Groove Metal With Swag
By Michael Aronovitz
(Band Photo Credits to Marie Randall)
Groove Metal is bad-ass if it’s done right. Blacklist 9 does it better. A band from Los Angeles, this quartet is ready for the world. Right now. I just listened to their debut album, Mentally Ill, Legally Sane, that is being released March 22nd, 2019 from Eclipse Records, and my ears are still smoking. Hey, I’m about the bottom-line. I like it hard and I like it deep, as in the base of the backbone, and the best way for me to describe this project is to make a request of their many future listeners. Let them be your driver’s seat. Let them take you places. Get fucking high off of it, rude rush, giving it to you front ways, sideways, and right down the middle. It’s not an intellectual process, folks, at least not at first. It’s about Blacklist 9 making you feel like you have the swag you didn’t realize was in you.
And fuck it, I’m going to break some of the rules. Most rock reviewers give the bio first, but I’m sorry, Mentally Ill, Legally Sane is just too connected to my opening paragraph to break up my rhythm. I’m being selfish. It’s their fault, Blacklist 9; they are instigators, making their listeners feel like they can take on the world and carve something into it proving their own “wow” factor. Musically, of course, Blacklist 9 are superior. They are an Eclipse band after all, and this particular label always puts out the very best, we all know this.
For me, this album is a full-blown feature film, and I mean that metaphorically and also in a rather literal sense. Most albums are songs, that’s it, end of story…sometimes awesome, other times still-shots of the same subject over and again from slightly different angles. The records that are the weirdest to me, however, are those that have one or two tracks that rock you to mars, then all these other efforts that are stale, repetitive, predictable, and forgettable. To the point, I often wish albums were like movies, not so much as we are offered by the given concept record or the all-out rock opera, but simply an aesthetic that has each composition pitch-in for the whole, every tune independent in its own poetic illustration, but also standing tall as a clear element contributing to a unified explosion.
To be clear, the best movies have great scenes, yet also keep you riveted for the broad expanse of the comprehensive experience. On a holistic platform, we ask then, what do good movies look like with the skin off? What is their construct? In terms of the definition in literary terms there is a conflict or trap, an intriguing rise to a climax, and last, a resolution, either pleasant, ironic, melancholy, or horrific, pick your flowerbed, pick your poison. There is a protagonist and an antagonist, strong images, and maybe a theme. As for overall effect. we don’t “watch” good films, we live them, because expert execution of the singular elements will deliver the whole of the package to us on a platter.
Do a deep dive into this record, my friends.
I did, and here is my metaphorical “movie-dance.”
First, the album cover. This rivals any movie poster I have ever seen. Dark-eyed doll with a spooky cracked face. I am mesmerized from the get-go. Currently, I’m writing a horror novel with part of it featuring a scare-doll theme, and you can bet your ass I am going to have my agent contact the designer of this cover art: Prateek Mishra.
Next, the band bio works well here, because the opening song, “Azzip,” sounds like one of those fright-fest introductions where the film shows us the opening credits by chilling our veins. From the record, we get this strange tap with an echo, strings (bass I think) popping, faster and faster, bass drum, power chord elongated and rising, then a vocal that rips us a new ribcage. In the world of the literal, it is fitting to tell you here that Blacklist 9 is a father-son team initially: Lonnie Silva on drums (formerly of Black Sheep and Impelliteri) and his son Kyle Silva on guitar. Vocals are performed by Graham Fletcher, and bass by Ray Burke. The record is produced by Jeff Collier and mastered by Frank Gryner (Rob Zombie, A Perfect Circle, Coal Chamber). My version of this cinematic opening gem would have all of the above letters in bleeding, Gothic style font on black backdrop.
The first full song, “Stand in Line,” gives us that sweeping, panoramic setting shot, maybe showing the cityscape, dark and corroded. Musically, the tune has a solid hook and the intricate dynamics of Fletcher’s vocal as the words themselves are quite clear and he mixes traditional voice with the deep growl for the purpose of punch.
“Kali Smile” would be our antagonist showing off his equipment warehouse or basement torture chamber, maybe offering slo-mo shots of him screaming from the rooftops with mud spattered storm drains. Next, might come a flashback of what ruined him in the past at the 2:35 mark, where the musical theme changes. Still, the awesome thing about the tune is the absolute groove from square one, proving that “bad guys” aren’t cardboard and metal isn’t all about faceless, mechanistic speed. I realize that “Madness” (cut 5) is their first video (excellent in its own right) yet my choice for the first single is here.
“Down” has another incredible groove, and filmatically, our antagonist starts to execute his dark vision. Musically, this is exemplified with the lyrics, “I’ll bury you into the ground,” and as we have heard prior on the record, I’ll mention here that Kyle Silva’s guitar work in the solo areas remains ultimately satisfying. He has speed-licks, yet doesn’t depend on them like someone showing off his practice scales. His leads are tasteful, relevant to the given vibe, finely orchestrated, and almost written like songs within themselves. He wails when it is time to weep. He rips when it’s time to burn. It’s an equation for success, a listener’s thrill-ride.
“Madness” is the filmatic rise of the unexpected hero, someone coming of age straight into the fabric of madness spun by the world. The musical play here is the “question-answer” of the deep growl vocal on one side and the advancing traditional vocal on the other. Many bands depend on the low register screamo-effect for the entire portfolio, and I was always against this. Come off that way, and all I see is the monster. Give me a mirror, like Blacklist 9 provides, and I see my dark self as reflected in my heroes and villains. Different semantics. I’ll take the latter every day of the week.
“Liars” is the twist, the part in our imaginary film where the one who must prevail is brutally betrayed, making the hero turn evil to change our world view. Instrumentally, we have an echo of the question-answer theme, and again, a guitar solo that proves originality still exists in the genre of music we know so well and love so damned faithfully.
“Mental Hostage” is the superlative climax, where one antagonist will go up against the other – the evil up against the disillusioned innocent. The issue most notable in reference to the instrumentation, is that Lonnie Silva proves here that he can pound those double bass drums as fast as the best of them. Moreover, the cinematic and musical themes converge to prove to us that we are hostage to circumstance with no room (nor time) for morality. This is our dark epiphany that rocks us in the heart and the hips.
“Legally Sane” is the resolution, and it’s one of dark irony, where the city burns and the machine of societal evil wins out in the end. We are drained. We are happy, we are angry (in a good way), fuck it, put on the record from the beginning again.
The lyrical push of Blacklist 9 rings similar to the effect of the music behind it. Funny, my metaphorical film version of Mentally Ill, Legally Sane is hauntingly similar to the actual wording the band utilizes, often concerning politics, corruption, anger, and angst. I just made theirs my own, and I always believed that lyrics were a separate issue from the music in this way, even separate somehow from the vocal. Often, we don’t take the words literally, but more as a part of the collective product phonetically. A prime example of this would be that old 70’s song, “Hot Blooded” by Foreigner, one of my childhood faves. Frankly, the lyrics as poetry, are terrible. Infantile. Worse than what a bunch of middle school kids could come up with on the playground five minutes before the bell, yet I always loved the lyrics as a sort of etching on top of the addictive rhythm guitar. Luckily, with Blacklist 9, we don’t have to make such a distinction. Their lyrics are top notch.
So is the record.
Highly, highly recommended.
Michael Aronovitz is a horror novelist, rock reviewer, and college professor.
MHF Magazine/Michael Aronovitz