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Roll over Beethoven, there’s a new sheriff in town! I hate using the term “supergroup,” because I feel throwing that phrase around is a bunch of horse hockey. Hell, I know for a fact that Molasses Barge themselves hate the term “supergroup!” But someone put a puck on the ground, and I guess I’ll play, because Pittsburgh quintet Molasses Barge cull the best of the best from the Steel City scene, and are certainly deserving of the often loathed term.
We’ve got Brian “Butch” Balich and his booming pipes (Penance, Argus), Justin Gizzi’s (Chano, Liquified Guts) superb licks and trade-offs with the equally groovin’ Ken Houser (Plastered Bastards, Wrathcobra, a touring stint with the superb Behind Enemy Lines), and the steadfast, rhythmic crunch of hard-hittin’ drummer Wayne Massey (Chano), and low-end queen Amy Bianco (Motorpsychos)…shit, there’s probably 20 other bands I’m forgetting to name from this set of players’ collective resume, but I think you get the gist. These folks have been around the block and they’re peddlin’ a mean, slinky classically minded doom/hard rock agenda full of 90s stoner swagger! They’re aces on stage, without a single doubt in my mind (please watch Gizzi and Houser at all times in the live setting, because they trade licks like the guitar greats of yore), and after a bit of waiting we’ve finally arrived at their first proper release, the Jewels EP.
Jewels is an epic, 4-part thunderfuck mantra with breaks between tracks, even though this particular rock n’ roll chef recommends you serve the final product as an uninterrupted whole. It’s like Penance, the entire Maryland doom scene, and Kyuss circa Welcome To Sky Valley, all congealed in the same time and space, and decided to cut a few seamless tracks together. “I” enters with a triumphant, brain smacking beat from Massey, vintage rock n’ roll skinsmanship all the way, leading his troops into a fuzzy, easy rollin’ groove that’s chockfull of all the necessary kinetics to incite heads a bangin’ in glorious, alcohol drenched seizure. The riffs just roll through this hazy, stoner fog that kind of takes and builds on the laid back groove, and explosive outbursts of Kyuss and their landmark work, but incorporates a little more traditional doom into the mix, illustrated by the quick little lead guitar runs, and the limber, pocket pushing power of the rhythm section (Amy’s not buried at all in the mix, and keeps a good flow going beneath her band mates). Over top of everything Butch stands like the last man to survive the apocalypse, defiantly standing on a tower of skulls, as he belts it out to the sky. Further fleshing out this most excellent opener, is a trio of breaks fronted by smoked-out riffs, and brilliantly accentuated cymbal taps from Massey, that adds a lot of character and whip-cracking energy to the proceedings.
Once the blistering buzz, and roar of “I” fades out, “II” and it’s close companion “III” take center stage. These two pieces interlock so well, and are obviously meant to flow intricately into each other. “II” opens with sinking bass chords, and stripped-down, clean guitars that linger on a few spacious notes, giving the listener a moment of respite to brace themselves for the billowing waves of thick, distorted doom riffs, and tectonic rhythmic churns that are to come. A bloated, ugly groove cuts through the sinewy riffage, triggering Massey to go ape on his drums with a bone-crunching roll, signifying the rest of his band mates to kick into a furious, up-tempo wall of stony riffs, and low-end boogie. A brief, skin ripping little lead dances effectively beneath the weighty sludge swing, as Butch expectorates some particularly high tension vocals. As the speed subsides shortly thereafter, the burden carrying trudge of “III” kicks in full bore with a sludge-y churn that’s ornerier and much more dangerous than a pack of warthogs with their asses on fire. Bowel evacuating riffs, and reverse time rhythms hit with plenty of impact, and it sounds like there’s some seriously phased out FX on either the bass or the guitar. Offsetting the slug trail, molasses doom of the verses are enticing snippets of more traditionally, Sab/Obsessed grooved doom, although I’d like to say that the overall heaviness approaches titans like Earthride and Turambar in terms of sheer, spine-snapping grandeur. Butch’s ominous singing in this one ices the cake, and his deep, bellowing voice nails the powerful lows, and rises to the caterwauling highs in just the way it needs to be done.
Jewels winds down with the instrumental “IV,” a brilliant, hypnotic piece that sees a meditative aura surging through the repetitive, ethereal rhythms, whilst guitarist Ken Houser develops a searing intimacy with his axe, winding his way across smooth, Maryland doom tinged leads, effectively trading off bits with Gizzi (Justin plays the first lead, and Ken takes over for approximately the next 5 minutes), as the dual guitar wonders just create this warm, cozy blanket around the etherized drum n’ bass workout.
This is a great EP through and through… At first I felt the sound quality was a little muffled, but I found a proper listening ritual channeled through blaring stereo speakers to be absolute enlightenment. Molasses Barge have a huge sound live, and a huge sound on this EP, and by that 1 + 1 = 2 equation, this mathematical novice can deduce that the Barge is best experienced with big league sound. The recording has a real charm to it via that medium (I like it fuzzy, you know me!), and the tones are dense and distorted, but with enough clarity to make each individual player stick out. To repeat the first part of this conclusion one last time for effect, Jewels is a priceless gem for the doom treasure seeker. I’ve spun it countless times since I grabbed it at the last show, and I’ll count my lucky stars that the big chunk of material played live that’s not on this record, will be making a recorded appearance soon! Highly recommended.