I am grateful to Metal Talk for helping me solidify this weighty claim: this has been my favourite year of listening to music. Bold statement, right? Especially considering that I am now in my sixth decade of listening to rock and roll.
Words: Sunil Singh
Almost all the music I listen to now has some element of heavy–which has always been more of an emotional definition for me. Don’t get me wrong. A lot of the bands I listen to are sonically crushing, but even that is a conveyance of emotion. Take an artist like Emma Ruth Rundle, who masterfully uses a sparseness in her delivery, often relying on just her vocals, for me is just as heavy as any band that has a wall of speakers in their live shows.
That all said, my favourite genre of music is stoner rock. You might think that is a bit of a narrow and limiting area of music to proclaim where most of listening interest and pleasure is derived from. Thirty years ago, I would have fully agreed with you.
Today, I don’t even have the time to listen to all the great bands that are stretching the domain of sounds beyond what the most expansive definition of stoner rock can muster. It’s everything now. No sound is too experimental or not worth dabbling in. Nods to classical and jazz music are just as much a part of the landscape as heavy riffs and psychedelic noodling.
For this genre, there has never been a more exciting time.
As such, it is then no surprise that so many female-fronted bands are not just putting their toes in the stoner rock pond–which feels like an ocean—they are just cannonballing themselves into the deepest parts.
Women are using the entire latitude of their talents and emotions to be anywhere from soft and melancholic to angry and aggressive. The breadcrumbs for sporting this badge of uncompromised duality women must be traced back to the Wilson sisters, Ann and Nancy of Heart.
Ann Wilson’s pipes and Nancy Wilson’s guitar playing were complementary in that they pushed the envelope of how women were to conduct themselves in a band. Revealing in an interview that they had no sexual anchor on being aligned to expectations, the sisters just expressed themselves with all that they were and all that was available. It wasn’t just that the sisters brought musical talent to the stage. They brought physicality and aggression–with zero compromise.
You have to learn to be strong and be glad to be alive. You have to take every colour available in the palette and make the best painting you can while you can. Nancy Wilson
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the talent level of both of them was off the charts, giving the band an enviable range of colours to experiment with. As such, Heart must be considered ground zero for maximizing the space for women to express themselves musically. The core identity of the sisters and Heart was stoner rock–especially by today’s unintentional homage to Nancy Wilson’s words above. Have you ever heard their version of Zeppelin’s The Rover from 1976? If you’re covering Zeppelin, you are already in the realm of stoner rock. If you pull off a badass version, you get to wear the crown. Ten seconds in, and Heart is already owning it.
Everyone knows about their riveting edition of Stairway To Heaven in 2012 at The Kennedy Honors in front of Page, Plant, and Jones. But, for me, their version of Battle Of Evermore is symbolic of how well they understood the power of Led Zeppelin–to convey heavy with both acoustic and electric.
Before we get to the sonic world of today, it is important to make some nods to bands that exemplified the ethos of Ann and Nancy Wilson. One band that needs mention, and has been shaded into the margins of rock history, is Girlschool. They played with Motörhead swagger and played in a space between punk and NWOBHM. In the video below, the late guitarist Kelly Johnson plays with a menace that she just came back from a bar fight–which she wants to get back to.
Fast forward to the next decade, and one would be ignorant to bypass the influence of Bikini Kill’s song, Rebel Girl. And, not to anyone’s surprise, they are still defiant in sound and attitude.
So, that is some notable history of music in terms of edgy female influence. Now, just add on the general history of rock and roll, and there is just far more impetus and need for the female voice/energy to be centred in sounds that are more raucous and untamed. And one of the most–if not the most–hospitable and amiable domains of music to do that is the already aforementioned genre of stoner rock.
Here are the bands that are creating some of the most interesting music through the upfront placement of female musicians. I will keep the descriptions tight and light, but hopefully, you will be enticed to enter the powerful domain of female-charged rock music that is, collectively, using all the psychedelic colours available in rock music.
Ruby The Hatchet (Philadelphia, 2013)
Female Lead: Jillian Taylor
Stevie Nicks vocals/aura with Vince Neil attitude channelling everything warm, fuzzy, psychedelic, and spacey about the ’70s.
LA Witch (Los Angeles, 2011)
Late ’60s garage with a slightly spooky vibe of light doom that ironically is buoyant and catchy.
Electric Citizen (Cincinnati, 2012)
Female Lead: Laura Busse
Turbo-charged rock and roll that visits the Sabbath catalogue often while also throwing curveballs of glam and catchy hooks to truly capture the breadth of the 70’s rock sound.
Black Road (Chicago, 2015)
Female Lead: Suzi Uzi
Pure doom and psychedelia with unapologetic nods to the entire vibe/lifestyle of stoner rock. The vocals are powerful and haunting, together with the tight guitars, drum, and bass always has a feel of dark romanticism on low simmer.
Coma Hole (Westerley, 2021)
A splash of Riot Grrrl sound with more pile-driving rhythm that can veer swiftly from blues to metal and beyond. Impressive for a two-piece.
Windhand (Richmond, 2008)
Female Lead: Dorthia Cotrell
Deep, dark, and haunting soundscapes are created on every album with the powerful vocals of Cotrell and unrelenting heaviness of guitars and drums. Nods to psychedelia/space rock keep the overall sound warm, comforting, and uplifting.
Dreadnought (Denver, 2012)
Female Leads: Kelly Schilling/Emily Shreve
Experimental and dreamy treatment of doom that results in a constant shifting of musical terrain–sometimes with needed whiplash. Aggressive and confidant, yet balanced by female energy that is inviting and infectious.
Hippie Death Cult (Portland, 2017)
Female Lead: Laura Phillips
Happy Intelligent People Pursuing Infinite Enlightenment. The acronym of HIPPIE comes out shining and blistering through a warm and psychedelic treatment of doom. Phillips’ screaming is soothing and soulful.
High Priestess (Los Angeles, 2016)
Female Leads: Mariana Fiel/Megan Mullins/Katie Gilchrest
If Druids were walking into the Palm Desert, this is the only music they would listen to. Hypnotic incantations with a heaviness that sneaks up on you through momentum and time.
Blackwater Holylight (Portland, 2016)
Female Leads: Sunny Faris/Catherine Koch/Sarah McKenna, Laura Hopkins
Imagine The Bangles listening to Black Sabbath and early Pink Floyd and trying to make music for life-affirming road trips. Having an all-female cast creates the same unique alchemy of High Priestess. Another band pushing more accessible and lighter landscapes in stoner rock.
Witch Mountain (Portland, 1997)
Female Lead: Kayla Dixon (Uta Plotkin, 2009-2014)
Important to now start going way back to some of the roots of female-led stoner rock bands. Witch Mountain is just straight-up doom with some of the most charismatic and passionate female vocals. The music just comes at you like a cross bolt to the head. Kayla Dixon’s possessed, soulful/bluesy vocals ensure that
Acid King (1993, San Francisco)
Female Lead: Lori S.
Acid King must be hailed as pioneers in the doom part of stoner rock music. The vocals of Lori S. just drift effortlessly over the tsunami of riffs. The pummeling is paired with trippy vocals, often resulting in sounds that border existentialist examination.