Written by Kirk
Ephedra – Valley of the Shepherd
> Instrumental stoner doom/space rock
> Releasing March 17
April 29, 2021 was a tough day for stoners the world over. William Mecum, lead guitarist and founding member of instrumental stoner rock band Karma to Burn, died from injuries sustained from an accidental fall. And while Karma to Burn is probably not the first instrumental stoner rock band in existence, they certainly blazed a trail both long and distinguished.
One such band is Zofingen, Switzerland’s Ephedra, who strapped on and down-tuned their guitars back in 2012. With a bucket full of white-hot riffs, they released their self-titled debut album in 2013 followed by Can’-Ka No Rey in 2017. Not content to put out “just another stoner rock record,” founding members Kilian Tellenbach (bass) and Tomi Gilles (drums) and longtime guitarist Roman Hüsler have added the orchestrations of Mirjam Skal to take their latest album, Valley of the Shepherd, taking them to new heights.
Now now, I know what you’re thinking: “But Kirk! I listen to stoner rock to ‘turn up, tune in, and drop out’, not be reminded of the many existential horrors of the world around me through modern compositions and…<GASP>…PROG!”. Be chill, my dudes and dudettes, trust and believe that Mirjam Skal’s orchestrations will not only enhance your mellow, they’ll maximize it. Her contributions to this album add elements of space rock that Ephedra haven’t toyed with before…AND THEY WORK. This album shifts back and forth from dreamy space rock to fist-pumping stoner riffs so seamlessly that you won’t even notice you’ve already done two laps around the solar system without even braking a sweat. And it’s a trip you’ll want to take again and again and again.
The album starts off with “Into the Valley,” a soft, gentle orchestral piece that helps to set the mood. Mirjam Skal’s hands are all over this song, creating a deep, cinematic atmosphere that makes you feel as though you are slowly descending into a magnificent valley full of lush vegetation. We now find ourselves in “Valley of the Shepherd,” and this is where Kilian, Tomi, and Roman step in, guitars growling as they come to life before l taking flight to soar among the clouds while the drums set a smooth backdrop as the energy continues to build. If you close your eyes, you can almost feel the wind in the valley as it blows, tall grass swaying all around you.
Then “Ritual of Meadows” starts, and the valley explodes with life. It starts with a methodic—almost tribal—drum beat over a swirling, hypnotic bass riff, which is then followed by a beautiful flute arrangement (seriously, Mirjam has been killing it so far) before the full band decides to stretch their arms and jam. This song is just full of life. Eventually, the flute returns as the tempo slows down, signaling the end of the ritual. What follows is a darker, more fast-paced song in “Night of the Hunters,” which is once again fueled by the thunderous beats of Tomi’s drumming. The ethereal texture added by Mirjam’s orchestral parts give this song an eerie, almost threatening vibe.
“Farewell Good Old Boy” starts with a soft, gentle guitar intro, accompanied by a cool bass rhythm and then accentuated by yet another brilliant orchestral piece. When Tomi’s drumming kicks in, it is both aggressive and reserved—somewhat at odds with the rest of the rest of the band—creating an atmosphere of both anger and remorse, each emotion vying for dominance. What follows is just pure stoner rock fury. “Sheep Na Nonen” is Ephedra at full capacity, riffing, shredding, and pounding away for almost three minutes. Contributions from Mirjam here are sparse yet tasteful (is that a glockenspiel I hear?).
Things don’t really slow down with “Dirty Wool,” except maybe the tempo. The song opens immediately with an aggressive and crunchy guitar riff, which is then joined once again by Mirjam’s wonderful orchestration. This song feels as though we’re flying through the valley, no longer restrained by gravity’s pull. More stoner rock riffs follow with “Sheep Smoker,” which is probably the closest we’ve come to Ephedra’s “classic” sound. No frills here, just guitars, bass, and drums.
As the record draws towards it conclusion, “The Hidden Sheephole” sucks is back in for another round of smoky riffs. Tomi’s drumming will have your toes tapping as he pounds away; meanwhile, Roman’s riffs once again take us up into the sky. And then it’s time to leave, “Backflash” ushering in a somber farewell to Valley of the Shepherd. But fret naught, fellow music lover, for we can always visit again. All you have to do is press “Play”!
THE BOTTOM LINE
Were Karma to Burn the kings of instrumental stoner rock? Maybe, but it could be argued that their sound was rather singular in nature. They were consistent, but their style could be considered by some as predictable. Ever since Black Sabbath released Master of Reality, bands all over the world have been fusing heavy metal with psychedelic and acid rock. Ephedra have taken that blueprint and found ways not only to expand on that formula but to enhance it. The band has described Valley of the Shepherd as a concept album, and while we as music listeners often turn to lyrics to find the common theme(s) in these kinds of records, we’re forced to listen just a little bit harder here. And while I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what that concept is, there’s definitely something special about these songs. Give ‘em a spin; perhaps they’ll speak to you in ways unexpected.