’re demanding that your audience engage the songs on the level you’ve chosen for them. They no longer have the power to skip to whichever track they want. The terms are yours.

First of all, you’d never get away with it. Today’s corporate label strata is so client friendly that so long as you’re willing to give even the slightest bit of money as opposed to just stealing an album by downloading it illegally, record companies will basically spoon-feed the music to your ears (that’s not to mention the homogenizing effect that the desperation to reach as broad an audience base as possible has had on commercial hard rock as a whole; it’s an issue for a different time), and if you want singles, singles you’ll have. Even Welcome to Sky Valley feels like the result of a compromise in this way. Kyuss could just as easily have presented the individual pieces as one 51-minute track. One wonders at the negotiation process that resulted in the three blocks of tracks that the final CD housed, a new meaning given to the proverbial numbers game of contract talks.

Promo copies of Welcome to Sky Valley went out to radio stations with the pieces split up individually, but for the general listening populace, Sky Valley more or less forced you to take it on as a whole and on that level flew in the face of its own potential for commercial success. In a climate that was having less and less time for a whole album, Kyuss decided they’d refuse to give anything less.

Its Influence

Unless you’ve done it, I’m not sure you can understand quite how difficult it is sometimes to review heavy rock records and not just be like, “Well, it kinda sounds like Kyuss on Welcome to Sky Valley.” At this point, approaching 19 years since its original release, the album continues to have an appeal past any expiration date one might’ve ever wanted to put on it, and from California to Moscow, bands have tried to make even the slightest bit of its magic their own. Most fall short, but the mere fact that their inspiration can be traced back to Kyuss and in particular to Welcome to Sky Valley makes the album a standout in its generation.

The basic fact is that when Kyuss released this album on Elektra, yeah, there was a market for creative hard rock — the Melvins put out Houdini on Atlantic late in ’93, and Monster Magnet‘s second album, Superjudge, founding them riding high on A&M — but the number of bands taking the approach Kyuss were taking to psychedelia, to rock-after-punk (that’s not to call them post-punk), on the level they were doing it, well, it was pretty much them and nobody. The desert from whence they hailed may have had a vibrant scene at the time, with bands like the aforementioned Yawning Man or Fatso Jetson, whose guitarist Mario Lalli guests on lead for “N.O.,” but Kyuss became the ambassadors for that scene to a wider public consciousness.

Really, it’s a title they continue to hold to this day, and with the boom in awareness of what they were doing that came with the rise of the internet as a musical conveyance, their reach went global just a few years after they’d broken up. Already by the mid-to-late ’90s, Man’s Ruin Records was having an impact on listening habits, but today, the sound that took root in Palm Desert can just as likely be heard in Poland or New Zealand.

So Why Weren’t They Huge?

How can that be true — how can Welcome to Sky Valley have had such an impact on heavy rock — and Kyuss still be an underground band? Well, the commercial success that Josh Homme eventually found with Queens of the Stone Age — and let’s not forget it took three albums and a collaboration with Dave Grohl to get there — eluded Kyuss for the entirety of their career. Singles like “Demon Cleaner” and “One Inch Man” from subsequent album …And the Circus Leaves Town (1996) brought some attention, and the band toured hard, but they never quite took the steps that Homme would later take to embrace their audience. Songs were loose and half-jammed, Garcia‘s vocals biting and guttural, and like several others of their musical generation, Kyuss inhabited a curious zone somewhere in between hard rock and heavy metal. The difference is now two decades’ worth of bands have lined up behind them in that position.

The way I look at it is like “Lick Doo” — the “secret” fourth track after the glorious finish of “Whitewater” that’s a minute-long faux doo-wop organ number with Garcia singing, “Oh honey, you know that you can and will lick my doo,” etc. Kyuss by this time were getting to be professionals at their sound, realizing that they had something unique to offer on a stylistic level and setting themselves to the work of capturing that on tape, but they were also a bunch of desert-dwelling stoners goofing around. You think if they were up to taking themselves too seriously they’d have put “Lick Doo” after “Whitewater?” No way. “Hey, here’s probably the best song we’ll ever write, let’s end the record with it and then put this stupid outtake on after it for absolutely no reason.” Sorry, but if you’re considering your position in rock history, that’s probably not the choice you’re gonna make.

And ultimately, maybe that’s part of what makes Welcome to Sky Valley so special — that Kyuss may have been reinventing a long forgotten classic rock wheel, but they were basically doing so just by being who they were. And maybe that’s why all the people who’ve come along since, including Kyuss themselves, have never quite managed to harness the same feeling in a recording as these guys did at that particular moment in time, in that studio, with those instruments, those songs.

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Canon of Heavy: Black Sabbath, Master of Reality (1971)

Posted in Canon of Heavy on October 24th, 2012 by H.P. Taskmaster


What do you say when staring into the face of the greatest album of all time? Fuck if I know.

For months, I’ve been kicking around the idea of starting a periodic feature highlighting the best and most influential albums in heavy rock, stoner rock, doom, whatever — a Canon of Heavy. All along I’ve known that, though I didn’t want it to be like a top-10 or to go by number or date or any other particular order, the first inductee into said canon would have to be Black Sabbath‘s 1971 masterpiece, Master of Reality. The rest of the time since has been trying to figure out what the hell to say about it.

Because while endless words have been written in its praise and its singular influence has bled into enough bands and records to make Helen of Troy’s thousand ships look paltry, the basic fact of the matter is that Master of Reality was and is perfect, and that’s all the explanation it really needs.

No doubt I could stop right there and an entire section of the population who might see this post could only nod in agreement — “Yup.” — but it would be half-assed, and frankly, it’ll be more fun this way. Here are just a few of my reasons why it had to be Geezer Butler , Tony Iommi, Bill Ward and Ozzy Osbourne, and why Master of Reality had to be the first Canon of Heavy inclusion.

Is it the Best Album Ever?

Yeah, pretty much. Opinions vary and we can go back and forth forever about this or that record, what’s better about what, but when it comes down to it, Master of Reality really is flawless. From the coughs that open “Sweet Leaf” to the last chord that closes “Into the Void,” there isn’t a moment misspent. Sure, you have interludes “Embryo” and “Orchid” and the whispered section after “Children of the Grave,” but even these are perfectly suited to their purpose, no longer than they need to be to bridge the gap to and from the song before into the next track while adding to the atmosphere.

And each of its main tracks was a defining moment. “Sweet Leaf,” “After Forever,” “Children of the Grave,” “Lord of this World,” “Solitude” and “Into the Void” — you could look at any one of those songs and mark out its influence, whether it’s “Sweet Leaf” codifying what decades later would in no small part define stoner rock or  “After Forever” offering the earliest template for Christian metal — but more importantly to the idea of Master of Reality as a whole is how well they work with each other, driving you forward into the culmination of “Into the Void,” which comes as the final answer to successive exclamations of “this is the heaviest thing ever,” “no, this is the heaviest thing ever!” No matter how many times I hear Master of Reality, it never loses its power. One does not listen to it so much as one is brought into its countenance.

It was The Birth of The Heavy — and though it’s sold over two million copies since, it remains an underground treasure. You listen to Master of Reality and it’s not like putting on anything else, any other big release. The album connects on an individual level, and not just in a handshake-from-a-famous-person kind of way. Its thickened, sludgy lumber is the stuff of legend, but each legend is a personal, human story as well.

Third Time Around

We all know the cliche about thirds, so I’ll spare you that, but arriving in July 1971, Master of Reality came not even a full year after Black Sabbath‘s landmark second album, Paranoid and only 17 months after their self-titled debut, which is widely regarded as the moment that hard rock became heavy metal. Nonetheless, the growth the band underwent in that time — they toured as well, astoundingly — is stunning, and where Black Sabbath was formative and raw and Paranoid was chaotic and bitter, the third album refined all of Sabbath‘s ideas to that point into a drug-fueled lurch that they’d never again match. In their rush to get the next LP out and maintain their chart position, they wrote the single best collection of songs heavy music has ever known.

They were, by their own admission, drugged out of their minds at the time. And yet, their songwriting would never be in this space again. Black Sabbath and Paranoid are both truly great albums, and I don’t doubt that in time they’ll be included here as well, but the reason it’s Master of Reality first is because Master of Reality marks that crucial moment where “heavy” became more than just a mindset and truly manifested itself sonically in Iommi‘s guitar and Butler‘s bass, where the riffs came to ultimate prominence, and where the band hit the intersection of knowing what kind of music they wanted to be making without over-thinking their processes. The bassline of “After Forever,” the unmitigated stomp of “Lord of this World,” the percussive thrust of “Children of the Grave” — how much time did they actually spend on these songs? Hours?

With Master of Reality, Sabbath found the balance sound-wise they’d never be able to find in a real life filled with narcotic excess and personal drama. Further, it’s the most efficient album they ever made. By the time they’d record Vol. 4 in May 1972, that moment had simply passed, and while they were by no means done and there was still plenty more for them to say in their original incarnation, Master of Reality was as crucial as they ever got.

“Solitude”

There’s ongoing debate about whether it’s even Osbourne singing or Ward, but what’s special about the penultimate cut on the album is that it’s no less heavy than anything around it for its lack of assault. Sure, “Black Sabbath” from the same album was a creeper and “Planet Caravan” is a better execution of psychedelia, but “Solitude” is among the purest executions of doom ever recorded. You’re not journeying through space so much as through the depths of your own wretchedness, and long gone are tales of mysterious demons at the foot of your bed. All that’s left is yourself and the miserable bastard you’ve become:

My name it means nothing, my fortune means less
My future is shrouded in dark wilderness
Sunshine is far away, clouds linger on
Everything I possessed, now they are gone

Even “Paranoid,” which one could argue covered some of the same depressive lyrical ground, didn’t dare unmask itself to such an extent, and when they tried again to cover similar ground on “Changes” from Vol. 4, the result was a laughable farce of emotionality. The minimalist blues of “Solitude” is unmatched in the Sabbath catalog, which even elsewhere offers righteous judgment (“Lord of this World”) and brazen defiance (“Children of the Grave”), but never again the same kind of peculiar ambience and first-person exploration of damaged psyche. It is beautiful and doomed in like measure, and the lead-in it provides the introductory and signature riff of “Into the Void” gives both songs a context emblematic of the strength of the album as a whole work.

The Legacy

Goes without saying, again. Go grab a CD or record off your shelf of any even moderately heavy variety, and there’s a good chance that whether or not the band knows it, there’s some aspect of Master of Reality to be found therein. The album is elemental in the actual, scientific sense — providing the pieces through which compounds can be made. A lot of Black Sabbath from this period is like that. With Master of Reality though, this was the record the first two were driving toward and the record that the remaining five released by the original lineup were coming from.

In terms of a Canon of Heavy, Blue Cheer and Hendrix were heavy before it, and others like Budgie, Atomic Rooster, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin ran concurrent, but none could stand in line with its crushing weight or sheer sonic mass. And none have since, Sabbath included. One need only name a band from either the heavy rock, doom or sludge genres to find someone who’s tried, pivotal or obscure, but Master of Reality stands unto itself, carved in stone. Time has not diminished it, and I think if time tried, the record would simply kick its ass, which is the same treatment it has dealt out to everything else in its path for the last 41 years.

Like I said: perfect.

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