A beginner's guide to desert rock in five essential albums

Fu Manchu/High Priestess/Queens Of The Stone Age
(Image credit: Press)

Much as its name suggests, desert rock is a subgenre whose roots can be traced to the Palm Desert scene of the late 80s and early 1990s. Ostensibly an offshoot of stoner metal, desert rock nonetheless became its own entity over time, mixing elements of classic rock, heavy metal, punk and psychedelia into a jam-friendly sound that crossed genre boundaries. 

Given the sheer scale of influence the likes of Kyuss, Fu Manchu and Yawning Man have had on the wider music scene, inevitably the sound would eventually cross the desert and pop up everywhere from the frosty fjords of Scandinavia to the Antipodean expanse. That in mind, here is a guide to five essential records that should serve as a perfect primer on desert rock [and no, Kyuss aren't included - we've kept them for our stoner metal round-up].  

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Fu Manchu - The Action Is Go (1997)

Before Fu Manchu were helping define the good times grooves of desert rock they were a hardcore punk band. A name-change and shift to fuzzier realms in the early 90s didn't wash those roots out however, and Fu Manchu offered a more straight-ahead counterpoint to the cosmic noodling that other desert rockers were given to. 

By 1997's The Action Is Go the band had struck onto the perfect mix of fuzzy stoner tones and infectious punk energy. Opener Evil Eye and the title-track offer a stoner spin on the sunny SoCal punk sound that traced its lineage back to the likes of Adolescents and Agent Orange, while the funk of Guardrail and Laberbl'ast captures a groove that would be exploited heavily later by Clutch. It's telling that when the desert rock influence made its way over to Scandinavia through the likes of Dozer and Lowrider, both bands seem to be cribbing as much from Fu Manchu as they ever would Kyuss. 

Queens Of The Stone Age - Lullabies To Paralyze (2005)

Far and away the biggest star to emerge from desert rock, Josh Homme helped define the genre with Kyuss and further expanded its reach with his Desert Sessions project. But whether his flagship band QOTSA continued this mission is a topic of debate, the band's ability to invade the charts and popular culture alike leaving some question as to just how much desert remains in their rock on more recent efforts. 

There can be no question about the band's earlier releases, however. From their 1998 self-titled right up to 2005's Lullabies To Paralyze, Queens Of The Stone Age embraced the same punk-metal-rock hybrid that defined desert rock as a genre, while somehow finding a way to make songs like Little Sister bona fide rock anthems. Lullabies remains the last pure instance of these elements, but also perhaps the best demonstration of them, pedal-to-the-floor anthems like Everybody Knows You're Insane at odds with the whimsical, meandering instrumentals of a song like Someone's In The Wolf, while songs like In My Head and B-side Like A Drug trace their origins to Homme's Desert Sessions. 

Yawning Man - Nomadic Pursuits (2010)

We don't necessarily want to perpetuate stereotypes about weed making you apathetic, but it did take Yawning Man almost 20 years to officially put out a record. Formed all the way back in 1986, the instrumental group were a key influence on the members of Kyuss in their formative years, but ultimately morphed away from their early sound in a more jazzy direction that would be explored as The Sort Of Quartet. 

Members would go on to form Fatso Jetson [whose superb Cruel & Delicious could have easily made this list], but ultimately Yawning Man was resurrected in the early 2000s and the band finally released their debut Rock Formations in 2005. Its on follow-up Nomadic Pursuits however where one gets the best sense of the band's mind-warping instrumental prowess, a 43-minute odyssey winding and weaving its way through myriad subgenres like concentric shapes against a vivid desert sunset. 

All Them Witches - Lightning At The Door (2013)

Heirs to the spirit of desert rock, Nashville's All Them Witches looked beyond the fuzzy tones and 70s vibes of stoner rock to instead embrace the desert's invitation to expand their instrumentals out into the cosmos and infuse their songs with a mixture of rock, metal and psychedelia. 

The band's second album, Lightning At The Door drifts from cosmonautical tracks like Funeral For A Great Drunken Bird and The Death of Coyote Woman to fist-in-the-face rockers When God Comes Back and Charles William, even adding more flavours to the palette as the band embrace rootsy blues on the likes of The Marriage Of Coyote Woman. Proof that desert rock is still continuing to expand, All Them Witches have become one of the genre's most notable contemporary successes. 

High Priestess - High Priestess (2019)

Dispelling the notion of stoner and psych rock being all beardy blokes with drug problems, the 2010s saw a number of bands like Blues Pills, Purson and Royal Thunder pick up the charge started by desert rock as they mixed myriad genres with psychedelic overtones. But back in California, newcomers High Priestess were reintroducing a doom sensibility that the genre had largely neglected over the past 30 years. 

The band's self-titled debut blurs the lines between occult rock, heavy metal and psychedelia, but still has the undeniable mesmeric energy of desert rock at its core, coming off like Sabbath if they'd stuck to the hippie stuff rather than going snowblind. A track like Banshee might be soaked in doom, but when the mire breaks on Take The Blame you'll soon be sucked into those deep desert jams.  

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.