Once upon a time, not so long ago, one of the purest forms of experiencing a band and its music was by putting on an album – or a CD – and letting it play from beginning to end. While most releases were a disparate collection of individual songs, some artists preferred to give their listeners a theater of the mind experience. These musicians performed this magic trick by crafting songs interconnected by themes and mood, evoking emotions and thought through aural soundscapes.
Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, 2112 by Rush, and The Who’s ambitious rock opera Tommy are among the more critically acclaimed examples of this artistry.
As the 1990s ushered in a more disposable way to consume music via cassette singles, a greater emphasis on music videos, and the shuffle feature on CD players, fewer bands concentrated on the ‘album’ experience. Although Tool’s Lateralus and Radiohead’s OK Computer proved a new generation of bands could find success with so-called “LPs”.
While all of those releases were critical darlings and the bands that helmed them household names, perhaps the most overlooked entry in this extinct art form is Welcome to Sky Valley by Kyuss.
Kyuss, featuring members Josh Homme (guitar), Brant Bjork (drums), John Garcia (vocals), and Nick Oliveri (bass), was an underground sensation who honed their chops playing “Generator parties” in the middle of the Southern California desert. The band is often credited for being the forefathers of the ‘Stoner Rock’ genre and would record four albums with three different line-ups before dissension between the remaining members led to them calling it quits in 1995.
Josh Homme would go on to form Queens of the Stone Age (briefly featuring Oliveri and one-time Kyuss drummer Alfredo Hernandez) and achieve massive success –Songs for the Deaf is a classic – but the shadow of the legendary and influential Kyuss looms large. Fans are consistently clamoring for a reunion, and bands new and old still talk about them in reverential tones.
Dave Grohl of Nirvana said in a 1993 interview that “the future of grunge music is now evolving from Palm Springs, California; a band named Kyuss.” He later said that when he first saw them in a club, he was so impressed he bought 50 copies of their album Blues for the Red Sun to give to all his friends. Grohl would later record with Homme on Songs for the Deaf, and the two joined together to form the band Them Crooked Vultures.
After recording Blues for the Red Sun, which led to them receiving an invitation to open for Metallica on their Black tour, the band parted ways with Nick Oliveri and replaced him with Scott Reeder, formerly the bassist for The Obsessed. This would be the line-up that, along with producer Chris Goss, would record one of the most underrated records of the 90s and maybe of all-time.
Welcome to Sky Valley is widely considered to be one of the most influential albums of the ‘stoner rock’ or ‘doom metal’ genre – labels that severely limit this album and band’s scope – but almost no one in mainstream circles has heard of it. Rolling Stone magazine released its ‘Top 100 albums of the 90s’ in 2019, and Sky Valley was omitted. However, Green Day’s Dookie, Antichrist Superstar by Marilyn Manson, Bridges of Babylon by The Rolling Stones, and Metallica’s Black Album made the cut as well as many others that are mostly forgettable. When Rolling Stone did deem it worthy enough to review, their ‘Album Guide’ from 2004 gave it a paltry 3 out of 5 stars.
If you’re into Use Your Illusion I & II or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, it may not be for you. But if you like your rock heavy (I used to say the CD weighed 5 pounds), melodic and innovative, follow me into a deep dive about what makes 1994’s Welcome to Sky Valley one of the best albums ever recorded.
The ten songs are divided into 3 ‘Suites’, which run for 51 minutes and 55 seconds. Per the band’s instructions in the liner notes, you need to “listen without distraction.” The only real single on the album is ‘Demon Cleaner’. Each track and Suite works on its own, but the best way to listen is from beginning to end uninterrupted.
To me, the album is about going home, putting the past behind you, overcoming demons, and living for the now. That may not be everyone’s interpretation, but as the saying goes, art is subjective.
‘Gardenia’ – The album opens with a relentless guitar riff and bombastic drums playing at mid-tempo with a groovy bass line holding it together. Badass lyrics that invoke driving in a muscle car let you know you’re in for a ride – cruising down a desert highway with the windows down as the cacti fly by. Layered guitar parts with a low and thick tone highlight Homme’s distinct playing style, evoking a sleepless journey as the song slowly fades out.
‘Asteroid’ – A tranquil riff begins this trippy instrumental before the distortion kicks in and the bass and drums join in to pummel you into submission. It then devolves into a cacophony of whispers, cymbals, and chirping guitar noises elevating you into the atmosphere before easing you back with the remembered tranquility of the opening riff. Then an all-out assault as the distortion returns and the peaks and valleys of the arrangement calls to mind visions of a Kaiju trampling a city, building to a crescendo and ending with an abrupt stop.
‘Supa Scoopa and Mighty Scoop’ – After the deluge of ‘Asteroid’, this track begins with tender guitar and vocals lamenting an imminent leaving. A marching drum pattern moves into a full-on swing as Homme’s high notes are juxtaposed by a fat bassline that takes you by the head, insisting you move. Intense lyrics with a melancholy vibe apologize for the departure before everything stops except Bjork’s swinging drum pattern. The guitar and bass fall back in and then suddenly stop, ushering in a tempo change that’s sludgy but still groovy. Homme’s solo is impeccable as Reeder and Bjork keep it moving. The song ends the Suite with each instrument gradually falling out and then tricking the listener with several false conclusions that imply subtle time changes.
‘100 (degrees)’ – Suite 1 begins the journey, and Suite 2 lets you know you’re in the heart of the desert. The lyrics describe the heat of a breakup in a more traditional song structure than the previous three. It is up-tempo that features mini solos and a driving riff, breaking down into a sort of jazzy vamp leading to the coda with a sudden stop.
‘Space Cadet’ – The only acoustic song on the album paints a portrait of sitting on a dune under the stars, with Reeder’s bass complimenting Homme’s beautiful melody on guitar. Bjork joins in laying down the groove with deft work on the tom-toms and tambourine. Garcia’s soft, brooding vocals speak about loneliness and isolation and how waiting on the world – or someone – to find you is hard and ultimately, in this case, futile.
‘Demon Cleaner’ – The final track in this Suite begins with a killer drum pattern by Bjork that is quickly and subtly joined by a Reeder bass line until Homme’s piercing riff takes over and turns it into a head mover. The smooth lyrics talk about excising the demons tormenting our author in ‘Space Cadet’ by “keeping the demons at bay” and trying to “brush them all away.” The chorus is an absolute earworm with the mantra “Yeah”, “Yeah”, repeated over and over. The song fades out with relentless drumming and disparate guitar and bass lines, signifying the demons are no longer in charge.
‘Odyssey’ – The third and final Suite begins with a quiet riff tricking the listener into believing this will be the third straight introspective tune before building drums and distorted guitar take you into the last stretch of this treacherous journey. This track is another up-tempo and more traditional rock tune. Homme’s distinct playing opts for easing into the bridge instead of another virtuosic solo. The song ends as it began before finishing with another heavy flourish.
‘Conan Troutman’ – Another blistering up-tempo number highlighted by Bjork’s busy drumming, with lyrics inducing feelings of betrayal while also being free of them. The song seems to serve as a catharsis. Past anger is now in the rearview mirror, like miles already traveled as the journey nears its end.
‘N.O.’ – Another swinger that serves almost as an old school anthem song. The lyrics include the refrain, “I wake up tomorrow, today,” which indicates a new lease on life as home draws nearer. The band shows its prowess, effortlessly rocking into the finale.
‘Whitewater’ – The last track begins with a comforting drum pattern fading in accompanied by a beautiful guitar riff. The distortion kicks in, and the heavy swinging once again returns, featuring a signature Homme guitar progression. The lyrics celebrate arriving home -indicated by the last proper line of the album, “I am home.” – extolling the beauty of the nature surrounding it while the band performs at their peak precision. The delicious grooving rides you to the middle part and into a quieter melodic respite, but it’s no less intense. Bjork never lets the pace falter, and Homme’s layered guitar solo is masterful, while Reeder keeps the groove fat and undulating. The speed builds to a crescendo, then back to a quiet din as Homme’s clean notes lets us know the journey is over and we’re safely home.
‘Lick Doo’ – The album ends with a silly hidden track that provides a welcome respite after such a heavy trip, signifying that no matter what we go through or the roads we take to reach our destination, we should remember to laugh.
(Give Welcome to Sky Valley a spin and let me know if you agree or disagree. If you feel like there’s another band with an equally underrated album experience, include that in the comment section below.)