So blissed out is the record’s ambitious desert-psych that it originally hit CD sequenced into three suite-like groupings of tracks, all the better to deny user skipping in favor of the overall atmosphere.
Kyuss perfected its woozy brand of psychedelic desert metal on 1992’s Blues for the Red Sun, which saw the band refining its early stoner sound into something truly adventurous. By feeding his guitar through a bass cabinet, Josh Homme not only produced a crunchier sound, he accentuated his grooving chops at a time when metal was transitioning out of the era of endless soloing. Bolstered by Brant Björk’s rolling, cymbal-heavy percussion, Kyuss emerged as perhaps the finest hard-rock mind-explorers since Hawkwind. But just as Blues marked a radical progression from Wretch, so too does 1994’s Welcome to Sky Valley build upon its predecessor, sending the band even further into its 50-million-year trip. So blissed out is the record’s ambitious desert-psych that it originally hit CD sequenced into three suite-like groupings of tracks, all the better to deny user skipping in favor of the overall atmosphere.
Even with the songs divided, however, it is hard to press the fast-forward button on the album. Bounding out of the gate on the ambling riff of “Gardenia,” the band at first hews close to their default groove, only to take off into lower Earth orbit around three-and-a-half minutes in, with Homme receding into the background on increasingly distant squalls of feedback for a few minutes before coming back in for a landing back into the original melody. During these moments of cosmic drift, the band’s new weapon, Scott Reeder, makes his presence known. Where Nick Oliveri laid down thick, sturdy basslines that bolstered the low crunch of Homme’s guitar, Reeder weaves sinewy muscle around the rhythm section. Reeder’s bass bubbles and stretches, drawing out the stoner grooves into blissful asides instead of doubling down on them. Bjork matches these exploratory rumbles with his own; on “Asteroid,” his fills wash over the track as when it blasts off, and Reeder occupies every gap in the sound, weaving through the space in such a way that he matches Homme’s riff while veering off from it.
Reeder’s dexterity is the missing link the band never knew it needed, and if Blues boasted a surprising amount of flexibility beneath its spaced out dirge jams, this album runs the gamut of hard-nosed cosmic rawk, gruff balladry worthy of early GNR, and even a few instances of punk. Check out “100 Degrees” for the latter as the band ramps up its sludgy riffs to not so much a gallop as a constant series of falls, intervallic leaps that suddenly dump into a moment of scratchy funk before jumping back into the mosh. “Space Cadet” elegantly weaves acoustic guitars and bass against a large backdrop of negative space only occasionally occupied by Bjork’s gentle tom rolls. John Garcia sounds like he’s dictating his lyrics into his rocket ship’s recording log as it slowly loses power. It’s mesmerizing in a way Kyuss never achieved before this, and it displays a lesson that’s been frequently lost among modern generations that psychedelic music can, and often does, comes from softer avenues than pure, wild noise.
Nothing on the record was ever destined to be a hit, but nonetheless it’s remarkable how strong a collection of songs it remains. “Supa Scoopa and Mighty Scoop,” a light-hearted tune that would otherwise have been skippable, instead rides an off-kilter Chili Peppers riff before exploding into gales of riffs and Garcia’s propulsive rasp of a voice. It’s maybe the album’s best dance number, tailor-made to set off the mosh pit when it drops. “Demon Cleaner” lurches and jerks so spasmodically that it’s no wonder art-metallers Tool took such a liking to it, though truth be told it delves into self-loathing and accessible art rock with greater verve than nearly any of that band’s work. Reeder’s bass work is amazing here, punching a hole into the side of Homme’s own riff and injecting it with black star, slowing the track to a crawl even as Garcia moans and grunts in an attempt to escape, finally restricting him into the role of the passive observer dispassionately surveying over horror. “Odyssey” and “Whitewater” manage to top the track for sheer ambition and noisy beauty. The former is a charging number that nonetheless feels elastic, bouncing ahead on Reeder’s springing bassline and occasionally breaking out into energetic sidebars. “Whitewater,” in contrast, is some of the best psychedelia of the ‘90s, as full of crests and flowing speed as its title would suggest. Over nine minutes, the track musters only two brief verses and even briefer choruses, yet it seems to encapsulate an entire, unarticulated feeling of longing, disaffection and paradoxical contentment, a slacker anthem altogether too intricate and carefully composed to embody slacking.
Though the band had one more album in them after this, Welcome to Sky Valley represents the culmination of the Kyuss story, the pinnacle of the band’s lazy nomad spirit. Released at a time when music tended toward the introspective and morose, the album is bullish in its good vibes, even as it loudly delves into the void. Even the regrettable hidden track, “Lick Doo,” a scatalogical little ditty best deleted from one’s library and hastily skipped on CD, is a testament to four young men goofing off. That a lark like “N.O.” could remain such a well-designed song, all hopping riffs and head-rattling drums, is likewise an indication that these guys were nonetheless at the top of their game. Kyuss is the great lost band of the 1990s, too quickly robbed of its core identity when Bjork left the group while touring this record as Metallica’s support act and then swallowed whole by the legacy of Queens of the Stone Age. Regardless, the band lives on as the embodiment of a movement that perhaps it alone truly represented, and it stands today as an oasis in the desert, shimmering and intoxicating but nonetheless real.