Dopethrone, terrifyingly vast and imposing, turns 20 this year. Its influence is woven through all of stoner doom that flirts with darkness, straying gleefully into dark psychedelic and clammy drone elements. 20 years later, it’s heralded as a gamechanger; particularly by the band literally called “Dopethrone.” What better time to pick through the record and dissect it?
Dopethrone feels corrupted; the psych elements are hypnotic and intoxicating, but where they could easily suggest expanding-mind shenanigans they are instead imposing, claustrophobic and brain-compressing. Film clips, which could be an inclusive reference to shared cultural cornerstones, are foreboding. Tracks in multiple parts, suggesting prog rock excess and narrative structure, instead move like planets grinding across one another.
The classic Wizard mode is to swamp the listener in guitar noise, and for the riffs to be the focal point, emerging from the nightmare sludge like rare beasts. This had been established by this point, but it was here that their approach became more complex.
Opener Vinnum Sabbathi is focussed around the simple plod of the bass/ snare, around which the guitars meander. This is an effective opening salvo, but the first really distinctive moment is the explorative riff that opens Funeralopolis, which explodes into distortion, playing an increasingly grainy, incoherent version of itself. Gradually this morphs into a simpler rhythm as Oborn’s lyrics become increasingly deranged; by the time we reach “nuclear warheads, ready to strike,” the song has devolved into indistinctiveness. crumbling into ruin.
The mammoth Weird Tales works a little differently; opening with a chuggier riff, with Oborne taking a rawer approach over the top, they manage to catch themselves before they descend into chaos. This lets them cycle through riffs with a little more discipline – sorely lacking elsewhere – and concluding with a dry, synthy psych wash. This approach allow them to try new ideas at a more focussed rate than elsewhere, and is an excellent foil to the rest of the album, content to plod into chaos.
Approaching the halfway point, Barbarian features a barked vocal delivery, and sounding like it’s being played very far into a very deep well, is surely the basis for Conan’s whole career. I, The Witchfinder takes a different tone, the monolithic riffs hitting like sheer walls rather than collections of notes. The listener is pummelled into oblivion even when the track drops out a little; this is perhaps the most exhaustive experience on the record. It’s here where some of the more esoteric influences are used to make the listener unsettled; the oppressive drones, the dark psych, the film references: they all contribute to a bleak atmosphere and a foreboding, otherworldly experience. We Hate You Follows, the least subtle track on here; very possibly of all time. Taking a medium pace, the track slithers through paroxysms of inward and outward loathing, before settling on the refrain “we hate you.” It’s a statement of intent and a powerful battlecry, and a little on the nose, the collapse of their esoteric, suggestive material into something straightforward and baleful.
Next is Dopethrone, which feels mangled, the nihilism of the record finally trudging out waves of malevolent black sludge rather than arranged tracks. A lot of what makes the record really stand-out has been lost by this point, and the resulting tracks are a little more basic, having little structure; the wild, sometimes atonal solo at the conclusion reminds of the freeform clashing solos at the end of King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man. Finishing things, and in a similar vein, Mind Transferral (added on the remaster) is focussed around a buzzsaw riff that sounds like malfunctioning generators fighting, ending with a simple guitar squeal as even the instruments give up out of disgust.
Re-listening, it’s hard to imagine a record that sounds so exhausting or so hard to divine meaning from. It’s certainly a challenging listen, not just in malevolent content but because the tone is so antagonistic. Modern stoner rock can be extremely affable, but here the opposite is true; an album that doesn’t want to be listened to, under any circumstances.
Dopethrone endures because of how effectively it conveys hatred, and its diverse tactics for sounding truly frightening. The techniques it uses aren’t subtle, but the whole album buzzes with new and outlandish methods of conveying raw power, malevolence and despair. Later Wizard records would tend to be a little more engaging and approachable, but this would always stick out as a solipsistic glaze into a group of very unhealthy minds.