An acquaintance, perhaps uneasy with the term, once asked me the exact definition of "stoner metal". I really could not respond. After all, when lazy reviewers, such as myself, uses the term "stoner metal", we are really just offering a meaningless shorthand for "it sounds like Kyuss or early Monster Magnet". Perhaps the laziest of reviewers merely use it to mean "really heavy rock that sounds really good when combined with marijuana use", which is a category so broad and inclusive that it is essentially meaningless.
In short, months went by, and I still never came up with a workable definition, but I can't help but believe that this elusive definition can be found somewhere within the epic psychedelic sludge that makes up UK act Gonga's self-titled debut. In what may be the album's blessing and curse, Gonga is a definitive stoner metal album, one that does not really expand the boundaries of the possibly defunct genre but instead acts as a primer of such, condensing all of the great qualities of the genre into one convenient album.
Previous attempts to define "stoner metal" have focused on the genre's supposed obsession with the past, particularly the late '70s. Gonga, like its peers, clearly borrows from the likes of the earliest metal bands, bands like Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath who borrowed the mind-altering assault of psychedelic rock and shared an obsession with unusual time signatures and intricate song structures with the progressive rock bands of the time. Clearly some of the genre's lesser lights could be accurately accused of mere hero worship, but Gonga, like most of the better stoner metal acts, does not simply rehash the bongwater-soaked haze of the early '70s proto-metal scene. What Gonga borrows from the music of the past is the timeless nature of the music. Take "Hermes", for example, an epic eight-minute crawler with cryptic, inaudible lyrics and a title (and sound) that pays homage to the more mystical (or at least mystical seeming) leanings of bands like Blue Oyster Cult and Hawkwind. The song does seem to have its roots in the past, but not the '70s. "Hermes" really sounds like music that comes from some primitive time in the distant past of humanity. In fact, Spinal Tap references be damned, the song actually does sound "druidic".
Gonga features all the elements one expects, and a fan needs, in a stoner metal album, meaning slower tempos, intricate riffs, and oddly phased solos galore. Gonga does, however, put a personal spin on the sound. Even for a stoner metal band, Gonga's fascination with slowing down the pace to a throbbing crawl seems downright experimental at times, particularly in the equally enthralling and aggravating "Octane Bud". At times, Gonga slows down to the point where the band seems to be altering the very nature of time.
Gonga also does not ignore the genre's heavy debt to the early '90s grunge scene in the formation of stoner metal. After all, the fuzz and brutal tempos that, in some ways, tag bands as "stoner metal" come not from the traditional metal scene but from Seattle area bands such as the Melvins and Mudhoney. How else do you explain the presence of such grunge survivors as Mark Lanegan and Dave Grohl in the revolving door line-up of Queens of the Stone Age? Gonga's vocalist, Joe Volk, provides a crucial connection between proto-metal and grunge. In the rare moments where the band is not indulging in beautifully warped riffing and soloing, Volk channels the haunted spirits of Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain, effectively adding a somber tone to the proceedings and avoiding the always present danger of over-the-top melodrama. In fact, Volk's grungy vocals inspire the album highlight "Fellowman", an almost punky song where the band switches gears between a fast riff straight from the alt-rock playbook and the delirious muck that defines the entire album. The result is a musical amusement park ride worth the price of the album.
It is too early to know whether Gonga is a sudden resurrection of a dying genre, or merely stoner metal's glorious last gasp, but it is an impressive debut by any standard. At the very least, it is a handy disc to have, just in case anyone else happens to ask you for the definition of stoner metal.