The stated objective of Stöner and the recording of Stoners Rule (on Heavy Psych Sounds), as guitarist/vocalist Brant Bjork explained here, has been to strip excess toward essentials. That is to say, Bjork and bassist/mostly-backing vocalist Nick Oliveri — who are joined in the endeavor by drummer Ryan Güt — aren’t so much looking to build on the legacy they’ve created in desert/heavy rock so much as to plunge down to its roots in what Bjork long ago coined “low desert punk.” It is not a coincidence that the first lyrics in album-opener “Rad Stays Rad” are lifted from the Ramones, and “hey ho, let’s go,” set to a thick, mid-tempo rollout, is emblematic of the purpose on display throughout the record that follows.
Stöner, with an umlaut? That’s something you’d name a band in high school. And yeah, you might write even scribble Stoners Rule on the front of your notebook while note paying attention in whatever class it might be. But that’s the idea behind the band. Yes, their pedigree involves Kyuss/Vista Chino, Fu Manchu, Queens of the Stone Age, Mondo Generator, Ché, Ten East, The Dwarves, Desert Sessions, solo work from both, and on and on and on (we could do this all day). Stöner is an effort to distill all of that work they’ve done down to its simplest, most straightforward form.
Is that possible? Can you go back without actually going back? I don’t know, but Stoners Rule turns a willfully simple methodology into a strength throughout its seven tracks and 42 minutes. There is no question that some of what the trio are up to is a nostalgia trip for Bjork and Oliveri, and from the already-noted Ramones lyric in “Rad Stays Rad” and general perspective there to the Oliveri-fronted punk of “Evel Never Dies” — about daredevil Evel Knievel, which is about right in demographic terms — and in “The Older Kids,” to the these-are-lessons-we’ve-learned point of view in “Own Yer Blues,” “Nothin’” and “Stand Down,” even unto “Tribe/Fly Girl,” the 13-minute concluding jam that includes lines about finding their sound and finding their tribe, there’s a lot happening in past-tense throughout the songs. “Go ask the older kids” is something a parent says to a child.
“All your shit/It ain’t shit” in “Stand Down” comes across with the assurance of experience. “You take nothin’,” is both sound advice and testimony of ethic on the part of the lyrics. With the ever-fluid, laudably understated, not-doing-too-much-but-doing-it-right adaptable swing drumming of Güt, who also plays in Bjork‘s solo band, behind them, even at their most playful, Stöner are walking a delicate balance between looking back and embarking on something fresh, which is the project itself, while actively trying to remain unconcerned about any of it and just jam out and write songs and have a good time.
However simple they might seem and however straightforward the resultant material is — with “The Older Kids” nodding toward the ultra-seminal structures of riff that typified Kyuss as if to prove the theorem of “rad staying rad” before anyone could even have time to question it — these are not minor stylistic ambitions. And just because something is straightforward doesn’t mean it’s dumbed down or lazy, which the material on Stoners Rule isn’t. Rather, clever turns of phrase abound, even unto the idea of “taking things vs. taking nothing” in “Nothin’” — a song that’s two and a half minutes long and nonetheless serves as the centerpiece here.
Some compositions are easier to read more as Bjork‘s or Oliveri‘s at least in the main — “Evel Never Dies” has an inimitable mania that feels very Oliverian, and “Stand Down”‘s wah-soaked “Ain’t no funk if it don’t smell like a skunk” comes across as more Bjork, but the contributions of the one to the other aren’t to be understated. These are songwriters who’ve worked together on and off for over 30 years. Ultimately, a track like “Own Yer Blues” feels most like it emerged naturally out of a bluesy fuzz jam to become the slow-rolling hooky piece it is, and all three members of the band do well sharing space in the song. It’s by not pretending to be more than it is that Stoners Rule most flourishes.
It seems inevitable, though, that Stoners Rule would come up against high expectations, particularly given the personnel involved and the fanfare that surrounded the band’s debut as part of the ‘Live in the Mojave Desert’ streaming series. On a basic listening level, Stoners Rule doesn’t come across as that much different from the resultant live album from that stream, Live in the Mojave Desert Vol. 4 (review here), and it’s not supposed to. If anything, it’s to the band’s credit that it does, since the purpose behind what they’re doing is to make it sound like a live show might — the music in a raw, natural state, being itself raw and natural in its makeup — so while I’ve come across some ambivalence toward the record and it’s arguable the studio release has perhaps had some of its potential impact lessened by the live album showing up first, it seems likely that over time the balance will even out and Stöner‘s studio offering will stand on its own as the initial statement of intent that it is.
Part of its doing so, again over the longer haul, is what/if anything Stöner do to follow it up. Tour dates have been booked domestically and abroad, and it could well be that the band will continue forward and bring another collection of songs to bear after Stoners Rule, rather than Bjork and Güt going back to their band and Oliveri returning to any number of his several ongoing projects, and build on their accomplishments here. As it is, they do well by actively trying not to live up to the standard their pedigree would dictate, and that level of fuckall is all the more enjoyable as a listening experience because of the perspective of their songwriting and performances. I’m not sure what some listeners might’ve thought was coming, but it’s a band called Stöner. Maybe if they wanted it to be prog, they’d have called it that.
Stöner, Stoners Rule (2021)
Tags: Brant Bjork, California, Heavy Psych Sounds, Indio, Stoner, Stoners Rule, Stöner Stoners Rule