Friday Full-Length: Iota, Tales

Posted in Bootleg Theater on August 24th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

What a record. I’ve mentioned Iota here and there over the years, mostly when talking about other bands, but it’s now been 10 years since the Salt Lake City-based trio released their debut and apparent swansong, Tales, on Small Stone, and it seems high time the album got a revisit. In hindsight, it was a collection ahead of the curve in its blend of straightforward heavy rock riffing and more open-feeling jams, and even when it came out, it was clear the band were onto something special. I was still working print mags at the time and I remember calling it “like Kyuss in space,” and I stand by that to some degree. Under the mountain-filled skies of Utah, Iota harnessed a style that was as comfortable in the high-rolling lead guitar strut deep into the seventh minute of “The Sleeping Heathen”‘s total 10 as it was tearing through the opening duo of “New Mantis” and “We are the Yithians,” neither of which was half as long. Those two tracks, however brief, were utterly crucial to the overall impression made by guitarist/vocalist Joey Toscano, bassist Oz Yosri and drummer/engineer Andy Patterson in what followed.

To wit, with “New Mantis” (4:40) and “We are the Yithians” (3:37) at the outset, Tales subsequently launched into three cuts that would comprise roughly 84 percent of its runtime. “The Sleeping Heathen” (10:42), the sprawling “Dimensional Orbiter” (22:56) and closer “Opiate Blues” (8:14) shot outward from where Tales began, but the context of the two opening tracks gave a straightforward edge to even the most dug-in jams of “Dimensional Orbiter,” which as it hit the five-minute mark, pivoted from its hook and the gritty vocal delivery of Toscano into a consuming instrumental rush that continued until after 19 minutes in, when a slowdown brought the vocals back atop masterful crashing and more wah-drenched lead work. “Dimensional Orbiter” was and remains a gorgeous demonstration of the potential in Iota‘s sound, but the basic elements from which it was crafted are right there in “New Mantis” and “We are the Yithians.” From the furious chug and snare punishment that started the former to the tension of its verses and the takeoff into a solo before the first half was done, to the hook that emerged through the barrage of high-desert tonality and ethereal who-the-hell-knows-what-they’re-talking-about lyrics, and into the semi-metallized slower-thrash riffing of “We are the Yithians,” catchy, quick, efficient as it was, the sense of Iota careening from one movement to the next was palpable even before “The Sleeping Heathen” took hold.

And once it did, it was the beginning point of an entirely different stage of the album. I’d call it a transition point, but it really wasn’t. While “The Sleeping Heathen” picked up at a sprint from “We are the Yithians” and would turn fluidly into “Dimensional Orbiter” on the other end, its place on the record was hardly just about making the shift from one side of the band’siota tales personality to the other. That’s part of what made Tales so special. There was of course a flow between — and plenty within — its tracks, but a huge part of the reason it all worked so well was simply that Toscano, Yosri and Patterson had the confidence to pull it off. Toscano was a grounding presence as a frontman, and the importance of his leading the band through the return to structure in the final minutes of “Dimensional Orbiter” isn’t to be understated for the work it did in establishing Iota‘s songwriting as central. Yeah, they jammed way, way, way out, but they didn’t let the track end without bringing it back either. That was the job of “Opiate Blues,” with its harmonica-laced wash of fuzz and all-gone-not-coming-back vibe. But all the more, then, what “Dimensional Orbiter” did was to show that Iota were conscious of what they were doing in the material. It might sound like they were getting lost in the vastness of their own making, and maybe they were for a while, but they weren’t about to actually stay lost. I’ll happily maintain that Iota‘s Tales was one of 2008’s most exciting albums, and if it showed up now, a decade later, I’d still be dying to hear what the band did next.

A lot’s changed in 10 years, of course, but you take my meaning. Consider the vinyl revival. Tales, as the runtimes and track placements were on the original disc, wouldn’t work on vinyl. You’d probably have to drop off “Opiate Blues” and lose that harmonica-jam finish to close with “Dimensional Orbiter” as a standalone cut on side B. Side A would work with “New Mantis,” “We are the Yithians” and “The Sleeping Heathen” as they are, but the linear aspect of the record would be gone and it would be a marked change in the overall affect. Maybe it would be cool, but I’m not sure sacrificing the closer to fit on a 12″ would be a fair enough trade. But 2008 was a different time. It was a moment of transition in the social media landscape, but even more than that, consider that Texas’ Wo Fat, who’d made their debut in 2006 with The Gathering Dark, would release Psychedelonaut the next year and embark on a similar course of blending straightforward rock with jammier fare. Their take was bluesier, and they certainly went on to do it more than once, but it stands as another example of how new the idea was at that point. Iota were right on the cusp of that movement waiting to happen.

Then nothing happened. They played SXSW a couple times and would talk about new material for a while, but by the second half of 2009, Toscano was beginning to establish his new outfit, Dwellers, and they’d go on to release two records also through Small Stone to-date, while Patterson would take hold of the drums in SubRosa and continue to build his reputation as a producer. Careers took different paths, and gradually Iota became a footnote and a case of what-coulda-been-style potential unrealized. I heard as recently as last year they had some new jams, but nothing has come to the surface as yet, and in the meantime, everyone seems plenty busy otherwise. SubRosa‘s For This We Fought the Battle of Ages (review here) was the best album of 2016, and Dwellers, whose 2014 outing, Pagan Fruit (review here), continues to get periodic revisits, have reportedly started hammering out material for a third LP, to which one looks forward. Yosri was playing with Bird Eater alongside members of the crushing Gaza, but they broke up in 2014. Iota had early demos with different personnel in the rhythm section, but Tales stands alone as the document of what they accomplished during their time. And 10 years after the fact, it still kicks unreasonable amounts of ass.

As always, I hope you enjoy.

We were getting ready to leave Connecticut the other day — prepping for the by-now-so-familiar-The-Pecan-doesn’t-even-really-mind-it-anymore trip south to New Jersey for a final week here before the semester starts and we have to go back to Massachusetts to hunker down for the winter ahead. I was packing the car. I had a laundry basket full of clean clothes coming south, and the baby didn’t want to be put down. He’s got three teeth, working on numbers four and five already, and has been hair-trigger pretty much daily for the last three weeks running. Brutal. I said, “You wanna go for a ride in the laundry basket?” and he gave me a look like, “The fuck kinda question is that chief OF COURSE I wanna go for a ride in the laundry basket,” so I loaded him in, he held onto the sides and I marched out to put the basket in the car. Fine.

I think it must have been when I pulled the basket up onto the back bumper so I could open the hatch on The Patient Mrs.’ car that my back went out. Brutally out. This was Wednesday early on and it’s Friday morning as I write this and I’m still considerably uncomfortable. I’ve spent the last two days with heating pads and ibuprofen and I’m better than I was by Wednesday evening when we got here and I couldn’t really move, but very clearly something was pulled. Something necessary for basic functions. It has sucked, and it continues to suck. Yesterday I could pick the baby up, but couldn’t really hold him long. Just to kind of put him from one place to the other. No way to live.

My father always had chronic back pain. My sister as well, for years. Real genetic lottery winner, this one.

So that’s kind of peppered my last couple days, and by “peppered” I mean “been excruciating and frustrating.” But so it goes. In addition, I’ve been up in the middle of the night doing Obelisk stuff so that I can be available during the day to watch the baby so The Patient Mrs. can work. Working the overnights. “Four-shift crew rotation, Riker. Get it done.” I don’t actually mind that. I can relax and not be as rushed to get things done, but it does pretty much necessitate a nap later on. And every now and then I cry a bit.

–Wow. So I just went fucking apeshit and typed out a whole miserable screed about depression and pills and being a wreck. I deleted it, it’s gone, but it was there. It sucks that I’m not really comfortable enough to post that kind of thing here anymore. I used to feel like I could say anything at any time. Now, it’s setting myself up for bullshit.

Bummer.

Let’s do the notes instead. That’ll be productive. Did you listen to that Moab track today? That record smokes, so I hope so. Here’s what’s up for next week as of now:

Mon.: Clutch review; The White Swan track premiere.
Tue.: Fvzz Popvli track premiere/review; news catchup.
Wed.: Constant Lovers track premiere.
Thu.: Juicer track premiere.
Fri.: Ramprasad EP full stream.

Busy busy, as ever. Probably Monday we’ll head back north to Connecticut and then follow-up with a return to Massachusetts thereafter. The Patient Mrs. has to go be brilliant as she will at a conference in Boston next weekend, so I’m on baby duty for the duration there, which is fine. I should be able to move by then.

Which reminds me: ibuprofen.

I’m gonna finish downing this coffee, fire off an email or two and go back to bed hopefully for 90 minutes or so until The Pecan wakes up. If you need me this weekend, I’m on the social medias and checking in as much as I can getting ready for next week. That Clutch review is going to be a fun one to put together.

Alright. Great and safe weekend, please. And please too, forum and radio:

The Obelisk Forum

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Where to Start: The Obelisk’s Guide to Small Stone Records

Posted in Where to Start on May 3rd, 2012 by JJ Koczan

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:

 
1. Novadriver, Void (ss-022/2001)

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.

3. Various Artists, Sucking the ’70s (ss-032/2002)

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.

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