It was 10 years ago (or close to it) that I ventured out to the Hi-Tone Cafe on a weeknight to catch Nebula's air-moving lesson on the fineries of the power trio. Besides my paranoia that the trio's blunt-force thud would literally throw my heart off beat (the only other band that has inspired a similar fear is Torche), I remember two particular details of the evening: One, only seven other people saw the show, and two, taped all over the merch table were signs with the words "Nebula Welcomes Trades for Merch" surrounded by generic clip-art images of pharmaceuticals.
I remember finding it refreshing that there was no clip art of burning joints or glass bongs, then thinking that I'd probably be won over by this clever and direct way to tackle the age-old "Where's 'the guy'?" problem facing touring bands as they enter each new town. I also concluded that if the band kept playing shows like this one, the signs would soon disappear. Lastly, I recall really enjoying Nebula, but bemoaned the fact that their chosen genre was mired by innocuous, mediocre bands that buried good bands like this in obscurity.
This genre went by the unfortunate name of "stoner metal" or "stoner rock." Black Sabbath is the influential ground zero for stoner metal, like, well, every other style of metal, but from there other ingredients in the stoner-metal recipe are early-'80s groundbreaking loners such as Trouble and St. Vitus along with the Melvins (huge influence) and the heavier or scarier true grunge bands of the late '80s and early '90s (Tad, Mudhoney, Green River). Then there's a few points of reference that sort of set stoner metal apart from other metal sub-genres: Black Flag, Meat Puppets, and a few other lost SST bands from the mid-'80s and the "aggro" rock/noise-rock heyday (Helmet, Hammerhead, etc). Monster Magnet, Clutch, and Queens of the Stone Age are generally seen as the three stoner-metal bands that have tasted success within the past two decades.
The movement might not have had its salad days if not for two record labels: Man's Ruin and Meteor City. Owned and operated by artist Frank Kozik, Man's Ruin was the better known of the two, but Meteor City is the one still active. Listeners knew what they were going to get with a Man's Ruin or Meteor City product: thick, thick, thick riffs and the rest of the song used as an excuse to drive these riffs, a wider range of vocal styles than any other strain of metal, and slow-to-mid-tempo pacing.
There was but one "scene" when it came to stoner metal, and that was the Palm Desert scene, a healthy group of constantly related musicians known by their own tag, "desert rock." Kyuss was the first and best, Thin White Rope is maybe the oldest, and Queens of the Stone Age is, of course, the best-known export. But it was another corner of the Palm Desert scene that attracted Nebula's primary songwriter and guitarist Eddie Glass in the early '90s. Glass had previously been drumming for Olivelawn, a punk-rock band with a decent following around Southern California, when he passed through the gateway into the Palm Desert scene as a member of Fu Manchu, less a band than a Palm Desert rite of passage. Fu Manchu is still active as a vehicle for founder and guitarist Scott Hill to recruit other players likely to depart due to creative differences. Eddie Glass and drummer Ruben Romano did just that in 1996 after three years with Fu Manchu, forming Nebula shortly thereafter.
The musical differences that Glass had with Fu Manchu's Hill were clearly based on Glass' desire to incorporate more psychedelic and prog elements and to dial-down the Black Flag-meets-Black Sabbath vision that always has driven Fu Manchu. Nebula didn't release anything until 1998, but made up for the work-shedding period with three EPs and one full length by mid-1999 on as many labels (Relapse, Sub Pop, Man's Ruin, Meteor City). Nebula's two full lengths on Sub Pop, 1999's To the Center and 2001's Charged, pull off the '70s production trick with success and would appeal just as much to fans of the Melvins as they would to open-minded Yes or Gentle Giant fans.
Nebula has released a handful of EPs over the past decade, and when they left Sub Pop, two albums on the Liquor & Poker label followed, in 2003 and 2006, before the band released a Peel Sessions recording and the most recent and enjoyably solid Heavy Psych album on Tee Pee Records, both in 2008.
Fans of every band listed above and even those who just like their jams to be JAMS are encouraged to join Nebula fans when the band plays with The Entrance Band (formerly Entrance) at the Hi-Tone this week.