Huntington-area punks reincarnated, reinvigorated as stoner rock band Tower of the Elephant


(L-R:) Mike Schritter, Blair Yoke, Jason King, Garrett Babb, and Josh Harshbarger, together just a few short months as Tower of the Elephant, have been making a name for themselves in Huntington.

Reposted from The Huntington Herald-Dispatch

You could say that with their version of “weed metal,” Tower of the Elephant has been generating a nice buzz around town.

Like any organic process, the Huntington-based “stoner rock” band’s formation was quite chemical in nature. Two cells; one, lead guitarist Mike Schritter and drummer Jason King (ex-South Point, Ohio punks No Heroes Here) served as the nucleus, and the other cell, singer Blair Yoke, rhythm guitarist Garrett Babb and bassist Josh Harshbarger (ex-Beer For Blood members) merged through some symbiotic, osmosis-like process that bands seem to go through as they are born and die only to become new bands.

But they’re no different than any other local band just starting out. They face the same challenges; from getting together for practice, to booking and playing shows, not so much the latter recently.

“Between jobs and families, it can be really hard getting the five of us together to practice,” singer Blair Yoke said as a few band members convened to answer questions.

Comprised of veterans of (and band mates in) various Huntington-area punk bands, Tower of the Elephant is able to kill two birds with one stone; they practice and play where Yoke lives.

“We’re mainly more apt to play house shows there because Blair lives there,” Harshbarger said, a day after the band played a house show at 636 Trenton Place.

Tower of the Elephant: “Orbital Exile” @ 636 Trenton Place 3.26

Harshbarger said house shows have been important in helping Tower of the Elephant, together since just last October, develop a following.

“We hardly ever turn down the chance to play house shows. There isn’t much of a chance to make any money, but the setting is more intimate and it seems like you get a much better vibe from the crowd.”

Tower of the Elephant welcomes Morgantown stoner rock legends Karma To Burn back to Huntington Friday night for a show at Shamrock’s Irish Pub, with the Austin, Texas-based hard rock trio Honky in tow.

“It’s been really exciting,” Harshbarger went on, talking about the band. “The response to our music has been huge and immediate, from just word-of-mouth, to the amount of shows being offered to us in such a short amount of time. We have such a tight group of seasoned musicians that know what sound we’re looking for and I think that has come across in our music.”

Harshbarger said it’s their appreciation for the more classic rock and metal influences that has helped Tower refine their own version of “weed metal,” as they call it on their Facebook page.

“We all have pretty different influences, but most go back to the classics,” Harshbarger said. “We’ve all played punk rock in the past, but a lot of our sound comes from a heavy influence of classic stoner rock bands such as Kyuss, Black Sabbath, Fu Manchu, and Mountain. It really came to us naturally because we’ve listened to groups like these for so long.”

King described the formation of the nascent Tower of the Elephant with Schritter, who fronted the now defunct Huntington punk band Sarasota.

“Mike and I started the band in my kitchen, playing on a small amp and electric drums,” he said.

They soon absorbed the trio of Yoke, Babb and Harshbarger.

“Josh was the first person we brought in,” King said. “Then we had Blair sing for us, and as soon as the first words came out of his mouth, I knew he was perfect.”

“Up until we started Tower I’d only been in punk bands,” Yoke said. “It feels great to be able to actually sing, opposed to screaming.

“It started out more in the metal vein and became groovier once Garrett and I joined,” the singer went on. “We started playing in late October, and within a week we had three songs done. We played those three songs at a Halloween house show in town and got a great response from the small crowd that was there.”

Babb described how he, Harshbarger and Yoke brought their own experiences in Beer For Blood into Tower of the Elephant.

“Beer For Blood was pretty much where the three of us got our chops as musicians. Everything clicked with us and we played what we wanted, but learned a lot from each other as musicians.”

“Babb brought something to the table I didn’t even know we needed until he started playing it,” King added. “Now it’s a key part in our music.”

Babb said he loves being in a band with Schritter.

“When we write, it’s the most laid back and comfortable atmosphere. The riffs we write together are decided on being used when we can play them together, look at each other, and laugh our [expletive] off at what we just did. The chemistry is great. He’s a master at leads, and I’m proud we can play guitar together and share our knowledge of the instrument with each other.”

Tower of the Elephant is sitting on a four-song EP entitled “Journey of the Leonids,” set for seven-inch vinyl release in May.

Yoke said, at least for him, but likely speaking for the group as well, Tower of the Elephant is something he’s been looking forward to being a part of for a long time.

“I’m extremely excited about this band. Since the very first practice I’ve found that lyrics come to me easier than in any other band I’ve been in. It’s exactly what I’ve wanted to do musically for a long time.”

If you go:
Karma To Burn, Honky, Tower of the Elephant
Where: Shamrock’s Irish Pub, 2050 3rd Ave., Huntington (304) 523-5825 (call for tix)
When: Friday, April 1st, 9:30
Cost: $10 advance, $12 at the door
Info: www.toweroftheelephant.bandcamp.com/, http://www.k2burn.com/

photo: Josh Harshbarger
video: Chuk Fowlord


CD Review: "Leave It Alone"

CD: Leave It Alone
ARTIST: Sasha Colette and the Magnolias

Eight songs worth of genre-skipping folk, alt-country, and yeah, rock, Leave It Alone, the recent release from Sasha Colette and the Magnolias, only flew under the CD reviewing radar here because we lost our physical copy of the CD for a while. But make no mistake, dear friends, we didn’t give it away.

The Morehead, Kentucky-based outfit, combined with Bud Carroll’s guitar input and studio prowess, has put out a really great record on this, their third release.

Aside from Colette’s soulful, powerful (sweet, sweet) voice, guitar and banjo work, you get Carroll on guitar and keys (killer!) and Magnolias Jose Oreta on upright bass and Andrew Gillum on drums.

While Carroll recorded the CD at his Trackside Studios in Barboursville, adding so much to the sound “on the floor” and behind the board, it would behoove the new listener to not underestimate the Magnolias in their own right.

One of the things you notice is the almost rock song structure of the folk songs, with well-placed hooks, bridges and tight arrangements, most of the songs come in at the short side of three minutes; perfect for people with short attention spans. That’s pretty much everybody these days.

“Sacrifice” opens Leave It Alone with beautiful string-based orchestral instrumentation. “Sweet” is a soft, swaying number, with a little Moog-sounding synth and organ thrown in.

Colette’s poetic, lovelorn lyrics meet cheesy bar-based pickup lines on the song (“I forgot to ask if it hurt when you fell from heaven,”) and a rockin’ bridge ties “Sweet” together in short order:
“Oh, all these sunsets remind me of all these sunrises we stayed up late to see left your sweet song in my head.”
“Victory” is a somber, stripped-down acoustic number, and with Carroll on pedal steel, this maybe could be the real title track of the record.

“Mercy Moment” sounds like Janis Joplin singing with Led Zeppelin, one of the real standout tracks for its rock flavor. Everybody pretty much lets loose; Colette belting out the vocals (“I’ve been busting my chops trying to get us to the top,”) with Carroll’s riffage and stomping rhythm section, it’s a rockin’ tune and a good example of the tight song structure throughout -- just barely three minutes, it could be longer, but it’s perfect as it is.

The title track (evoking the sunny, uptempo alt-country feel on a lot of Wilco’s songs off Being There) closes out the CD, with Colette really opening up, it seems.
“If your momma left you when you were young and your daddy gets high on booze in the night leave it alone, yeah leave it alone.
‘Cause what good would it do if you were to cry me a river?
That boat don’t float/I say let the dead things lay
Leave it alone”
From the songwriting and musicianship through production and into the artwork and layout (ably done by friend of rockscene Jimbo Valentine), Leave It Alone really is a super tight, total package; something to be proud of and rock out for sure as Colette moves forward in 2011.

Related: Sasha Colette Can't Leave It Alone (Gazette article)


Keller Williams talks about kids, music in the digital age, and Martian apocalypse in advance of V Club show Friday


“One-man jam band” Keller Williams comes to Huntington Friday for a show at the V Club

Reposted from The Huntington Herald-Dispatch

For Keller Williams, it’s all about balance. Whether it’s balancing his home life and solo career, his involvement with various collaborations and side projects, or just juggling all the instruments he brings on stage, the “one-man jam band” seems to pull it all off effortlessly, in typical Dead Head, laid back, definitely far out style.

Now, with countless fans due in large part to twenty years worth of captivating live performances, the Fredericksburg, Virginia native, speaking over the phone in advance of his first Huntington show Friday night at the V Club, said his life is pretty much perfectly balanced.

“The past year and a half or so we’ve adopted the weekend warrior mentality,” Williams said en route to the airport to catch a flight to Milwaukee for a show. “We’ll leave on a Wednesday and come back on Sunday, and it’s been great. I’ve got two kids at home, so it’s great to have that balance.”

One thing that’s changed recently is Williams’ bringing his funky genre-skipping mix of bluegrass and folk stylings to kids. With last October’s release dual release of his “Kids” CD (his sixteenth record) and 33-page kids book “Because I Said So,” Williams now quite literally has fans of all ages.

Maybe you could say he’s balancing out his fan base.

“It’s just been a natural progression for me and my type of music, and the amount of records that I’ve done, that a kids record would be done,” Williams explained. “It’s something I’ve been tossing around for years and years and I’ve finally kind of allowed it to happen. And I’m glad I did, too; I’m really proud of it.”

As part of his expansion into, or landing on, the kids’ world, Williams has started to play a few select kids matinee shows. And whether they help benefit a charitable cause, as they often do, for Williams, it’s about finding the right mix of fun and responsibility.

“It’s a fun record and doing the kids matinee shows is where I get to play these songs, it’s important focusing on the kids music and the kids book, that never really do the kids world and the adult music world meet, as far as these songs. You know, I don’t play these kids songs at the night time adult shows.

“But the kids show matinee is just a great venue for these songs, and that’s what makes the kids shows super fun for me because I play stuff that I don’t get to play at the adult shows.”

Williams, famous for his live looping and array of guitars and instruments on stage, and collaboration with other musicians, said that not only has being a parent changed him, but gave him the perspective of wanting to have some music that everyone can enjoy.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of hesitation whether to do it or not,” Williams said of putting out a CD specifically for children. “We just wanted to make sure we found the right home for it, so to speak. I guess the only hesitation was that we wanted to approach this correctly. I knew the record was okay for the parents, as well as the kids, and that was the direction I went. I wanted to make sure the parents could laugh, and have the kids in the back seats groove a little bit. Hopefully it can achieve some peace and balance in the car ride,” he said laughing.

Williams said he was looking forward to playing the V Club, and wanted to make clear he wouldn’t stop the show to yell at someone taping or filming his performance.

“I’ve always allowed taping and recording at my shows. I’ve always been into the taping community, and that’s really what propelled me in my career in the beginning, especially in the mid to late 90’s, was the taping community and getting to open for bands like String Cheese Incident, where the taping community was really vibrant.”

And Williams said while he hopes his fans will still pay for his music, either online or at a record store, if they want to listen to it for free online, he says pass it around.

“The internet has always been my friend. As far as where the music industry has gone, as far as the whole digital download age and the disappearance of locally owned record stores, the whole idea of the album going away and now people just put it online and people can pick and choose. The way I’ve come to grips with the digital age, whether it’s a computer or on a cell phone is, it’s just another medium for music to be heard. You know, tapes, records and CDs always get scratched or tore up, so it’s neat to be able to have the music online in pristine, digital form so it can be passed around. It’s on the road to becoming immortal.”

And rounding the interview out, maybe only half in jest, but totally “out there,” Williams said one day he hopes his music can indeed bring some balance to the universe.

“I’m thinking along the lines of my music being sent up into cyberspace, if the world gets blown up by Martians, they can accept this transmission floating around in cyberspace. My hope is, after I’m gone, and the Earth is gone, my music will be played in other galaxies by beings intercepting the signal.”

If you go:
Keller Williams
WHEN: Friday, March 18, 9:30 p.m.
WHERE: The V Club, 741 6th Ave., Huntington
COST: $20 in advance for first 150 tickets sold, $22 after the first 150, $25 DOS.
INFO: www.kellerwilliams.net/, www.vclublive.com

photo: C. Taylor Crothers


On the road with Gazelle Amber Valentine of Jucifer

With a show-per-day tour schedule, averaging ten hours on the road, three-hour loading and unloading of equipment, playing the show, and sleeping for maybe three hours, Gazelle Amber Valentine and Edgar Livengood of the doom/stoner/hard rock duo Jucifer don’t have a lot of time to talk on the phone.

In an interview that was originally set to run as a feature article in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch for their show at the V Club Wednesday night, singer-guitarist Valentine talks about constant life on the road for the Athens, Georgia natives, and the love(s) of her life -- her husband Edgar, and making sweet music as Jucifer…

WVRockscene: How has this tour gone so far? How have the shows been? Anything get broken or stolen? Any fans bring you anything cool?
Gazelle Amber Valentine: We started this year’s tour in January after a short break in December. It’s been good, actually some really good crowds considering it’s winter and the weather makes staying home really appealing. Broken? Our stuff is ALWAYS breaking, haha. Just ‘cause it’s always in use. We just had to replace our heater core, and suspension on the trailer (imagine!). Mostly drum stuff lately. Edgar’s broken three snare stands and two crash stands so far this year.

rockscene: Does Edgar still vomit during or after shows?
Valentine: Yeah, but I mean it’s not something that happens every show. It comes from exertion. It happens more when it’s hot.

rockscene: You’re notoriously nomadic in nature, touring in an RV, where, if anyplace in particular, do you two call home?
Valentine: We call the RV home! We don’t have a place anywhere, so that’s literally our house, where we live. And we’ve been that way for 10 years, so we really don’t feel tied to any particular city or state. We grew up in DC area and rural GA respectively, and then we lived in Athens, GA together... but we’ve lived in the RV for as long as we lived in Athens, so we’re more connected to this nomadic life than homes from the past. I put on our Twitter “nomads, northern hemisphere” and that’s really where we feel we live. We’re so familiar with all of North America and a lot of Europe... that’s where we spend time, that’s home.

rockscene: Have you had any significant downtime in between shows or dates to get out and see sights or get out in nature or just enjoy yourself? Or has it been one big grueling experience so far?
Valentine: Since we’ve been on the road fulltime it’s a little bit better as far as getting to see stuff... we can tell the booking agent to leave us a few days off if we know we’re gonna be somewhere awesome. Like last year in Canada the agent was worried about us trying to play during some kind of vacation week in BC, so we just told him to give us that week off and start us up again when people would be back from vacation. It worked out rad --- we got to have a little time in the mountains and then our shows worked out great too.

But as much as we love to get out in nature and explore places, playing shows is always our priority. So it’s not like being retired or on vacation. We’re always on a schedule, and we have to drive past stuff we’d like to stop at a lot. Or don’t have time to hang out with friends. It’s more work than we ever did at our blue-collar jobs, that’s for sure. It can literally be 22 hours a day for days in a row. But you always gotta respect that you’re doing something you love, and that not everybody gets to do that or see the world even on the limited basis we see it.

rockscene: Throned in Blood got a good bit of critical praise, how cool was that?
Valentine: It’s always rewarding to get that. Sometimes people forget, but the critics are just music fans with an outlet for their thoughts. So anytime music fans get what we’re doing, whether they write for a big mag or their own tumblr, it’s cool!

The first level of satisfaction for us is ourselves... like, if we like our record, nobody else’s opinion matters as much. Still, it’s good to see fans are psyched on it. Because being able to make people happy with something that makes you happy is really special, really a fortunate situation. We have total respect and gratitude for our fans.

rockscene: You two are married, right? How long have you two a.) known each other and b.) been married? Does being married and touring in a band make things simpler or more complicated? Do you get tired being asked these kinds of questions?
Valentine: We got together as a couple within about three months after we started playing together. A little over 18 years ago. But it was pretty much fated. We’ve gone over the weird chain of events that led us to meet and obviously, it was just meant to be.

We were basically married as soon as we met. For us, the kind of couple we are, everything about our life and our band makes perfect sense. Like, if we didn’t play music together we’d never have met. So it wasn’t like, oh let’s be in a band honey, and then oh shit, this is hard! It was like, here’s the soulmate I’ve been looking for, the ideal partner who’s down for the crazy ass life I want. Match made in heaven!

So our relationship was built to include being creative together and working together. I’m sure in some ways it’s more complicated because we’re a couple, but in other ways it’s less. Like we just had Sourvein do some shows with us, and those dudes were missing their girlfriends and wives. So a “regular” band isn’t gonna be happy on permanent tour... because they’re stressing relationships left at home. In that way it’s simpler for us. And YES! It does get kinda old answering questions about it. I guess we understand that it seems like a novelty for other people. But it’s not a novelty for us, y’know...it’s a beautiful, sacred thing.

rockscene: You’re notorious for the amps and volume levels, how many amps do you play through right now and have you had anyone complain about the levels?
Valentine: Right now I’m using 16-19 cabs, depending on the space. Yeah we’ve had noise complaints for sure... we try to make sure we don’t get booked in the wrong places, but it still happens. Every once in awhile our agent will be like, look, you guys can play but they’re gonna want you to turn down. If they’re respectful about it, like the club is cool but their neighbors are giving ‘em hell, we’ll try to cooperate.

But like last time that happened recently, we’ll say look: we’re Jucifer. We can’t physically be quiet. But we’ll try to be like, regular loud instead of apocalyptic loud. Most of the time venues know what they’re booking and audiences know what they’re getting... We’ve been doing it for a loooong time!!

The funny thing is that for every person holding their ears and wincing, there’s some bastard saying it wasn’t loud enough. For us... we just want to feel it and hear it, this mass of sound. And I want to shape it, ride the feedback. It’s not some stupid volume contest --- if it was, we’d do without drums and vocals.

But yeah, it’s loud. Think of it as a free massage!

rockscene: Have you released your book “The Grease” yet? Seems like something people would love to read.
Valentine: I’ve been hearing from a lot of people who want the book. I haven’t finished writing it yet. But seeing so much interest, I’m definitely gonna try to get it done soon!

rockscene: While you two are metal, Amber from what I’ve read it seems like a lot of your early influences were more punk, is that fair? Ian MacKaye, Rollins, Watt, and meeting Joey Ramone; were you more into punk growing up or metal, and did that influence your sound now?
Valentine: I didn’t experience that much of either punk OR metal --- where I lived was too isolated. My parents didn’t listen to it, and I didn’t have older kids around. I was definitely drawn to it when it grazed past me... the little bit of stuff that made it to radio, the mix tapes I got from a few kids.

But I’ve never felt like stuff I heard created my writing or playing style. To me it feels like the things I liked or will like, are attractive to me because of that instinct I have for certain sounds. An instinct that I had from an early age, that couldn’t have developed from listening to music because it was always there.

Kinda like I loved the color purple, loved horses and dogs, I loved certain notes together, certain deep distorted guitar sounds, heavy drums, pissed off screaming. I think I just gravitated to the place I belonged, y’know.

rockscene: You’ve been on a few labels but now have your own thing, Nomadic Fortress, and release stuff through Relapse; how satisfied are you with the label situation right now? And how comfortable are you with your own fan base who “get” what you’re going for and where you “fit” into metal?
Valentine: Really satisfied. It’s amazing to completely own our music for the first time. And to see the level of support we get, for being true to who we are and being brave enough to mix shit up and do our own thing, is really gratifying.

I think people’s minds are opening more as they get bored with super-predictable bands. I mean, sometimes it’s nice to know exactly what you’re gonna get. When every album and song and show is the same. It’s reliable. But there’s a place for a band like us, that’s gonna surprise you, maybe even piss you off, but never stop growing. The support we get and the understanding that we get as far as being that kind of band, is awesome.

rockscene: Aside from touring will there be anything big in 2011 you two are looking forward to? New recording or anything at all? Make another DVD? European festivals?
Valentine: We’re re-issuing our first “album” (‘Nadir‘) which was done on 4-track and only on homemade cassettes when we made it... planning for that to come out in May. And Nomadic Fortress is also gonna put out some splits and side projects. We’re gonna do one with Aaron Deal from Salome... planning for that to come out in the summer.

We’ll also be recording a new album to come out in 2012. We’re touring the US through April, then go to Europe for May and June. We’re super stoked to go to Russia for the first time ever!! And we’re doing some cool festivals in Europe... I know Asymmetry Festival in Poland and Durbuy Rock Festival in Belgium. After Europe we’ll go to Canada and the Western US.

rockscene: How much farther in the foreseeable future do you see yourself continuing this nomadic, non-stop touring lifestyle?
Valentine: Until we can’t!! And hopefully that’s a long time off ;)

--- Jucifer plays the V Club in Huntington Wednesday, March 16 with The Midnight Ghost Train and Satchell


HYAMP set to re-open Saturday

One of the more important venues in West Virginia is opening back up Saturday.

After a roughly four year hiatus, HYAMP will open its doors and kick off what will be a steady string of great all-ages shows.

UPDATE 3.12 2 p.m.: Huntington just put a hold on the re-opening.

Andy Rivas, of the Huntington-based electronic-rock dance duo Bad Employees said that not only were he and John McComas stoked to play the re-opening of HYAMP and looking forward to making new fans, but they appreciate David Steffie’s dedication to and love for the Huntington scene.

“To be honest I never made it to the old HYAMP. For some reason I never really knew about it until it was shutting down. I think maybe I was at an age where something of that sort didn’t concern me, and I had also moved away for a little while.

“I have heard lots of great things about the old place, and look forward to the new place creating some great memories as well. For me and Bad Employees, it’s going to be great to be able to play our style of music for a different demographic than the 21 and up bar scene, and we are really excited about it.

“It could be the first time these young adults get to hear this style of music. I’m sure at first it might confuse them a little bit, but in the end I’m hoping to have made lots of new fans!

“We are also honored that David Steffie pushed so hard to have us play on the grand opening. Since meeting him he has always been a great supporter of not only our music and our band, but cool music in general, and is someone who is a lot of fun to be around for that reason, and also because he is such a laid back likeable guy.

“You can tell right away that he is doing this cause he loves it, and wants for others to enjoy music and art as much as he does, and is willing to work hard day and night to make it accessible to a younger generation.

“We were amped up when he asked us to play, and the answer was of course an easy decision, 'Yes.'”


Maybe nobody has more to add about HYAMP than Dana White. We caught up with the Holden Caulfield and Black Seas singer for a "Five Good Minutes" mp3 interview. It only sounds like the interviewer conducted the thing from the bath tub.

mp3: “A few good minutes” w/Dana White on HYAMP

Powered by Podbean.com

HYAMP Grand Opening
w/Talk Is Cheap, Scenes From a Movie (acoustic), Bad Employees, Universes, Some Like It Hot, DJ Charlie Brown Superstar
Saturday, March 12, 6 p.m. - 10 p.m.
533R 3rd Ave., Huntington
$5 cover, all-ages welcome

Related: H-D article on HYAMP re-opening; MU Parthenon piece on HYAMP re-opening; HYAMP post at Soft Rock Renegade

Untitled from HYAMP on Vimeo.


CD Review: "Normal"

CD: Normal
ARTIST: Spirit Night

Thank goodness Dylan Balliett didn’t ruin Spirit Night’s new five-song EP Normal by leaking or previewing any of the songs online. At least not that I saw. While there are only five songs on this new EP, I liked/loved What We Will Be enough to want to hear it in its entirety all at once on the first listen.

I don’t want this review to be taken as offense to any of the other bands whose CDs I may have tried to review, or be a referendum on the state of rock and roll, the music industry or people’s slavish attraction to the phenomenon of social media.

No, this review is about this music and what it means to me.

Why does anybody do what they do? Why do people write songs? Why do people run blogs covering people who do? Much less interview them trying to ask profound questions or feel them out as individuals like they necessarily have anything meaningful to say.

“Hey, you’re a rocker so what do you think about poverty or politics? You wrote a song about something so you must have some deep insight I don’t, because I didn’t write a song!”

There are a lot of mean jealous angry people who become “critics” as a vent or outlet for their own shortcomings, faults and failures. I’ve always tried to approach musicians with respect because writing and playing a good song isn’t easy or everyone would do it. Even people who wouldn’t be considered traditional “artists” in the musical sense, and who may invite much scorn and derision from more “mature” “critics,” if you will.

CD reviews describe the music, the sounds, arrangements, lyrics, vocals, singing atmosphere and production. But do you feel anything like an actual emotion? Balliett’s painfully honest, deeply insightful poetic lyrics are one, big, raw emotion. Whether you say the words are depressing or just have an up-off-the-floor hopeful charm, the words and the beautifully arranged songs resonate with me.

To the songs: Normal picks up pretty much where What We Will Be left off, musically and emotionally. As mentioned at the top of this “review” it would’ve sucked if for whatever reason it didn’t stack up to the debut because I liked it so much. Balliett didn’t need to change anything from the version of atmospheric indie-melodramatic-post rock on What We Will Be.

The title track opens the EP with the familiar acoustic-based ambience, emotive vocals, rich instrumental arrangements found on the debut. But fans will instantly notice bass (largely absent on the debut?) sporadic 8-bit distortion, and neat, almost schizophrenic layering of lo-fi vocals. A great sound for headphones, with enough subtle synth or sprinkled on distortion to give the songs the same effect dew on morning grass does -- it makes them glisten, gives them their own sonic translucence. Is that the right word?

Normal people, like the musicians they may or may not idolize, are these days able to present a postcard bumper sticker-type snap shot of their lives to other people online, whether it’s real or not. Sometimes people get sad or have bad days, and a lot of what you might see in the mostly shallow “friend” culture of something like Facebook isn’t a representative sample of people’s lives, thoughts and/or feelings; rarely as witty or as acerbic describing your own shortcomings as some are in quite passive-aggressively condemning people they’ll never meet.

Intentionally or not, Balliett touches on humanity’s seeming slavery to an online superego, when he sings on Normal:
“And I can’t wait
To e-mail you someday
And say that I miss you.
And I can’t wait
To e-mail you someday
And say that I’m normal.”
Balliett has moved from peeing in Gatorade bottles to the sink -- and he’s done it “like a champ.”

Balliett, like many others with an inkling of an artistic soul, takes his pain, loneliness, feelings of doubt or inadequacy -- something bad, right? -- and turns it into something beautiful and with a quite real feeling to it. Everybody feels lonely or sad sometimes, but few show it to others or open up about it.

Lyrically and at its acoustic core, Balliett’s songs sound like they’re written in isolation at 3 a.m. after a night with or without friends, or on a solo drive home the morning after -- whatever. It’s these times alone that Balliett is able to turn his own thoughts and emotions into something great. Most of the songs seem like love letters as opposed to cobbled together crack speak with catchy rhymes or neat turns of phrases.

“2:24” instantly features what is a huge asset to Spirit Night’s sound: a huge assortment of bells and percussion provided by Pete Wilmoth and on this song, Balliett’s use of the glockenspiel. With piano, bass and rolling heavy tom type rolls, and the bells, the song has the charm of a jewelry box that plays a tune with a dancing ballerina or something.

The great thing about the songs is that they would be great without the flowing soundscapes or studio tricks and effects; Spirit Night is really a vehicle for Balliett’s songwriting and musicianship -- he could likely play a lot of these songs solo with an acoustic and they’d still be just as great.

But that’s another thing that makes hearing new Spirit Night stuff exciting; the contributions of Balliett’s friends to his music. Whether it’s Wilmoth providing percussion of all types, or David F. Bello playing bass, or super neat sonic contributions from members of Librarians, the evolving cast of friends makes the songs seem even more special. Balliett seems like he’d be a good friend, and the songs, in addition to being intricately layered, simultaneously have the feel of something you could sing around a camp fire together with friends.

Normal also features a demo version of “Don’t Miss Me,” and whether you like this slightly more overdriven, slightly different still no less pretty version more than the one on the debut, I’ll just throw this out there: I’d rather hear Balliett’s rough cuts and mixes than most other bands final product. I’d rather see Balliett mess up a chord during a live solo show than see some band play a song they’ve played a thousand times in a hundred different towns for the same reason I love his music; the beauty in the brokenness, the flaws that make something sublimely great.

“Final Days,” with its faster, more upbeat “sunny” acoustic riffs and progressions, is kind of a standout track just for its sound. And like so much of Spirit Night’s music, the verbal imagery painted by Balliett matches up and vibes with the sound. Balliett, while describing himself as a “traveling shit show,” promises to take care of himself.
“I turned the family name
To a badge of shame
We must wear
Over the centuries,
Passed like the disease
That brought us there,
The destiny we share
And the color of our hair.”

“These aren’t the final nights:
I’ve still got some fights left in me.
But when you’ve lost every one
You’ve ever begun
Then you see
That it’s not worth your breath
To have feelings for anything.”
It’s always great when bands list their lyrics. I’m glad Spirit Night does, not necessarily because they’re hard to hear, but because they really are kind of poetic. Sometimes you could get the feeling bands don’t because on one level they know they aren’t saying anything meaningful or they know they’re using their music as one big put on -- as a false front. Nothing wrong with that really; rock and roll is replete with examples of people inventing new personas, but a lot of times, if there’s nothing there, people move on after long.

“The Weather” closes out Normal with a catchy, sunny admission from Balliett:
“I hope you don’t mind if I go on about the weather;
Sometimes I can’t think of things to say when we’re together.
I just want to be there,
I just want to be there next to you”
I’m probably not the only person who at one point or another has felt that the desperation is gone from rock music, or that every song that could be written has already been written, or that with all the crap that goes on in your day to day life it’s hard to connect with music anymore and feel like it means something.

I know I’m not the only one who feels the way I do about Spirit Night and Dylan Balliett. And maybe that’s the thing to take away from this long-winded rambling review; not only is Spirit Night a great name for Balliett’s musical vehicle for his own journey through life, his journal of day to day existence highlighting the sublime beauty of the pain of solitude -- attachment to others -- but the real joy of life in the end.

On a very real fundamental spiritual level people sometimes feel lonely; aside from twins or octuplets, we were born into the world alone confused and alone, and will likely leave it in the same way. In between birth and death real spiritual connections are made with friends and family. That is what I get from Spirit Night, a real connection. Who knew something free could be worth so much?

If powerful, evil people try to use music as a tool to lay self-destruction or hate on people, if there is that kind of war being waged on people, I’m even more proud to say I’m with Spirit Night. This release, I am very happy to write, did not disappoint.

Related: Saturday's the night for Spirit Night; Spirit Night Q&A Pt. one and two


Powerful Stuff: Michael J. Iafrate talks about his life and music

Michael J. Iafrate spends his time wrestling with the big questions, so it’s only fitting that he kicked out a new five-song EP in less than a day. With influences ranging from Noam Chomsky to Catholic Anarchy to social, environmental and economic justice, we caught up with the “theo-folk” rocker to ask some questions about “The Priesthood,” Christian Burial, and how punk rock and Christianity might co-exist.

WVRockscene: Were you ever able to snag R.E.M.’s “Tour Film” on DVD?
Michael J. Iafrate: Haha, no. I have the thing on VHS here somewhere. I remember seeing it on DVD in stores years ago, but haven’t tracked down a copy yet. Its a great film. The footage of “These Days” and “I Believe” is so good.

rockscene: So how did the recording go? Must’ve been productive for you to kick out an EP in your spare time, less than 24 hours?
Iafrate: We recorded the thing in about four hours and Dave mixed and mastered it that evening. It was up by 3 a.m. the next morning. We started recording sessions for the upcoming M Iafrate & The Priesthood record (Christian Burial) last week and I mentioned to Dave then that I had an idea for an acoustic EP that we could record quickly while we were working on the full length. After we finished drums tracks the other day, I recorded these five songs live. The only overdubs are the harmonica and piano tracks. The Christian Burial record has been a long time coming so I thought it would be nice to get a short recording out to tide people over. Two of the tracks on the EP will appear as full band versions on Christian Burial. Dallas Campbell, who plays bass in the Priesthood, contributed the “deer guts” photography for the record.

rockscene: How smoothly has it gone recording with Dave Klug? Get to have any fun or has it been just straight business? What is Lagunitas Maximus and would you recommend it?
Iafrate: Dave and I have been friends for years and we have been playing music and recording together for a long time. He’s obviously super professional in what he does, but we’re friends so of course we have fun.

The Laguntas Maximus you refer to is but one example of that. It’s one of the really good beers we were enjoying while recording. Other “fun” included Dave introducing me to some great Pittsburgh restaurants, the movie The Road, and that show Tosh-something-or-other. I tried to get him to stay up and watch Anti-Christ with me but he bailed after twenty minutes. I don’t actually blame him.

rockscene: No Matter How Deep the Darkness, He Descends Deeper Still is named after (apparently) a book by Anthony Coniaris, about Jesus going into Hell, have you read that and why did you call the EP by the same name?
Iafrate: I have not read the book, no, but you are right that that is where the title comes from. I’m working on a doctorate in theology through a school in Toronto and while I was living there I worked at a theological book store. At one point we were selling Coniaris’ book and the title just grabbed me. I jotted it down and have had it in mind as an album or EP title ever since. And the title sort of suggested what kinds of songs might be on such a record. At one point I thought I might call the upcoming full length by that name, but decided against it and saved it for later.

“Later” is actually now, though, to my surprise. And right now that title called for these five songs to kind of flesh out various aspects of what that title means. I like the title of the record a lot, but I have mixed feelings about its meaning. The notion that Jesus shares in human suffering, and that humans share in Jesus’ suffering, is a long-held idea in Christianity. But the title kind of comes off like “Hey, you think you’re suffering? Jesus had it worse!” And I don’t think that’s necessarily historically true, nor does it necessarily generate the kind of solidarity-in-suffering that Christianity should generate. Maybe it does, I don’t know. Anyway, they are good, interesting words and they provoke thought and evoke some true feelings.

rockscene: These covers you do on the EP, they must be longtime favorites of yours, right?
Iafrate: They’re not necessarily “favorites” but they are songs I liked enough to want to cover and that I thought should come out of me at this point in time. The Priesthood used to cover “I Am The Bread Of Life” as a full band when we first started playing with this lineup.

“Take My Will” is a Jandek song that struck me a long time ago. I like the disconnect between the verses and the chorus. And it is one of those Jandek songs that actually has a discernable melody that I could stick a real chord progression behind and turn it into a more “traditional” song. Fans of Jandek know what I’m talking about. The Jayhawks song is just a really gorgeous and true song I really like right now.

rockscene: It’s so great to see someone whose faith not only motivates their music but also their actions in the world and being a force for justice and populist and/or progressive causes, from economic to environmental. Contrasting this with the more fascistic, reactionary types, to what extent does your faith and devotion to real social justice influence you, musically, personally and of course spiritually? How might you be able to have punk and spiritual ethos coexist?
Iafrate: These are tough questions and I’m not confident I’ve worked out answers to them for myself. I’ve always been a “religious” person but what that has meant for me has undergone pretty radical changes over the years. I’ve become increasingly critical of the religious cultures that I have grown up in and continue to be connected to. At the same time, the “spiritual” dimension of life is central enough for me that I’ve made a vocational investment to the academic study of theology. One reason why religious themes and images make their way into my music is simply the old saying “Write what you know.” I spend so much time reading and thinking and writing about the stuff, it’s just bound to come out in my songs.

But in addition to that, I think all people are “religious” in the sense that we all tend to wrestle to some degree with questions of ultimate value and of the passions that motivate how we live in this world. So my “faith,” or whatever you want to call that intentional wrestling, hopefully influences everything in my life, including my music. At the same time, I would emphatically deny that what I do is “Christian” or “religious” or “spiritual” music. The issues are more complicated than that kind of categorization will allow.

As far as the relationship between punk and spirituality goes, I’ve never personally felt the need to force the values or impulses of the two to get along or coexist. Punk in its various forms has always engaged spirituality, whether positively or negatively. Even when they’ve expressed a rejection of religion, I have always liked to think that most punks actually care about spirituality to such a degree that they feel the need to reject many dominant, middle and upper-class, and indeed fascistic forms of religion. For me, the radical impulse of early Christianity and the radical impulse of punk rock have some interesting similarities. I’m actually exploring some of these connections now in my academic work as well, especially through a group of theologian-musicians called the Rock and Theology project.

rockscene: Back to the music; when can we expect Christian Burial to be out?
Iafrate: We’re going to keep working hard on it through the spring and along the way we’ll come up with an interesting way to release it. We have some buddies playing here and there as guest musicians on it, so late summer might be pushing it. The fall would probably be a better prediction.

Related: Magic Town helps MAYSP this 9/11 (Iafrate Q&A)