Founded in 1995 by Scott Hamilton, Detroit imprint Small Stone Records is the single most influential American heavy rock label of the post-Man’s Ruin era. What started as Hamilton releasing local Detroit acts of varied genres like Morsel, 36D and Perplexa soon took on a dedication to the heavy aesthetic that remains unmatched in both its scope and its reach of influence. Looking back, Five Horse Johnson‘s 1997 Double Down debut, seems to have been the beginning of Small Stone‘s turn down the fuzzly path. It’s like Hamilton followed the riff right down the rabbit hole and never looked back.
Now, 17 years on, Small Stone has a reach that goes beyond even the distribution of the albums it puts out. Thanks to the diligent work of Hamilton and oft-encountered names like Mad Oak Studios engineer/mixer Benny Grotto, mastering engineer Chris Gooseman, graphic artist Alexander von Wieding, among others, the label has earned a reputation for quality output that new releases are constantly reaffirming. Over the years, Man’s Ruin refugees like Sons of Otis, (The Men Of) Porn, Acid King and VALIS have come into the fold, but the crux of Small Stone‘s catalog is made up of acts like Roadsaw, Dixie Witch, Halfway to Gone, Throttlerod, Puny Human and Novadriver, who no matter what else they put out or who they put it out with, will always be considered “Small Stone bands.”
That designation and those groups specifically have helped establish a core American-style heavy rocking sound that the label seems to delight in toying with even as it continues to promulgate. Next generation bands like Gozu, Lo-Pan, Freedom Hawk, Backwoods Payback and even newer newcomers Wo Fat, Supermachine, Lord Fowl and Mellow Bravo — who don’t yet have albums out on the label — are expanding its breadth, and recent international signees Asteroid, Abrahma, Mangoo, Nightstalker and Mother of God should help ensure that Small Stone keeps pushing both itself and genre boundaries well into the next several years.
One of the hazards, however, of an ever-growing catalog, is that it can be hard to figure out where to start taking it on, and to that end, I’m happy to provide you with 10 essential Small Stone picks. Note I didn’t say “the 10 essential Small Stone picks,” because the reality of the situation is this is just the tip of the fuzzberg. If it’s any indication, I started out with five and couldn’t leave the rest out.
Here they are, ordered by the date of release:
Still an album that’s more or less impossible to pin to just one genre, the stoner/space/weirdo jams of Novadriver‘s 2001 outing, Void, reside somewhere between Monster Magnet‘s early Hawkwind worship and the unbridled intensity of groove that came out of Detroit’s early- and mid-’70s heavy rock and proto-metal. The fact that Novadriver also came from the Motor City speaks to the label’s local roots, but if Void was coming out even today, it’d be coming out on Small Stone.
2. Los Natas, Corsario Negro (ss-028/2002)
Personally, I think 2005′s El Hombre Montaña is a better album and 2009′s Nuevo Orden de la Libertad is an even better album than that, but Corsario Negro earns the edge as a starting point because it was the beginning of the Argentinian rockers’ relationship with Small Stone (they too were left without a home in the wake of Man’s Ruin folding). Plus, if you haven’t heard them before and you get this, you can still marvel at the subsequent offerings. Either way, totally necessary.
In a lot of ways, this is what it’s all about. Badass bands playing badass songs. By this point, The Glasspack, Los Natas, Fireball Ministry, Halfway to Gone and Five Horse Johnson (who lead off the first disc) had already put out at least one album through Small Stone, but Sucking the ’70s made the most of the label’s burgeoning reputation, bringing in Clutch, Alabama Thunderpussy and Lowrider, along with bands who’d later add records to the catalog like Roadsaw, Suplecs and Lord Sterling, all covering hits and obscurities from the heavy ’70s. A gorgeous collection that would get a sequel in 2006. Still waiting on part three.
4. Dixie Witch, One Bird, Two Stones (ss-037/2003)
The Austin, Texas, trio would go on to become one of the most pivotal acts on the Small Stone roster, and they’d do so on the strength of their Southern riffs and the soul in their songwriting. Led by drummer/vocalist Trinidad Leal, Dixie Witch hooked up with Small Stone on the heels of their 2001 debut, Into the Sun, which was released by Brainticket, and quickly gained a reputation for some of the finest classic road songs that Grand Funk never wrote (see “The Wheel”). Their 2011 offering, Let it Roll, affirmed their statesmen status among their labelmates.
5. Sasquatch, Sasquatch (ss-044/2004)
I was pretty well convinced that when the L.A.-based Sasquatch released their self-titled debut in 2004, rock and roll was saved. Whoever it needed saving from, whatever needed to take place to make that happen, this record did it. Truth is, rock and roll didn’t really need to be saved — it needed a stiff drink, as we all do from time to time — but Sasquatch would’ve been right there even if it had. They’re a Small Stone original with all three of their records to date out through the label, and still one of the strongest acts in the American rock underground, even though they’d never be quite this fuzzy again.
6. Dozer, Through the Eyes of Heathens (ss-061/2005)
Even now, seven years later, I can’t look at this album cover without hearing the chorus to “The Roof, the River, the Revolver.” Between that and songs like “Man of Fire,” “Born a Legend” and “From Fire Fell,” Swedish rockers Dozer made their definitive statement in their label debut (fourth album overall). Another former Man’s Ruin band, they’d already begun to grow past their desert rock roots by the time they hooked up with Hamilton, and Through the Eyes of Heathens played out like what heavy metal should’ve turned into after the commercial atrocities of the late-’90s. A gorgeous record and still a joy to hear.
7. Greenleaf, Agents of Ahriman (ss-074/2007)
It’s like they built nearly every song on here out of undeniable choruses. Even the verses are catchy. I’ve championed Agents of Ahriman since before I started this site, and I feel no less vehement in doing so now than I did then. A side-project of Dozer guitarist Tommi Holappa that on this, their third album, included and featured members of Truckfighters, Lowrider, The Awesome Machine and others, Greenleaf became a distillation of many of the elements that make Swedish heavy rock unique in the world. It wasn’t aping classic rock, it was giving it a rebirth, and every Hammond note was an absolute triumph.
8. Iota, Tales (ss-084/2008)
Once, I had a t-shirt with the cover of Iota‘s Tales on the front. I wore it until it got holes, and then I bought another. That’s the kind of album Tales was. A trio crawled from out of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, Iota took Kyuss, launched them into space, and jammed out for five, 10 or 20 minutes to celebrate the success of the mission. Recently, guitarist/vocalist Joey Toscano has resurfaced in the bluesier, more earthbound Dwellers, which teams him with the rhythm section of SubRosa. Their debut, Good Morning Harakiri, was a highlight of early 2012, building on what Iota was able to accomplish here while pushing in a different direction.
9. Solace, A.D. (ss-093/2010)
It took the better part of a decade for the Jersey-bred metallers to finish what became their Small Stone debut after two full-lengths for MeteorCity, but when it finally dropped, there was no denying A.D.‘s power. My album of the year in 2010, the band delivered front to back on seven years’ worth of promise, and though it was recorded in more studios than I can count over a longer stretch than I think even Solace knows, it became a cohesive, challenging album, giving listeners a kick in the ass even as it handed them their next beer. I still get chills every time I put on “From Below,” and I put it on with near-embarrassing regularity.
10. Lo-Pan, Salvador (ss-116/2011)
If you know this site, this one’s probably a no-brainer pick, but the Columbus, Ohio-based riff merchants took on unabashed stoner rock fuzz for their Small Stone debut (third album overall) and made some of 2011′s most memorable songs in the process. Subversively varied in mood and heavy as hell no matter what they were doing, every part of Lo-Pan‘s Salvador worked. There was no lag. Small Stone also reissued the band’s 2009 outing, Sasquanaut, in 2011, but Salvador surpassed it entirely, bringing the band to new heights of professionalism they’d confirm by touring, well, perpetually. They’re still touring for it. You should go see them and behold the future of fuzz.
That’s the list as much as I could limit it. If you want to immediately add five more, throw in Roadsaw‘s self-titled (they’re writing the best songs of their career right now, I don’t care how attached to the early records you are), Puny Human‘s Universal Freak Out, Halfway to Gone‘s High Five, Milligram‘s This is Class War and Five Horse Johnson‘s Fat Black Pussycat. If you want to semi-immediately add five more than that, get the reissue of Acid King‘s Busse Woods, Mos Generator‘s Songs for Future Gods, The Brought Low‘s Third Record, Tummler‘s Early Man and Erik Larson‘s The Resounding. There. We just doubled the length of the list.
And the real trouble? I could go on. We didn’t even touch on curios like Axehandle, Lord Sterling and Brain Police, or The Might Could‘s Southern aggression, Hackman‘s instrumentalism or the druggy post-grunge of VALIS. Suffice it to say that Small Stone is one of very few labels out there from whom any output will at least be worth a cursory investigation. As the label continues to grow and develop in 2012 and beyond with new bands and new releases from its staple acts, taking on new avenues of commerce — like releasing vinyl for the first time, which it did in 2011 — whatever changes might crop up, Small Stone seems ready to meet the future, distortion pedal first. Can’t ask more of rock than that.