25 Years Ago: Monster Magnet Yank on the ‘Spine of God’
Today, Monster Magnet is probably best known for their 1998 rock radio hit "Space Lord," which helped earn a gold album certification for Powertrip, but the New Jersey retro rockers were no overnight success. Instead, their long march toward this commercial breakthrough (something equally respected and influential peers like Kyuss, Fu Manchu and Clutch never achieved themselves) effectively began in the waning months of 1991, with the release of Magnet's cult debut album, Spine of God.
And as anyone familiar with the band's discography will tell you, the spacey but polished hard rock of Powertrip sounded worlds apart from the fuzz-laden acid rock displayed on Spine of God. But then, the latter emerged from a sonic dust cloud much closer to Monster Magnet's proverbial Big Bang. Or, as band leader Dave Wyndorf (vocals/guitar) explained it to Invisible Oranges in 2013, "The freakouts are a bit more organized [now] than in the past."
That "past" begins in the late '80s, when Wyndorf (whose first brush with underground celebrity had come via a new wave band called Shrapnel, featuring Ramones producer Daniel Rey on guitar), guitarist John McBain and drummer Tim Cronin started playing together in the New Jersey town of Red Bank. As Cronin explained in an exclusive interview with Diffuser.fm, "When we started Monster Magnet, we just wanted to do music that we wanted to listen to."
Cronin continued, "We all loved old garage rock, the Stooges and old psych music. Dave was well versed on '70s space rock/hard rock. John was also solid on old hard rock [and] well versed in '60s/'70s British rock. I was a fan of stuff that was coming out at the time: the Screaming Trees' Invisible Lantern was a big record for us, and Mudhoney too. When "Touch Me I'm Sick" came out it felt like we had kindred spirits on the West Coast. There was also a lot of U.K. stuff that was kicking our ass: Spacemen 3, Loop, the Walking Seeds, the Telescopes and the real early Skullflower stuff, especially their Birthdeath EP."
Many of these influences came together on Monster Magnet's first self-titled EP, which found a home with German independent label Glitterhouse Records in 1990, and marked Cronin's transition, first to bass guitar (Tom Diello played drums), then into a behind-the-scenes role that, by the release of Spine of God, would see him cryptically credited in the album jacket for "Dope/Lights/Center of the Universe." He further clarified to us that "by then Jon Kleiman (drums) and Joe Callandra (bass) had joined [and] they added a real spark and the shows were great. I think there's a couple shows online as a five piece."
Spine of God was recorded by the four-piece lineup of Wyndorf, McBain, Callandra and Kleiman, whose drum solo launched the first song "Pill Shovel" straight down a time-tunnel to the psychedelic '60s, using many of the same amp-destroying methods as Blue Cheer. The album's next song, an electrifying on-stage favorite for years to come called "Medicine," boomeranged the band's sound in the general direction of Detroit and, a little later, so did "Snake Dance" and a cover of Grand Funk Railroad's "Sin's a Good Man's Brother."
Shifting gears yet again, lysergic tunes like "Nod Scene," "Zodiac Lung" and "Ozium" (named after the famously "aromatic" deodorizer) delivered a panoply of drug-taking references (and even sound effects) over their sludge-and-doom-laden foundations, all topped by Wyndorf's echo-driven howls. And the album's hallucinatory, mind-expanding title track delivered an all-time high amid concussive power chords and towering waves of feedback that inevitably swallowed the listener and probably collapsed a few black holes along the way.
Even Spine of God's artwork and packaging was complicit with the musical vibes and messages being exhorted by the music. The cover image introduced future fans to the band's ever-adaptable Bullgod mascot (a regular presence on most of Monster Magnet's future releases) and the rear sleeve proudly spelled out the band's bold slogan and mission statement during those early years: "It's a Satanic drug thing ... you wouldn't understand."
Sure enough, not too many did, at first, but an auspicious tour opening for Soundgarden ultimately landed Monster Magnet a major label contract from A&M Records, and set them on the path to becoming the most successful "stoner rock" band of the '90s. As mentioned above, the latter may be, far and away, Magnet's best-seller, but many devotees still argue that Spine of God was perhaps the '90s' ultimate psychedelic rock record.
We'll go back to early band member Cronin for a final perspective, since he surmised to Diffuser.fm, "I think Spine of God was a culmination of the first era of Monster Magnet. It was heavy and weird with no real eye to the future and had a dead-end apocalyptic vibe that still resonates today. I've never heard anything quite like it."
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