The phrase “stoner” in regard to metal is indeed a conundrum. How is that you can have “stoner doom” but “stoner death metal” is not a thing?1 You’re more likely to get stoned from sarcophagus dust or Witch Vomit, but the point remains. If we have “stoner black metal,” Deafheaven would be stoned to Seventh Heaven, amirite? I’m hilarious, I’ll be here all week. Whether it be the raspy Weedeater, instrumental sludge Bongripper, or the obviously named Temple of the Fuzz Witch, the fuzz reigns supreme, low and slow. Void King is a four-piece stoner doom metal band from Indianapolis and Barren Dominion is their sophomore effort. Paying homage to doom greats like Sleep, Electric Wizard, and Goatsnake, while channeling amp- and pedal-abusing monoliths, these fucking stoners are set to drown listeners in THC-saturated waves of distortion. Do they succeed? Or will they end up only being the bulls-“high” of endless stoner doom puns?
Void King certainly sets their sights “high” with Barren Dominion, ambitiously attempting to fuse the stoner fun-loving party attitude with the mountainous movements somewhere between sludge and drone. Vocalist Jason Kindred relies on a baritone that channels the rounded timbre of Volbeat‘s Michael Poulsen and the bluesy gruffness of The Sign of the Southern Cross‘ Seth Uldricks; guitarist Tommy Miller and bassist Chris Carroll scorch listeners with densely distorted and fuzzed out riffs; meanwhile, drummer Derek Felix pummels away with thunderous percussion and juicy fills. Ultimately, while Void King‘s sophomore effort is far from a slump, its hit-or-miss songwriting and lack of clear identity keep it from consistently hitting that high.
Barren Dominion‘s drone-soaked and sludge-inspired riffs are the clear highlight, climbing to mountainous proportions in tracks like opener “A Lucid Omega,” bloodshot highlight “Burnt at Both Ends,” and dynamic closer “The Longest Winter,” recalling in equal measure Thou‘s punishing Peasant and Sunn O)))‘s sprawling Life Metal. It’s a sound that revels in its strength but strangely commands serenity simultaneously in a juxtaposition of drone’s sprawl and doom’s punch. One finds that the best tracks are those that dabble in dynamics, rather than staying in the “loud and doomy” register of the volume knob, so Barren Dominion‘s best include the creepily plodding and ominous “Crippled Chameleon” and the slow-burning “The Longest Winter.” Other fun tricks include “Of Whip and Steed,” which revels in an “Earth covers the Allman Brothers” kind of drone meets southern rock conundrum. Kindred’s vocals are a force to be reckoned with, spearheading and complementing the doomy attack with stunning charisma and skill. The mix is extremely kind to his baritone croon, as it rarely falls into the wave of noise that descends behind it.
The mix can be too good to Kindred, however. In tracks like “Leftover Savages” and “Learning from the Ashes,” the vocal lines simply blare at the wrong times, overpowering the much more important riffs with overly simplified and repetitive choruses. Similarly, tracks like “Temple Made of Bones” and “A Lucid Omega” suffer from a lack of clear direction and meandering songwriting, droning on riffs for simply too long. Void King’s ambition is great on paper, to fuse fun-loving stoner culture with meandering drone aesthetics, but even their best tracks are torn between these identities—while the dynamics and huge riffs are obvious pluses, these tricks need to be consistently implemented and stitched together with better transitions. This identity crisis is ultimately what stands in the way of Barren Dominion challenging better 2019 stoner doom releases like Yatra’s ominous Death Ritual or Green Lung’s nostalgia-fest Woodland Rites.
Ultimately, Void King offers a low and slow fuzzier-than-usual stoner doom album. While it may not boast the consistency to pose a threat to the scene, it offers a fun take on genre tropes and some sweet vocals and guitar licks to boot. While these Hoosiers need to do some soul searching in terms of group identity, Barren Dominion effectively spaces out highlight and filler to a solid album that neither advances nor detracts from the stoner doom genre at large. While it may have its “high”-lights and moments of “weed”-iculously heavy riffs, much of their album is filler that goes up in smoke. While this dominion is far from barren, its en-“joint”-ment is limited to a few songs that “bowl” us over. They haven’t mari-“won”-a here, but they haven’t mari-“lost”-a either.