Review Summary: Wanna get stoned?
For all of stoner metal's quality, it's fair to say that it's not a diverse genre overall. The typically distinct lack of variation of influences, dynamics and structures is something which plagues most bands within stoner metal from receiving much critical and commercial acclaim. This makes it difficult to rate most stoner metal band's objectively. It's almost as if most of these bands need two separate ratings: one for how good the band are within their own genre, and one for how good they are outside of their genre. However, a band that is stretching the limits of stoner metal, if only very, very slightly, is California's Stonehelm, who released their debut, self-titled album in 2010.
Stonehelm, for the most part, is a typical stoner metal/stoner doom record. This much is evident just from looking at the album, where we see a Satan-like figure sitting on a throne while overlooking a ritual sacrifice of some sort. Weed plants are also growing either side of the throne, and the famous cannabis leaf symbol hovers above. It's a decent cover, and one that certainly is not misleading in any way, but this means that potential listeners may be put off listening to the record, as they may think that the album will be clichéd and unoriginal.
And while it's true that Stonehelm do indeed fall into some of these clichés (e.g. thick distortion on the guitars, lack of dynamics etc.), as mentioned before, this band does marginally stretch the limits of stoner metal somewhat. For a start, the riffs on this album are genuinely well-crafted and catchy. For example, the first song on the record, 'Hyborian Tale' has an intro riff which is almost impossible not to headbang to. The thick guitar tone helps this riff to sound truly monolithic, as if the band themselves are playing in the sky, looking down upon us mere mortals. This is a quality that only very few bands in the genre manage to achieve, such as Sleep and Electric Wizard. Too often we see stoner metal bands hiding behind the thick layers of distortion to make their riffs 'seem' catchy. However, these bands are exposed over the course of their respective albums, as their songs seem to become indistinguishable. Although all of the songs on 'Stonehelm' are similar in aesthetic and general vibe, each riff seems to have its own identity, and thus the songs are easily distinguishable from one another.
This album places a major emphasis on grooves. This is achieved through not only the use of catchy riffs, but also the drumming. The late Zac Bickler isn't exactly innovative behind the kit, but the beats he creates are used to drive the riffs forward and create the ultimate groove. This is best seen on 'Vault Dweller (13)'. Starting off with a rumbling bassline, the drums come in, utilising the cymbals and snare effectively, before the guitars crash in and the band launches into a mid-paced, groove-laden frenzy. The hollow snare really gives the drumming an edge too, and is part of what makes this band sound different to the rest of the stoner metal bunch.
The bass is decent but unfortunately too low in the mix. Even if it was louder, it would still be hard to make out due to the down-tuned nature of the guitars. It's definitely fair to say that the guitars take centre stage here, and lead guitarist-cum-vocalist John Daniels is certainly given a lot of room for movement with regards to solos. The presence of solos on 'Stonehelm' is definitely stronger than on most stoner metal records, and John Daniels shreds to high heaven at times, especially on the eleven minute instrumental 'Acid Blur'.
Not only are Daniels' solos effective, but so are his vocals. Although he doesn't exactly have a broad vocal range in terms of pitch (or style, for that matter), his vocals most certainly add to the stoner vibe due to their echoey and spacey nature.
Stonehelm have been totally overlooked in 2010 with their self-titled release, and that is a great shame, especially seeing as the death of their drummer Zac Bickler has rendered the release of a future album improbable. Even if they do release another record, they have set themselves an extremely tall mountain to climb by releasing what is simply a superb debut, absolutely jam-packed with catchy grooves, driving percussion and spacey vocals. Stonehelm aren't exactly reinventing the wheel with their self-titled album, but for all of its clichés and seemingly banal ideas, this release still sounds fresh as hell.