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Monster Magnet vocalist Dave Wyndorf is a product of the ’70s—that golden era when rock ‘n’ roll bands smoked acres of pot and produced sprawling, abstracted albums. The band’s latest, Dopes to Infinity, follows in the tradition of such stoner favorites as early Rush and Yes: It’s not just a record, it’s a rock ‘n’ roll journey.
Of course, rock and pot have gone together since, well, forever. Though marijuana as muse and subject matter has occasionally been eclipsed by substances as high-tech as psychedelics and as low-tech as beer, it remains a perennial. And it has recently undergone a resurgence in visibility. Rappers like Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg extol the benefits of ganja, while metal act Pantera is a strident weed booster. Even the relatively strait-laced Tom Petty got a huge ovation at his recent Patriot Center show when he announced: “Right now, I’m a hundred percent sober…but I’m high as a kite!”
Monster Magnet is, too. “It’s a satanic drug thing…you wouldn’t understand,” reads the back sleeve of the New Jersey quartet’s debut, Spine of God, which also features gurgling-bong sound effects. This, coupled with the group’s drug-crazed, phallocentric lyrics and psychedelic compositions—on both Spine and the subsequent Superjudge—is what gives Monster Magnet a not-undeserved reputation as a bunch of sex-crazed, spliff-sucking barbarians. And while the new Dopes to Infinity features relatively introspective lyrics and more varied songwriting, there’s still a considerable amount of THC to be heard in its undulating rhythms.
Dopes is not a concept album per se, but the songs all run together, giving the disc’s heavy groove a rhythmic continuity. At the same time, the album’s words focus on an overarching theme: principal songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Wyndorf’s dour commentary on modern life and recollections of his own drug-addled youth. Considering punk-pop’s ascendancy, this sort of involved, heavy-metal libretto is something of an anomaly. Nevertheless, the album’s thick sound and seductive lyrics make Dopes a surprisingly engaging effort.
Loud guitars, spaced-out lyrics, dope-inspired shenanigans…it all sounds fairly retro, and Monster Magnet’s debt to ’70s pot-rock (Kiss, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, etc.) is undeniable. But the quartet contemporizes the sound with slick production, while various modern influences find their way into Dopes‘ mix: The galloping lines of “I Control, I Fly” betray Wyndorf’s flirtation with punk, while the instrumental “Theme From “Masterburner’ ” affects a decidedly speed-metal swagger. Still, vintage riffing, combined with rampant psychedelia (courtesy of several exotic instruments and an array of antique effects), dominates Dopes. On the title track, Wyndorf and Ed Mundell’s guitars are tuned so low the strings practically rattle against the fretboards; the churning grind thus created is almost abusive but for a mist of lazy distortion wafting in the background. The seething current of “Third Alternative” is similarly expansive, but performed at an achingly glacial pace, while bassist Joe Calandra’s complex technique supports the otherworldly thud of “Look to Your Orb for the Warning.”
But there is more to Dopes than bellicose noisemongering; the disc also features several reserved tunes. The space-case ambience of “All Friends and Kingdom Come” and the morose, acoustic configurations of “Dead Christmas” are impressive in their own right, but they also vary the tone of the album. Without this kind of musical variety, Wyndorf’s grand endeavor would be interminable instead.
As it is, Dopes is quite long: At over 65 minutes (it should be played straight though, in keeping with its bid for operatic cohesiveness), the disc asks a lot of its listeners. Generally, perserverance is rewarded, although culling the two weakest songs (“Ego, the Living Planet,” another instrumental, and the vapid musings of “Blow ‘Em Off”) would have shaved nearly 10 minutes of give-or-take filler. But then again, that would have altered the album’s mood, and mood is exactly what Wyndorf is pursuing.
The vocalist, it seems, wants to reproduce the kind of galvanizing, mind-bending, just-plain-baked musical excursion he relished when he was a kid. To that end, Dopes‘ lyrics spend a good bit of time approximating the fantastic stoner realities of old prog-rock. Wyndorf’s in his mid-30s, which means he spent his formative years at a time albums sounded like The Lord of the Rings set to music: complex, epic, timeless, and frequently preposterous. Wyndorf’s words run a similar course: sometimes indulging in colorful pot/sex fantasies (“Hook you up to the coil of the one/Who makes time with the sun/And who keeps us pumping” he intones on the title track), other times emulating the sheer ridiculosity of 2112-era Rush (“…he walks on down/To the spaceship that’s parked at your doorstep/And it’s waiting to take you away,” he breathes on “Look to Your Orb for the Warning”).
Occasionally, though, Wyndorf drifts back to Earth, and he doesn’t like what he encounters. “Saw your face last night on the tube/Strong fine snake in a sucker’s vacuum,” he sneers on “Negasonic Teenage Warhead,” the first of several shots at TV in general and MTV in particular. In spite of his own appearances on television (“Negasonic” is also the album’s first video), Wyndorf exhorts his listeners to action: “Get a channel of your own, motherfuckers/Try to think on your own,” he fumes on “I Control, I Fly,” before proclaiming that “We can piss on a fake revolution.” Toward the end of Dopes, however, the vocalist grows despondent (or realistic). Mourning “the light that used to shine” in his early years, Wyndorf grudgingly admits that “I can’t crown me Tarzan, king of Mars.”
Wyndorf contradicts himself right and left, and he knows it: The tension between drugged fantasy and cold fact gives Dopes to Infinity its narrative momentum. But everyone likes a happy ending, so Wyndorf cheers up in time for the album-finishing “Vertigo,” on which he soothingly whispers, “It’s OK…it’s OK…it’s OK….” He might not really mean it, but the track’s tidal swirl and optimistic mood nonetheless brings Wyndorf’s strange trip to an appreciably upbeat conclusion.