In Like a Lion
Rock-and-rollers once distressed Middle America with a few pelvic thrusts and a smattering of suggestive lyrics. This phenomenon evolved into a penchant to outdo the competition with the most outlandish psychosexual and/or Satanic imagery available. Then punk, metal, thrash, hardcore and countless other genres and subgenres took turns pushing the speed and cacophony toward infinity. In the 21st century, hard rock's shock value is so faded that you almost expect to see a naked, bleeding vocalist on stage.
For Denver's Black Lamb, fashion, image and nü-ness take a back seat to rock's tried-and-true tools: the bear-trap riff, the throbbing slabs of bass and the relentless backbeat. Led by a feral frontman with a hearty appetite for all things decadent, the band eschews the scare-the-suburban-mom tactics and instead focuses on building a brick wall of grimace and guitars.
"We're trying to bring back the guitar rock, the fucking power of '70s rock, " says guitarist Bill Stewart, "instead of this watered-down KBPI shit you've got all over the place. And we like a little Southern in our fried chicken."
"I guess we would describe our music as 'Commerce City soul music,'" says bassist Andy Pfeiffer, referring to the town where Black Lamb's practice space -- and Pfeiffer's residence -- is located. "That's really what it's all about -- just heavy blues, soul, rock and roll."
"We wanted to jump on the hipness of Commerce City," adds guitarist Ben Ryan.
Whatever you call it, Black Lamb's music is heavy -- and groovy. It's snarling, chugging, swerving, pedal-to-the-metal rock that often careers out of control but never quite wrecks the car. On stage, Stewart and Ryan provide the atomic hooks and solos, which are anchored by Pfeiffer's subtly funky rhythms and drummer Bryon Black's beats; Brian Hagman's feverish bellow crowns the sound. It's down and dirty, unadulterated and unpretentious: To paraphrase Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister, heavy metal, punk rock, stoner rock -- fuck it, this is rock and roll.
Technically, Black Lamb is Ryan's baby. The quiet, precise guitarist got things going in 2000 after a series of stints with short-lived acts that "always seemed to fizzle out for one reason or another," including the Arvada-based Agents of Chaos. When he decided to get serious about a new project, he got in touch with Stewart and Hagman, who had shared the stage in Wretched Refuse, another punk outfit from the north suburbs.
"We're alumni from a little Arvada scene we had going back in the early '90s," Hagman explains. "When Ben started the band, he called in different people he knew to come in to jam. All of us are veteran players in town, so we all just know each other from bands around town, from detox -- whatever."
Black Lamb was originally known as the Lambs, but a Scandinavian judge forced a moniker change early on. "We got a cease-and-desist from another band called the Lambs in Sweden," Ryan says. A name is a name, the players agreed, choosing to rebrand in lieu of navigating the Swedish judicial system.
Black Lamb "really came together" when Pfeiffer joined, Ryan recalls. A onetime member of local rap/metal fusers Blister 66, Pfeiffer brought a deft touch on the low notes and a sizable helping of Skynyrd-style boogie. After working with two previous drummers, Black Lamb found Black, whose first involvement with the band was as a fan. Black played guitar in the now-defunct Denver alt-rock act 40th Day in the early '90s; currently a double-duty drummer, he pounds the skins for Jet Black Joy as well as for Black Lamb.
"The first time I heard Black Lamb play, I was like, 'Holy fuck, man, that's some kick-ass shit!'" says Black. "I always wanted to play with them, because the music had that special kind of funky beat that I like, that special groove."
The members of Black Lamb all see their music as an antidote to the amphetamine chaos of thrash and hardcore. While punk was an answer to the art-rock sprawl of the early '70s, Black Lamb offers doses of pre-punk hard rock that Sid Vicious would have been too doped up to play. In the quintet's eyes, a little virtuosity never hurt anyone.
"I think all of us weren't as proficient of players when we started, and that's why we gravitated toward something more immediate, like punk," Hagman says, referring to his Wretched Refuse days. "Now that we're getting to a higher level as players, it's awesome to be able to play like some of the people we grew up listening to" -- bands like AC/DC, Black Sabbath and their motley peers.
"It's kind of like forgetting everything you ever learned and just start playing it all over again," says Pfeiffer. "One thing about Black Lamb is, we're kind of doing an old-school sound, so a lot of the older generation really enjoys us, and we've got the energy, so the young kids really like us."
"We're hippin' some people to something they might have overlooked when they were growing up," adds Hagman, relating a story that drives the point home. After a gig at Archer's in Fort Collins, he remembers, "We didn't think the manager was going to like us at all, but he was like, 'Oh, man, you remind me of when I was going to see Uriah Heep!' I said, 'If you just told me we reminded you of Uriah Heep, then I can die a happy man.'"
Black Lamb's music also tends to remind listeners of stoner rock. While it's convenient to categorize the music that way, Hagman sees the band as playing "just regular old rock." Prototypical stoner rock, he argues, has a sludgier tempo and trashier aesthetic than that found in Black Lamb's music. If there is a quality that the Lamb shares with stoner-rock outfits like Atomic Bitchwax and Speedealer, it's a tendency to chew up thirty-year-old power riffs like dogs on marrow.
"There's not really a whole lot of American bands doing what we're doing," says Pfeiffer. "There are actually more overseas bands doing this kind of stuff." He cites Great Britain's Orange Goblin, Japan's Eternal Elysium and the Texas-based Dixie Witch as evidence of an emerging style. "It's definitely going to grow here."
Black Lamb's songwriting is spontaneous and collaborative, with the exception of the lyrics, which are Hagman's invention. The subject matter is women, drugs, darkness, despair -- part Robert Johnson, part James Hetfield. "It's kind of like the blues, where you get a release or catharsis from saying, 'It's all right to be down; it's all right to live like this,'" Hagman says. "People are too PC these days. They don't really know how great it is to just get fucked up and get laid."
Exhibit A of Hagman's philosophy is "One in a Million," from the band's debut album, High and Mighty: "Flat on my back in a bathroom stall/I've got everything I'll ever want right here/Sex and drugs and piss and beer." Exhibit B is found with "Queen Separator," another track off of the recent release: "I'm gonna lay myself right here/And clutch the floor because you danced there/I'm way too sick to call any doctor/This kind of thing you cure with cancer."
Shakespeare it ain't, but Hagman's words have a certain raunchy swagger, authenticated -- for better or worse -- by their author's fondness for intoxicants and the mental haze of the smoky barroom. Whether this attitude will eventually land Hagman in rehab, the penitentiary or an early grave remains a topic for conjecture.
"I don't really have a philosophy in the debauchery department," he says. "Just wake up breathing." Once the hangovers dissipate, his benders often provide source material for his art.
Wildman inclinations help Hagman bring an unkempt charisma to the stage, and he plays the rock-singer role well. "I believe in what I'm doing, and I think you can see that," he says. "I'm not the greatest singer and I'm not the greatest frontman, but when you see me up there, I think you can tell that I don't want to be anywhere else."
Hagman's carousing may have led indirectly to Black Lamb's sponsorship by Jägermeister, something that materialized after he met a rep for the brand. "We support the product; it's a great product," he says. The deal is part of a substantial corporate marketing push dubbed "Jägermusic," wherein the company supplies bands with promotional schwag -- branded ball caps, branded blinking pins, branded whatever -- to dole out at their local shows. (A hidden incentive for the band: innumerable shots of the thick black liqueur bought for them by crowd members during shows.) "It kind of goes along with our whole theme -- or my whole theme, anyway," Hagman says.
"It's like having a Colombian cartel sponsor you," Black says, laughing. (Adds Stewart, à la Scarface: "Tony Montaña presents Black Lamb.")
Compared with Hagman's, Ryan's cravings are pretty mild. "I love food," he says. "Barbecue. Chicken wings." Fittingly, the original Black Lamb van -- known as Darth Econoline -- died with 262,000 miles on the clicker in the parking lot of a barbecue joint.
"We're going to get him a custom-made guitar that you can actually barbecue out of," jokes Stewart. "The Ronco Les Paul Deluxe Barbecue Grill."
Beyond his skills with the spatula, Ryan is also pretty handy with knobs and dials, as evidenced by the 64-track digital bay he manned for the production of Black Lamb's self-released High and Mighty. Recorded with drummer Nick Miller (Black's jazz-metal-oriented predecessor, whom Pfeiffer labels "way overqualified for Black Lamb"), the platter effectively captures both the mayhem and the funk, but it didn't come easily. After a first stab at a record last year, "we all decided as a band that it wasn't to the level that we wanted," Ryan says. So they shelved the tracks and started over.
This second attempt produced better results, and Ryan was able to reconcile his perfectionism with the problems inherent in recording one's own band. In the end, Pfieffer says, the album "definitely represents Black Lamb."
With Black aboard, the band also recorded (and self-released) the Pillar of Salt EP earlier this year; the three fiery tracks suggest a group that's honing its sound with each passing gig. (Ryan and company originally recorded this material for Rocky Mountain Oyster, a now-postponed compilation of local rock and punk; that project's delay led the members of Black Lamb to take matters into their own hands.)
While Black Lamb plans to shop its material to labels of all stripes, the group does not see a recording contract as its be-all, end-all goal. "Major labels will never again be able to dictate what we are forced to listen to, just because of the advent of the Internet," argues Black. "It doesn't matter anymore whether you are signed to a major label or an indie label. All we need is distribution."
The evolution of the music business notwithstanding, Black Lamb is a live band, at its best face-to-face with an audience. It broadened its fan base in April with a short Laramie-Missoula-Park City tour. With the exception of the "LoDo crowd" in Park City -- and a quartet of colds caught in Montana -- Hagman says this first tour was a resounding success, with Stewart giving especially high marks to a pair of "hot midgets" at the Missoula show.
Back in Denver, Black Lamb's assessment of the rock scene is less than ecstatic. While the group has scored opening gigs for a number of national acts (Clutch, Gaza Strippers and Mudhoney among them), Stewart labels the local rock climate lukewarm, with fickle audiences that jump on national bandwagons rather than ride local vehicles for the long haul. "This scene could definitely use a kick in the ass," he says.
Then comes Ryan's lightning-quick addendum: "And we are that kick in the ass."
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