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Why Stoner Rock detractors are one toke over the line

They have names like Bongzilla, Sleep, Electric Wizard and Spirit Caravan. They are the Sons (and daughters) of Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer and latter-day heroes like Celtic Frost and Kyuss. They have their own chat rooms and web destinations, and even their own particular lingo. Their music? Some people call it "Riff Rock," "Fuzz Rock," "Stoner Rock," "Cosmic Rock" or "Doom." Call it what you want, just don't call to tell it to turn down the volume.The most popular of these labels is, of course, "Stoner Rock." Many of these bands are rather open in their love for what stoner/ doom icon Ozzy Osbourne once famously termed the "sweetleaf," and they often make reference to the plant in their artwork, lyrics, album titles and band names (see the aforementioned Bongzilla, Sleep's gargantuan-sounding Dopesmoker LP, and High on Fire -- in town on Monday at Tremont Music Hall -- to name but a few referential examples). And who's kidding who? It's easy to imagine dinosaurs walking the earth and wizards casting demon spells and ice-borne Yetis when you're pleasantly zonked out of your ever-lovin' gourd. Shit, even Steely Dan sounds good under those conditions.

Others cringe at the label, seeing it as a dismissive hand wave from out-of-touch critics who are unable (or no longer able) to truly feel the power of the music, the rumble of the amplifiers, the warm cocoon of phased guitar and fuzzed-out bass, the whole thing feeding back, knobs at 11. And why not? After all, every third rock band on earth likely records -- and listens to music, and plays shows -- under the influence of another drug or alcohol, and I defy you to find a critic that's ever used the "Alcohol Rock" label (if you do, you have my permission to slap him). So a lot of the bands in the genre smoke pot. So what? So does every third actor in Hollywood, half the NBA, and probably your next-door neighbor. Can we move on, please, and maybe talk about the music?

Removing marijuana from the equation, the listener is left with this: bountiful musical crunch (an oft-used-and-abused adjective, but one that fits perfectly), an appreciation for slow, crescendo-building tempo, and growled lyrics. (About those lyrics: Many of them are closer to Conan the Barbarian than Conan O'Brien, to be sure. To these ears, that's sort of refreshing. In an age where the self is everywhere and the memoir is the written form du jour, it's invigorating to hear someone tell a damn story, even if that story concerns ancient priests casting out demons while traveling on a smoke-spewing spirit caravan.)

Whatever you want to call it, it's a refuge. A refuge for those who like the drive of metal, but have misgivings about the leather-wrapped pomposity of its presentation. A refuge for people who appreciate instrumental virtuosity but cringe at the look-at-me solos ripped off by pointless shredders like Yngwie Malmsteen. A place for people that like the aggressive tone of hardcore punk but feel a little stupid smashing their bodies against each other in "dance" like two rams bashing horns on a rerun of Wild Kingdom.

High on Fire's Matt Pike sees his music in a different way. To Pike (also a former member of the aforementioned and highly influential Sleep), the draw is spiritual, a wanderlust to discover the caverns and crevices of his own existence, however they choose to present themselves. To him, the beautiful brutality of music is as close as it gets to the Awe of God, and the lyrics -- even while alluding to comics and theology and that good "ol sweetleaf -- are merely symbolic, a sort of topographical roadmap to the center of the mind.

As Pike tells, "I swear that 98 percent of this world's population lets other people make decisions for them. That's what (the song) "Jerusalem' is all about: `Drop out of life with bong in hand, follow the smoke to the riff-filled lands.' It's about thinking for yourself, and it's not just about pot. It's about using your head (and understanding) what you think and letting go of what everybody else is telling you... it's about having some spiritual wisdom, not some blind faith."

So is it the music or the message that makes the nebulous genre what it is, whatever it is? It's a good question. However, as long as one takes pains to be "heavy" in both -- whatever that term means to you, the individual -- you can rest assured you're following the right path.

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