anonymous 6’4” 300 lb biker at Monster Magnet concert, circa 1999
Emerging from New Jersey’s….what the hell is in NJ anyway…swamps? Pine barrens? Landfills?….um, landscape in the late 80s, Monster Magnet became one of what Jim DeRogatis calls “stoner rock’s Holy Trinity” (along with Kyuss and Sleep); with a demo titled Forget About Life, I’m High on Dope their goals were obvious, even though stoner rock wasn’t really a thing until the mid-90s. Main creative force Dave Wyndorf filtered British Rock and US psychedelic music through his own sensibility, describing his lyrics as blending “cynicism, optimism, satire, sex, deluded fantasies and dead-on reality” and DeRogatis gives Magnet the Spinal Tap-ian plaudit of toeing “a fine line between clever and stupid….strik[ing] the perfect balance.” Ned Raggett more concisely describes them as “psychotically entertaining.”
All of which I agree with, since they’re one of my all-time favorite bands (along with ABBA, Daft Punk, Kraftwerk, Pearl Jam, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, and Voivod, since I believe in full disclosure) – it’s a glorious stew of psychedelia, arena rock, and proto-metal to create glorious gumbo of music to play while you indulge in your illicit substance of choice.
After knocking around for a while, most notably in 80s rockers Shrapnel (which to be honest isn’t very notable), Wyndorf formed Monster Magnet with guitarist John McBain and drummer/vocalist Tim Cronin. Cronin dropped out as a musician, remaining in a capacity as “conceptual consultant” (liner notes have listed his roles as “dope/lights/center of the universe”; “mountain of judgement”; “Herald of Galactus” and “atomic propaganda”) and rhythm section Joe Calandra and Jon Kleiman joined.. After a few demos, they were signed to “major independent” Caroline records, which released a raw self-titled EP before putting out their first full length album, Spine of God. I’ll admit I hadn’t heard a note these guys had played, but I thought the name was badass, dug the album cover, and saw an ad with the tagline “It’s a Satanic Drug Thing, you wouldn’t understand”….well, I was SOLD. And once the music began playing, I knew I had made a solid life choice.
Jason Ankeny at AllMusic calls Spine of God “The ultimate stoner goof, satire so pitch perfect it’s tempting to take it at face value.” Even after 20+ years of listening to Magnet, I’m still not sure if Wyndorf is a total bro-douche or if he’s taking the world’s longest piss….they often seem to straddle the fence and simultaneously pay tribute while satirizing the worst excesses of rock music.
While the entire album is excellent, “Nod Scene” in particular provided the soundtrack to many a night of [REDACTED]
The sessions also provided enough material for the EP (a 3 song EP, but one that is FORTY FIVE MINUTES LONG) 25…Tab, featuring the epic stoner dirge “Tab” as well as one of my all-time favorite album covers. “Tab” isn’t “Dopesmoker” but it serves as an awesome precursor to it, assuming you’ve got a spare half-hour to kill.
Following the success of their early efforts, A&M records snapped up the Magneteers, and in 1993 they released their second album Superjudge, with Atomic Bitchwax guitarist Ed Mundell replacing McBain (and if you’re inclined to branch off, both Bitchwax and McBain’s subsequent project Hater, with Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron, are worth a listen). While I find the Spine to be a slight update on garage-y, 60s psychedelia, Superjudge moves out of the garage and into wherever it is that Hawkwind sleeps, if/when they ever do. It’s a bit less meandering and jammy, a bit more straightforward and driving.
…and maybe a bit more varied; the covers of “Brainstorm” (a tour de force, and the one that probably would best fit on the first album) and “Evil (Is Going On)” are both excellent. And they chill out and close with a nifty little bit of raga-pop:
Their 3rd full length, Dopes to Infinity is where it all coalesced….still trippy and groovy (in the 60s sense), the hooks began showing up in full force. It went from raw, out-there, jammy, garage psychedelic rock to songs that were crafted to move the back row of the biggest arenas. And this resulted in Magnet’s first commercial success, the single “Negasonic Teenage Warhead,” which reached #19 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts. And had a Marvel Comics character named after it.
It also bears mention that Wyndorf stepped up his game with regard to song titles….sure, “Ozium” and “Black Mastermind” and “Dinosaur Vacuum” are great song titles, but Dopes has some real Hall-of-Famers on the tracklist – “Look to Your Orb for the Warning”, “Dead Christmas”, “Ego, the Living Planet” (sole lyric – “I TALK TO PLANETS BABY!”), “Theme from ‘Masterburner’ “, etc. It’s a master class in “oh, GTFO with that title!”
In 1998 they released Powertrip, which was an impressive success for a band as twisted and outside the mainstream as Magnet – the album reached #97 on the Billboard charts, and generated 3 hits on the Mainstream Rock chart – “Temple of Your Dreams” at #25, “Powertrip” (the worst song on the album, but who am I to judge?) at #20, and this wondrous little ditty with a gloriously over-the-top video at #3…
Only a video where there is a random person on fire can top a video where the bass player has Leia buns. Neil DeGrasse Tyson has proven this in scientific experiments as a fundamental law of the universe.
I was living in Milwaukee at the time, and one station played “Spacelord” so much it was RIDICULOUS. It’s a testament to the strength of the songwriting that I still enjoy listening to it. This is also the tour at which the infamous “DO DRUGS!” bellow occurred right before Magnet took the stage. A flaming guitar was hurled about. They had women come out in their bras and panties and dance around during the show (I am unsure if these women were amateur or professional). It was about as fantastic as a concert experience as a person can have.
Building on what Dopes had established as their M.O., there were muscular riffs, arena-friendly choruses, and as always, great song names (“Baby Gotterdammerung”), and what one might deem a stridently pro-drug lyrical bent.
“Some people go to be with Lucifer/and they cry, cry when they don’t greet the day with God;
I know that’s a bummer, baby, but that’s got precious little to do with me”
Sadly, this was MM’s commercial and artistic pinnacle (it’s their best, thoughDopes and the later release Monolithic Baby are only a hair behind it).
Their next album, God Says No, suffered a major blow when Wyndorf’s songwriting material were stolen, resulting in him having to reconstruct/whip up the material in a compressed time frame. It’s solid, but a B- album in comparison to the A of Dopes and the A+ of Superjudge. It did give them another couple hits in “Silver Future” and “Head Explode” which charted at #15 and #26 on the Mainstream Rock charts.
(caution – naked breasts)
GSN has a bit of 60s throwback vibe to it, with lots of electric organ all over the album. And some gloriously manic slide guitar on “Gravity Well.”
Next up was Monolithic Baby!, which coulda/shoulda been a little bumpy – A&M dropped them and new label Interscope allegedly meddled with the production, and longtime rhythm section of Calandra/Kleiman departed, but as I mentioned above, it is right there with their best work.
…they still have great song titles…
….and “Master of Light” opens with a nifty little drum part that nicks the beginning of the Talking Head’ “Psycho Killer”
…..AAAANNNND because I’m a horrible person, their output dropped off, I had kids and less time/money to devote to music, and I have zero opinion on their last 3 albums; I’ve given them cursory listens, and while nothing grabbed me, they’ve found a space right there with their run from Dopes to Monolithic – excess-filled, muscular, arena-friendly rock with gloriously bent lyrics. It ain’t a bad place to be. Writing this has kindled a desire to go out and buy actual physical copies to encourage them to keep on keepin’ on.