Vincent Black Shadow's heaviness straddles many lines--punk and psych, DIY and rock 'n' roll
A brief list of things pleasant and comfortable to do while under the influence of psychedelic drugs: running through the woods, enjoying the company of a small group of close friends, staring, hanging out in a closet. Thrashing around a bunch of elbows at a hardcore show is not on that list. Extend that to music and not much changes--psych is still a place to bliss out and switch up your awareness for a while. Punk is tactile, immediate, and harsh--it doesn't much care for an extended riff or rolling groove.
Which makes Baltimore five-piece Vincent Black Shadow a rare and interesting beast. VBS vocalist Adam Savage's voice is brutally harsh, a scraping, primordial instrument that shields lyrics like barbed wire. It easily distracts from music that, underneath, churns with licks and spaced-out sounds. It's a kind of harsh cipher for a band that excels at splitting hairs; musically, between stoner/psych rock and abusive punk, and, music community-wise, between record collector-punk, art-school DIY, and straight-up rock 'n' roll. There aren't many bands that can jump so seamlessly between Whartscape, Hampdenfest, and heavy music reserves like the Sidebar or this weekend's Filth City Fest.
"'Psychedelia' is really a kind of buzz word," says guitarist Dan O during an interview around a couple of pitchers at the Mount Royal Tavern. "It almost seems to imply a kind of fey, otherworldly connotation."
"Which we didn't want to be," Savage chimes in. "We wanted to be more honest, direct, and primal."
Indeed, take the big snarled knot of guitar-cum-smoldering electronics and coarse-grain howls of "Flash Roll" off 2008's sophomore release More Deeper, which the band marries to big, saturated riffs reaching up from the acidic murk. The split impulses are weird in the best way.
"We're urbanites, we're not mellow," Dan O says. "We live in a city and elements of the city come out of the band. A lot of us were hardcore kids before [VBS]. We were into grindcore and stuff like that."
Vincent Black Shadow has been together for four years this month, forming through a collection of friendships and earlier bands. "I was not the first choice" of vocalists, Savage explains, laughing. "I wanted to do it, but I wasn't the first."
"Then the other choice shit the bed," Dan O clarifies.
As complex and, in some ways, very retro and traditional--though drawing on very different traditions--Savage's vocal lashes are often the most immediate thing in a VBS song. "Collectively, we were digging on a lot of psych stuff," Dan O says. "We were into stoner rock, a lot of '70s rock. We didn't really have a concrete idea of how we wanted to blend that stuff. The first record was--"
"--rough around the edges," drummer Rufus Platt interrupts.
Relentlessly, the self-titled record was compared to the Stooges. "It documented what we were doing then really well," Savage says. "We're just in a different place now."
"Yeah, [we] definitely developed," Dan O adds. "[We're] more deliberate, I guess, in what we want to do." The band is very specific about what that is. "[We're] harnessing the excess vibe of the '70s without all of the production values," he says.
"We created the term 'Baltamont,'" Platt adds, referring to the legendary '60s rock concert turned melee.
"Take riff-oriented, delayed-out effected rock, and make it urgent," Dan O explains. "Stoner rock doesn't really achieve that, psychedelia doesn't really. It seems like a no-brainer to create that synthesis between '70s rock and hardcore punk, or whatever you want to call it. But not with a serious or angry vibe."
The result appeals to a broader swath of listeners than a band this harsh--on its face, anyhow--should have a right to, making it remarkably in-demand and one of the more frequent faces in local rock clubs. "This summer's been our best summer in Baltimore," Dan O says.
"Before More Deeper, we were always kind of polarizing," Savage says. "That was something that always troubled me. We were not punk enough for punk kids, not DIY enough for college kids, not psych enough for psych kids. I was, like, if we can do all of these things and get a good reception we can [reach] all of these people. Hopefully eventually that will happen, but I was worried for a while."
Though Vincent Black Shadow recently came out on top of a rather silly skirmish over its name--two bands battling over an already copyrighted trademark (for the infamous motorcycle)--it's currently hunting for a record label to put out its third proper full-length after amicably parting ways with Baltimore-friendly micro-indie Heartbreakbeat Records.
For now though, Vincent Black Shadow appears to be doing just fine without a label. And, as labels become more and more tools for marketing to specific groups of people/stand-ins for PR agencies--if not just plain unnecessary--it almost makes more sense for the band to be going it alone. Dan O quips, "It's not fun if you think something is expected of you."