Sunday, August 9, 2015
We Hunt Buffalo - Blood From A Stone EP
I wrote what you’re about to read with my Dad in mind. Not, regrettably, because he has any interest in the band or even the music style I’m about to discuss, but because writing for him represents a possible solution to a problem: specifically, my problem writing about bands my Dad has never heard of by referencing other bands he’s never heard of. Just this once, I want him to be able to read something I’ve written and have an idea what I’m talking about.
This is gonna be tough, because I listen to a lot of eclectic heavy rock that my Dad (not to mention my wife and most of my friends) doesn't really get. So if I can sermonize about a killer non-commercial riff-rock band like We Hunt Buffalo in such a way that my Dad follows what I’m saying (even if he still doesn't want to hear them), my likelihood of turning more people on to them increases. If he gets it, anyone can get it … and then I can feel reasonably successful about what I've written, and justified in continuing to ask for free music.
The problem is, the first thing my brain did in processing the opening salvo of We Hunt Buffalo’s Blood from a Stone was shriek, "that's Astroqueen's guitar sound!" It's a compliment, but my father wouldn't know Astroqueen if they broke into his kitchen and demolished his doughnut stash—and that’s a shame, because the breakdown groove of Brain Phase Voyage is so fist-pumpingly infectious that I still include it on my all-time heavy rock top 10. This means that right off the bat, I’m fighting an uphill battle against myself.
You see my dilemma? My Dad is probably still reading this, but it’s more out of a sense of fatherly obligation than any interest in (or comprehension of) my references to obscure Swedish bands from the early 21st century. Bottom line: I’ve gotta be more universal if I hope to communicate anything meaningful about We Hunt Buffalo to him.
Bear with me while I try something else, Dad.
In the beginning (that’s the late 80s and early 90s), there was a handful of bands—the Obsessed, Kyuss, The Melvins, Monster Magnet, and probably someone else I’m forgetting—doing some pretty visionary stuff. Each were synthesizing the musicianship of metal with the energy and fuck-you attitude of punk, then infusing the resulting blend with a penchant for spacey jams and a truckload of thick, fuzzy volume. None of them had what you’d call a true hit. Their music did resonate, though: while there weren’t a lot of people who dug these bands, most of those who did went out and started bands of their own.
By the mid to late 90s, they were coming out of the woodwork so fast that, with the help of the burgeoning internet, they were coalescing into a new genre of heavy rock. It was similar to grunge, except that it sort of simmered below the surface rather than exploding all over everything and then flaming out (like grunge did).
For better or worse, this genre’s name was stoner rock. Stoner rock was a musical response by the fans of the bands I mentioned above, who were so inspired by what they’d heard that they just had to start playing music themselves.
That was 20 years ago, give or take a year. In that time, thousands of stoner rock bands have formed, peaked, faded, come back, and vanished again, with a small number of them sticking around the whole time. Some created monumental, genre-defining musical statements; most churned out redundant, derivative stuff, proving that copying greatness rarely amounts to more greatness.
Stoner rock is an elastic term for heavy rock music founded on loud, powerful guitar riffs and generally produced sometime after 1994. Sometimes it's slow, sometimes fast. Often it's an elliptical, unrushed mid-tempo groove. The vocals may be sung, roared, grunted, or screamed; and sometimes there are no vocals at all.
The thing I always liked, and this is what I think distinguishes stoner rock from commercial rock (listen closely, Dad), is this: stoner rock bands, as a rule, do not write songs with the central goal of making them accessible to large numbers of casual music listeners. It’s actually their semi-inaccessibility that appeals to a lot of us. Songs too long or unconventional for radio? Perfect. Too loud or angry for pop fans? Fuck yes. We didn’t want anything in common with those people anyway.
Stoner rock wasn’t created to satisfy some extrinsic goal of popular acknowledgement. It comes from a more genuine place – the volume, the tempos, the lyrics, the energy, they’re intrinsically fulfilling to the band members themselves. This music embodies not only what these musicians want to play, but what they want to hear. And, if it does happen to be catchy, it almost certainly had nothing to do with any hope for or expectation of mainstream adoption.
Having said all that, though, I have to mention that the best stoner rock very often is catchy. Maybe the best comparison is 70s hard rock, which quite a bit of stoner rock echoes. Think about Mississippi Queen, Black Betty, Stranglehold… big, meaty rock slabs that get your head bobbing and almost irresistibly force you to sing along. Well, there's a direct correlation between songs like those and the best that the stoner rock genre ever amounted to. (Oh, and Dad, if those highly recognizable 1970s references don't click for you, I don’t know what else I can say... there's just no stoner rock overlap with Bruce Springsteen or Neil Diamond.)
Am I getting around to We Hunt Buffalo soon? As a matter of fact, that’s just where I was headed, because We Hunt Buffalo is the epitome of the best that stoner rock can be. They've got it all: The massive guitars, the hummable riffs, the too-raw-for-radio authenticity, and, elevating them into the top ninety-sixth percentile of stoner rock bands, great vocals that weave together infectious melodies and sharp lyrics with actual shit to say.
On their 2013 Blood from a Stone EP, the Vancouver, B.C. three-piece sound so comfortable that it’s as if they’ve been at this for ages, leading me to keep thinking, ‘how can I not have heard of these guys?’ I mean, when did Led Zeppelin form, 1968? It’s not easy to just decide to play heavy rock in the second decade of the twenty-first century and not feel a little bit of pressure… tens of thousands of bands have been playing heavy rock for almost fifty years! Some of them have been in the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame since before I was born!! No indication that We Hunt Buffalo feel any pressure, though – they come flying out of the gate sounding not just excellent, but smooth and confident. If they weren’t so damn good, I might be irritated at their audacity.
This is a band with great instincts, and they’re writing cool, original tunes that feel familiar without following the precise model of anything I can put my finger on. How can a song I’d never heard make me feel nostalgic? I have no idea, and if there’s a psychological music theory-based explanation, I don’t want to hear it and spoil the mystery… but writing a song like that is the mark of a truly singular band. When I play track three, Hometown, I hear a song simultaneously lamenting something lost and pronouncing something dead that deserves to die. I hear it and think, “I once tried to write a song like that about Albuquerque, and if I was a better songwriter, maybe it would’ve sounded like this.”
I've never been able to succinctly explain anything to my Dad, and this review is par for the course. But let me try to at least tie this all together:
For my Dad: It’s been eighteen years since I started a stoner rock record label, and now, maybe for the first time, you have some inkling what that was all about (besides my not wanting to get a regular job). I don’t have the label anymore, but I still dig the music style, and We Hunt Buffalo is one hell of an excellent stoner rock band with a great singer, writing and playing the modern day equivalent of the anthemic classic rock you weren't listening to in the 70s because it was too loud.
For everyone who didn’t need multiple paragraphs explaining the history of stoner rock: if you’re intrigued by the notion of a cross between Truckfighters and Red Fang with a singer who could go note for note with the guy from Royal Blood, listen to this band. Blood from a Stone is nuanced, diverse and powerfully self-assured. And almost no one I know, with the possible exception of my friend who used to run a stoner rock label with me, would ever listen to them… which the music snob in me still kind of finds satisfying.
I’ve been at this for a while, so take my word for it: We Hunt Buffalo rocks. Oh, and the Blood from a Stone EP is the perfect place to start, because they’ve got a new full-length dropping this September that I can’t wait to hear. I’m sure that, after this, my Dad will be on the edge of his seat, too.