It's a steamy summer night, and a sweaty power trio is ripping through one sludgy jam after another. On one wall of their practice space hangs a UV-illuminated picture of two scimitar-wielding ogres looking down on the band with cartoonish ferocity. Like their poster-bound namesakes, Blacklight Barbarian are a reminder of another era, when music wasn't yet synonymous with industry and distortion didn't come from a pedal.
Although they've had a local presence for several years, this is a more compact incarnation of the band. After a string of local gigs with national acts (including Alabama Thunderpussy and Orange Goblin) and invitations to a number of festivals, the sudden exodus of several members forced the band to reinvent itself.
"Our momentum came to a screeching halt when three people walked out," recalls bassist and founder Chris Owens. He was the frontman previously, but out of necessity and desire to get back to playing an instrument he returned to the bass. You'd never guess he had a hiatus, as he pummels the fretboard combining the foundational qualities of bass with the fullness of rhythm guitar.
The other holdover from the old lineup is guitarist Ryan Ferrier, who was introduced to the band by one of the former Barbarians (whom he was simultaneously playing with in Hekura). Ferrier was initially brought on as an extra guitarist, but in the downsized lineup he sings as well.
This move was one of the band's major shifts, as Ferrier's voice has a retro, vocal-chord shredding style reminiscent of Blue Cheer or AC/DC. Along with his fuzzed-out riffs scattered with lead licks, this new focus for the band is helping them connect with audiences.
"The old sound was more Cock Rock, chugga-chugga Metal, you know?" relates Ferrier. "We have more Blues influence now, more dynamics and a more fun, catchy sound. All great Rock music has that hooky aspect of Pop. Even Led Zeppelin had it."
The pair carried on with a new drummer for some time, but his recent departure forced them to hunt for a replacement. A mutual friend introduced them to Scott Whisner, a Prog Rock-oriented drummer with whom he'd collaborated in a basement project for almost 10 years. "He knew I wanted to play in a serious band," Whisner says, "so he gave me up." Whisner's technical skill adds yet another new dimension to the band, while their concentration on '70s Blues/Rock is also an education for him. "I was brought up on Prog stuff and drummer-driven Jazz. Lots of Dave Weckl. Everything from the hardest Metal there is to Paula Cole."
The latter comment elicits stares from his bandmates. Finally Owens breaks the ice. "That's OK, man, I have a serious Joni Mitchell fetish."
All three chide one another in a brotherly manner, and this camaraderie is allowing them to progress quickly. Explains Owens, "We have zero drama, everybody is totally in it all the way. A lot of positive things are happening for us now."
They're currently looking forward to a club tour in August. A lot of the dates are tentative, but their excitement is apparent. Ferrier, who does some extended camping every year, is especially enthused. "My whole dream is to combine my two greatest loves, travel and music," he says. "If I'm touring, I'm golden."
This will give the band a chance to seek out more like-minded artists, as there are few in Cincinnati. "We see classified ads for bands wanting to sound like Kyuss, but we never hear them," Owens says. Few speak with more authority on the subject than Owens, who created Blacklight Promotions last year as a vehicle to get more heavy bands to stop in Cincinnati. Through a combination of persistence and congeniality, the venture became successful, eventually booking larger acts such as Mastodon and Clutch.
For now, Blacklight Barbarian is at the forefront of local bands really paying homage to '70s Riff Rock and not watering it down with Metal, even if they do disagree on whether the "Stoner Rock" moniker is applicable.
"Do you think you have to be stoned to enjoy our music?" Owens asks his bandmates, who simply continue to smile coyly. Enough said.
BLACKLIGHT BARBARIAN performs Sunday at The Comet with Valkyrie Rides.