Bringing a new band into a local music scene and being successful can rely on many “lightning in a bottle” moments. A surprise radio hit or a lucky write-up in a favorite local altweekly newspaper. Perhaps a few small gigs gain the group some traction through homegrown word of mouth? Maybe there’s a friendly callout from another band a bit higher on the totem pole?
If you’re local Doom Metal masters Blessed Black, all it took was one massive debut and a truckload of riffs — plus a massive amount of preparation.
Blessed Black’s debut in November 2018 at the popular Ironfest event at Newport’s Southgate House Revival was in front of a packed room and caused a large percentage of the night’s bangovers the next day. For many, the band came out of nowhere, but, in reality, vocalist/guitarist Joshua Murphy, guitarist Chris Emerson, drummer Ray Bates and bassist Jens Nielson had been preparing for a year, ever since Murphy’s tour with his other band — Thrash Metal titans War Curse — was wrapping up.
“Chris and I have been friends since 2010,” Murphy says. “We met through (a mutual friend) and we all played in a Post Punk band and it didn’t really go anywhere. But we always kept in contact, always hung out, played in little projects. I was on tour with War Curse on the West Coast and we had all talked about how, when we got back, we weren’t going to do the typical ‘band practice twice a week’ thing.”
Murphy was looking for different creative outlets and immediately thought of Emerson.
“My favorite band is High on Fire and they have been for I can’t even tell you how long,” he says. “And I’ve always wanted to do a doomier (project). I think I was in the van on the way home (and called Emerson): ‘When I get back, I’ve got some stuff. Do you want to jam?’ ”
Bates, a longtime friend and former bandmate of Murphy’s, joined shortly thereafter, with Nielson being the final piece of the Blessed Black puzzle. Nielson’s enlistment was fairly serendipitous.
“We found Jens, believe it or not, on Craigslist — even though we all knew him,” Murphy says. “We had a Craigslist ad out and (Emerson) hit me up saying, ‘Some dude name Jens answered.’ ”
“And I was like, ‘There’s only one Jens,’ ” he says with a laugh.
With the lineup finalized, the quartet hopped into the writing process. What started as a traditional Doom project quickly morphed into something with more depth, rooted in traditional Heavy Metal. Blessed Black has been compared to Mastodon, Baroness, Khemmis, early The Sword and many others. But the band comparison that all four members can agree on doesn’t exactly fit into that sludgy mold: With a finely tuned mix of riffs and melody, Alice in Chains is the common thread and really characterizes exactly where Blessed Black’s songwriting takes them.
The crux of a Blessed Black song is undeniably the riff. They snake through the entirety of each track and do what all Doom riffs do — get stuck in your brain meat and stick around for the foreseeable future. But there’s an uncharacteristic sense of urgency beneath the guitar work.
The riffs and the songs as a whole are always driving forward. Murphy, Emerson and Nielson rarely sit on a riff; at most, they’ll give it a quick breather before charging forward to the next part of the song. Pair this with Bates’ crisp and energetic drumming and you have a recipe that goes beyond the low-and-slow Doom trappings that many bands can fall into. They are songs that you can lose yourself in, but not in a meditative way. Blessed Black’s trip is a bumpy one.
Flying over the riff-laden bombast are Murphy’s vocals, which are delivered at a higher register than one would expect for the genre. But that only helps further differentiate Blessed Black from their contemporaries. The vocals are clean, polished and powerful; not bad for a guy who’d never been lead singer before.
"I’ve always been the guy that backed other people up,” Murphy says. “I never felt like I was the frontman.”
Due to his inexperience, much of Murphy’s vocal style was nailed down in the studio as he tried out different deliveries, with Emerson giving notes after each take. It was a do-or-die situation that worked out in the band’s favor. But Murphy didn’t make it easy on himself. Not only was he writing lyrics during his vocal-identity discovery period, he also chose to write them based solely on a 1970s fantasy novel: Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné.
“It was hard. It was really fucking hard,” he says. “Moving forward, there’s not going to be any more concept shit; it’s just going to be me writing lyrics.
“When you’re stuck writing about once specific character and book, it really limits where you can go with things. It was a challenge but I’m really glad I finished it.”
The musicians overcame the trials put before them and are set to finish the recording of their anticipated debut album, Beyond the Crimson Throne, in late March, with a digital release tentatively slated for April.
But back in November, they were an untested band with a couple of singles on Bandcamp.
Murphy sent Ironfest head honcho John Gerhardt one of the tracks and that was enough to secure the quartet a prime slot at the two-day festival. The room was filled from the first note to the last (a rarity at an event defined by constantly rotating bands on three stages). Blessed Black’s debut live appearance announced the band to Cincinnati metalheads in a major way, but its rookie status wasn’t completely smoothed over. Bates was testing his in-ear monitors and rode his hi-hat cymbal a bit to make sure all was well with his gear. Murphy misinterpreted this as a count-in to the first song, causing Blessed Black to introduce themselves to their soon-to-be fans a bit earlier than planned. Still, the band recovered swiftly and the show was, by all accounts, a success.
Blessed Black went one calendar year from formation to that Ironfest debut and have since been working to keep earning new fans and further cement the love of early adopters. Now, with a full album on the horizon, more live shows in the works and new riffs being brought to every practice, just imagine what they can do with the rest of 2019.