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.
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.
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.