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Strange World Of...

The Strange World Of... Stoned To Death Records
Miloš Hroch , May 4th, 2022 10:51

Miloš Hroch looks back at a decade of Stoned To Death Records, the label responsible for a tape renaissance in Czechia and for breathing new life into the country’s thriving DIY weird rock scene

Vole at Sun Wu Kung Festival by Michal Kočan

When you start a label, the universal goal is, yes, to release some good music. If you take it to another level, however, you will slowly begin laying down foundations, building a mythology which might emerge from all the threads as a superstructure. Originally a cassette label from Eastern Bohemian industrial town Pardubice in the Czech Republic, Stoned To Death had it all. When you look at their output it is obviously not the work of James Joyce. Their mythology is fed with stoner folklore, krautrock references and VHS nostalgia. There is one character who appears through all of the label’s releases: a furry acid bear appears in the StD logo, and in illustrations inside every tape box. The stories that now surround the label are about dropping acid, cooking dinners for bands and insider jokes which even insiders don’t understand. The rest is a hazy cloud.

The StD catalogue ranges from the lo-fi bedroom pop of Black Tar Jesus, who produced one of the label's first and most notable releases Other, to bare-bones acoustic guitar minimalism. You will also find weird rock experiments, harsh noise, dungeon synth, power hardcore, medieval krautrock, and free jazz improvisation. 

“I’m interested in the free form. The plot doesn’t have to be bombastic like 1986’s The Eye Of The Tiger, but it must keep on going and be interesting all the time, like the motorik rhythm you know,” explains StD’s label-head Jakub Ďuraško, who is in his mid-30s, and has the vocabulary of a nerdy cinephile. “I had a strong sense that something was happening around me, and I needed to document it,” Jakub says looking back to the label's inception in 2012. He grew up watching movies, and it was through High Fidelity (2000) that he learnt about Stereolab and the existence of an independent rock scene. Soon after that, he discovered a thriving punk community in the neighbouring city Hradec Králové, where bands such as post hardcore Thema Eleven or indie rock outfit Pavilon M2 operated. 

When he started the label, he was 26 and working as a driver. He'd gained some experience working at Czechia’s hardcore festival Fluff, and from booking tours. The first StD release Jakub organised was financed by the little money he had in his own pocket, and a cassette of American prog noise duo Xadax released in spring 2012. Over the twelve years he has spent on the road, he has built up a network of punk comrades along the way: “Sometimes I wonder if I would still look at the world in the same way, if I hadn't had that experience on the road.” Jakub left high school to become a tour driver. This was basically his education: he learnt about how labels operate, and other important lessons, such as when you're driving eight hours to the venue in the middle of nowhere and outside the town centre, it is nice to cook dinner for the band.

The Czech Republic has quite a reputation for its tour support among bands like Neurosis, The Body and Uniform. Of course, it is not Belgium or the Netherlands, but companies here are reliable, efficient, and much cheaper than in Western Europe. Also, the location is good, a few hours drive both to Vienna and to Berlin on the other side. Jakub worked for bands like Deerhoof, Oneida, and Purling Hiss, some of which were later featured on some of StD’s releases. For example, he wouldn’t have known hurdy-gurdy drone band France without touring as he saw the trio playing in Lyon's Ground Zero, and that's where his obsession with them began. France’s astounding Do Den Haag Church concert was reissued last December by StD as an Eastern European edition.

Thanks to touring, Jakub has developed a close connection to Jamie Stewart and he toured with Xiu Xiu over twenty times, the pair becoming friends. “Jakub was quiet, polite, business-like and slowly over the course of the first day we were together he revealed how stupendously funny he was, with the most interesting taste in music of anyone I have ever met,” Stewart tells me over email recalling that first tour in 2008.

With the label, Jakub holds the independent scene in Czechia together, connecting diverse separate underground units. He is also the drummer in krautrock group Raw Deal (together with the musicians behind solo projects Kult Masek, Obelisk Of Light, Molly and Altbau). With Raw Deal, they produced a live split record with Bucharest’s hallucinatory rock trio Jah Cuzzi and established a solid bridge between Romanian and Czech scenes. Since then, Jakub has been looking for these accidental encounters and collaborations. 

“When I say something out loud, it will become a reality in my mind. If I like the idea, I won’t stop talking about it, and I will annoy people,” he says, coming clean about his art of persuasion. “To me, it feels like a label based on instinctual but mysterious and unafraid dreams. The releases are thoughtful, but those thoughts are a combination of being both well researched, measured and insane,” said Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart. There is consistency and the moment of revelation in what label puts out: strangely, you know what to expect, and at the same time, you don’t.

All gates are open, but here are ten recommended points of entry that lie between occulture and landscape spiritualism.

Tomáš Palucha – Kámen mudrců

Guitar duo Tomáš Palucha's album Kámen mudrců (Czech for The Philosopher's Stone) is one of the fundamental records for Stoned to Death – its poetics and duo dynamics inspired a lot of later releases. Jan Tomáš played the guitar in now-defunct post hardcore group Thema Eleven from Hradec Králové and Libor Palucha was a member of sludge metal band Gospel Of The Future. They shared an encyclopedic knowledge of Americana and 1970s psychedelic rock, while worshipping Baltimore post hardcore outfit Lungfish. They found a way to morph these references into an original style however. Tomáš Palucha’s music is cinematic and works with slow atmosphere-building, cycling guitar melodies and meditative intermezzos. It has its own poetics and mysteries, and Kámen mudrců captures the bands’ spirit perfectly. “Kámen mudrců is an expression of the pursuit of delusion. Making a conceptual record about alchemy is partly a parody of the feigned esoteric and spiritual depth of many music projects. Both touch the line between reality and deception,” says Jan Tomáš, who has also been a touring member of The Body. The first track on the tape is called ‘The Charlatan’ and is based around the story of the British alchemist Edward Kelly. In the late 16th century, he was invited to Prague by the Roman emperor and Czech king Rudolph II, who was fascinated with occultism and alchemy. “Our obsession with symbolism has not left us since,” admits Tomáš.

Various Artists – Commando Revisited

It is like one of those stoner epiphanies you usually get around 3am, except people usually don't implement this kind of stupidly beautiful idea. Comando Revisited demonstrates the label’s commitment to such ideas and the absolute adoration of 1980s action movies. It gathers reworked music from James Horner’s soundtrack to the cult classic Commando by synth-nerds (Molly), ambient producers (Obelisk Of Light) and electroacoustic artists (Gurun Gurun’s Jára Tarnovski). Deerhoof’s Ed Rodriguez made a track in the back of the van during their European tour while Jakub was driving in the front. “I had only seen the movie when I was a kid and didn’t really know the soundtrack, so I did a piece based on what I thought it might be,” remembers Jamie Stewart. “It was more of a version pulled from faded imagination. I am into the idea of taking something somewhat, but not totally, obscure and making it stranger but a stranger with love.”

V0NT – Rovnost

This hardcore EBM industrial project twists Jaroslav Foglar’s 1940s children's stories into torturing questions about the nature of humanity. Originally, so-called ‘Vonts’ were members of a boy-gang from the fictional Old Prague’s quarter Stínadla (Czech for ‘Shades’). “We were attracted by its strong symbols, like the caged hedgehog, jigsaw puzzles, masks, hideouts in sewers,” reveals V0NT’s Jan Šamánek, who operates samplers and modular synthesizer. “The idea was to take the stories from Boy Scouts and intensify the darkness and fear you feel when you read it as a kid.” The trio is well-known in the hardcore scene, and they are also members of the emocore band Remek. But in V0NT, they have replaced guitars with samplers, synths, and noise effects in a similar vein to Operant or NAKED. Their new sound is heavier, built around punishing industrial beats, declamatory vocals, and cut-up samples of obscure hardcore bands like Zann, Khanate and Acephale. It deals with themes of surveillance, faith, and how to sustain being human under extreme conditions. Rovnost from the album’s title was a corrective work camp in totalitarian Czechoslovakia, where “the ruling regime used to send ‘persona non grata’ to be broken and subordinated”.

Tomáš Niesner – Aurora

Tomáš Niesner has a noise rock history behind him. He started playing guitar in a band called Unna but playing concerts at harsh volumes took a toll, damaging his hearing, so he turned to the acoustic guitar. Together with Unna’s former drummer Jakub Šimanský, they embarked upon a newly prolific phase as a duo Šimanský Niesner (as a gentle nod to their predecessors Tomáš Palucha). They blended American primitivism with the Czech folk tradition as documented on their 2019 album Tance neznámé. Niesner developed his musical vocabulary for an instrument (the Taylor 510 acoustic guitar) on the debut album Aurora last year. He combined a fingerpicking style with field recordings and ambient sensitivity. “Honestly, these songs are pretty challenging for me to play live,” he admits. “During recording, I did hundreds takes for each song. I wanted to record it to get close as possible to the idea I heard in my head. I experimented with open-tunings and improvised, but I ended up composing each track.” 

Vole – Tohle není prdel

Listening to Prague-based noise punk unit Vole is like putting your head between two bricks. You get smashed by the power of the quartet’s controlled maelstrom. The band rose from the ruins of raw hardcore punk group Hlinomaz in 2016, and quickly grew into an underground cult. The first albums sound like they could have come from La Vida Es Un Mus with roughneck Sturm und Drang guitar riffs, marching rhythms, and graveyard vocals. Last year's record Tohle není prdel, yields the same intensity but channels it into more of a Czechoslovak underground rock tradition. Vole’s music is umbilically connected to the dirty streets of loved and hated Prague. On last year’s album, the vocals are not drowned in noise and reverb, allowing Tomáš Mitura’s sprechgesang about bullshit jobs and desperate boredom to stand out. The album was written and recorded during the pandemics: they cranked their amps and set it down live in the studio.

Tábor – Liebe

Around 2018 Vole’s tour de force guitarist David Vála, started working on a side-project, Tábor. He was joined by members of noise rock bands Or, Mava and Unkilled Worker Machine. Two years later, Tábor released a debut album Liebe, where Vála proved himself a compelling songwriter who doesn’t need to shelter behind noise camouflage. This collection of eight songs moves between deadly silence and tender heaviness, and the sound of an old harmonium carries the listener away with 19th century romanticism. It sounds like a dream fantasy of Earth’s Dylan Carlson meeting Czech mystic and new age songwriter Oldřich Janota. Liebe is wandering music based on the landscape diaries from the North-Western borderlands and Ore mountains. Songs about love, death, sadness and loss are imprinted with uncanny genius loci of places like the Měděnec (Kupferberg) village where the tragic fire of 1986 at the Social Care Institute left 26 dead. “The album is full of landscapes. They may have been forgotten; maybe we have never been there,” Vála commented mysteriously. 

Pacino – Půl litru země

This trio – vocalist Radomír Szajter, bass guitarist Jakub Lasota and drummer Tomáš Veliký – is rooted in the fertile Silesian punk scene (around the industrial city Ostrava in East Czechia). Pacino cite early Sebadoh as an influence, while their music also has a touch of Dinosaur Jr. and Polvo to it. Strong melodies and raw intensity aren’t mutually exclusive terms for Pacino, as they weren’t for Hüsker Dü before them. Singer Radomír is a comic book nerd and scriptwriter, and one of the songs 'Psí srdce' references Charles Burns’ famous character Dog Boy from Skin Deep. His lyrics in Czech are evocative and cryptic, and Szajter describes them as follows: “All the landscapes reminded me what I wanted to leave behind when I moved to Prague: loneliness, anxieties, and alienation of my hometown region. Lyrics evoke this mise-en-scène.”

Bibione – S/T

Prague-based trio Bibione describe themselves as a “girl boy-band”. “We are band, not a female-fronted band,” they say. Vocalist and bass guitarist Maggie had a garage-punk band. Guitarist Trochtýna played in the experimental synth-pop band Orient. Self-taught drummer Kristýna just jammed alone in the friend’s band rehearsal room, carrying a teenage dream to have a band. Bibione’s three members are frequent concertgoers and organisers; hanging around Prague’s venues, they started to plan how to turn this dream into reality. Their 2020 debut 7” EP is an incredibly natural documentation of this passion and enthusiasm and you can hear guitar melodies in the spirit of early Sleater-Kinney. Bibione’s music then navigates between surf rock delight, raw garage punk energy and the power pop attitude of bands like Shopping.

Jasnovidec – Jasnovidec

This eponymous record Jasnovidec (Czech for ‘The Seer’) is a collaborative work between Michael Nechvátal (also known under the ambient moniker of Kult Masek) and Daniel Jakeš. Jasnovidec uses modular synthesizers to build a kosmische drone. Sometimes, it is harsh, destructive, or a soothing dark ambient. They named the project after a prophet Hias – from the movie Heart Of Glass (1976) by Werner Herzog; Jakeš & Nechvátal fell for the film also because of the evocative music by Popol Vuh. Jasnovidec’s music has similar contemplative and cinematic qualities. “Because of those beautiful static shots, we wanted to get some rigidity and repetition on our record – as there is a repetition in long walks through forests we take together with Daniel,” explains Nechvátal. “The nature is not dark, rather it is everything around you,” concludes Jakeš, who also makes industrial noise as Koroze (Czech for ‘The Corrosion’).

Rafał Marciniak – Siedem Tłustych Lat

Rafał Marciniak played in high velocity noise punk bands Enten Og Eller and Degens. However, he entered a new territory of weird folk with his debut tape. Marciniak is strongly influenced by the legend of the Czech esoteric underground, especially the aforementioned songwriter Oldřich Janota. Siedem Tłustych Lat's songs are built on slow tempos, acoustic guitar and drones. Lyrically, the album mirrors children’s memories, the region’s mysticism and stands partly as a dream diary. Marciniak sings both in Polish and Czech as he comes from Cieszyn Silesia on Czech-Polish borders, as he grew up as part of the local Polish minority. Marciniak began working on his album while he was in the middle of the training in Jungian psychotherapy. “Reaching the unconscious through dreams is part of training. It is recommended to have dream diaries or to draw your dreams,” Marciniak explained: “The form that is closest to the experience, I discovered during the process, is through the music.”

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