Solarburn – 13 (self-released, 14 September 2012)
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you — in my opinion — the #1 CD from all of 2012. Not only one of the best bands I’ve ever heard in Pittsburgh, but one of the best bands I’ve ever heard. And I stumbled into being a huge fan of theirs, almost by accident. Or some might call it fate.
See, these guys had included one of their songs (“C-Section”) on the Innervenus Music Collective‘s free Pittsburgh metal sampler, Iron Atrocity V.2 — a collection which I heard and wrote about when it was released last summer.
At the time, I was impressed by the Solarburn track, given that I’ve always been fond of instrumental metal music anyway, and (as I said in that article about the compilation), this song sounded “way heavier, more ballsy, and well, just plain more interesting than a bunch of the aimless noodly shit that’s out there.”
I also recall somebody involved with Innervenus talking about this particular song when the compilation was made public — I can’t find the exact quote, now, so I will paraphrase — playing the song for another person, that other person reportedly said something about how the song was absolutely perfect, and he kept hoping that nobody would start singing and fuck things up.
I was also intrigued to learn that the band had been working on a full-length album (which was to be unveiled at a show in mid-September), and thought that I might want to check that out — the new CD at least, even if I ended up not being able to make it to that show.
Anyway, within the next few weeks I heard about what was called the R.A.N.T. (Rock All Night Tour) in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I wrote an announcement that this all-day free music festival was happening, and what really caught my eye was the fact that the renowned local pirate rock band, The Bloody Seamen, were playing a show that evening. I’d been wanting to get a chance to check them out ever since I’d seen a few of their videos, so that’s just what the wife and I had planned on doing.
Well once we got to the Thunderbird Cafe, where the “punk” show was taking place, it was already extremely crowded for such a small area — and people just kept coming and coming, to the point where we felt pretty claustrophobic, and couldn’t find anywhere to stand where we weren’t constantly getting stepped on. Frankly, it was kind of miserable, so we were talking about just heading back home — when I pulled up the Valley of Steel post about R.A.N.T. on my phone. I saw that the “metal” show was taking place at a bar called Cattivo, just a few blocks away, and it had a slightly later start time — so we decided to see what that was like, before just giving up on the evening.
It happened to be much more spacious there, and there weren’t nearly as many people (at least at first). So we grabbed a couple drinks, found an empty table, and waited for opening act Solarburn to take the stage.
I explained to my wife that the band did not have any singing — but that I didn’t really know anything else about them. So we didn’t have much in the way of expectations going into the show. But soon, the three band members walked out, grabbed their instruments, and just took off like marathon runners. Without saying a single word — I don’t believe there was even a vocal mic set up onstage — the trio blazed through heavy chugging riffs and fast runs and funky melodic passages and endless unexpected twists and turns.
Within minutes, I literally felt mesmerized. The world around me, everything in the entire universe outside of that stage, had faded into a dark blur — it was like an extreme form of tunnel vision, where I felt like I couldn’t look away even if I had wanted to. Something in that music just reached inside of me and grabbed my entire essence, and refused to let go. And it was unrelenting — the band transitioned absolutely seamlessly from song to song, still not saying a word, not even pausing for a breath, throughout the entire set. It lasted maybe thirty minutes, or maybe six weeks, honestly I couldn’t tell you for sure.
In any case, both of us were completely and utterly blown away. The band still didn’t say anything after they’d quit playing — just packed up their stuff and walked off, leaving us sitting there in a daze.
We jumped on the next opportunity we had to see the band, which was about two weeks later, and then about another two weeks after that, the band’s official CD release show. They had announced that the CDs, as well as t-shirts, would be made available for purchase at that event.
That show was also amazing — I mean, I didn’t put it on my list of top ten shows last year for no reason — it was far longer than any of the other sets I’d seen the band play, which is definitely a good thing, but also the guys seemed really excited. All three of them always look like they’re enjoying themselves while they play, which is something that you can really hear in the music, but on this night there was even a little more energy and excitement — which seemed to pump up the crowd a bit, and bounced back to the band, energizing them even more.
So at that show, the guys were selling hand-screened t-shirts (with their logo done in various styles and colors) as well as copies of the new 13 CD, also self-printed in handmade cardboard sleeves. Very DIY and low-tech, very cool. So anyway, we bought ours, and listened to it in the car on the way home, and (like I said in my “Top 12 of 2012” list) I do believe it has not come out of that CD changer since that night. Others have been rotated in and out as we bought new stuff or got sick of old stuff, but that one has been a constant fixture.
The biggest departure you’ll find on this recording, compared with a live Solarburn show, is that there are pauses between the songs. That was a bit surprising — since they all blend so seamlessly at a show. In fact, to break it up even further, the band inserted little snippets of dialogue from movies (for example, “You get NOTHING. You LOSE. Good DAY, sir!” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and “Who wants an orange whip?” from Blues Brothers) in between several of the tracks.
Another interesting aspect of this album is the song titles themselves. Many people assign “working” titles to their songs while they’re still in the writing process, just as a way to refer to them so that the other band members can identify each work-in-progress, and then they decide on a final “real” title later, once it has fully taken shape (including adding the lyrics). Often, the “working” titles might be part of an inside joke or something, but is just a memorable way to keep track of different pieces of music. Some of the track listing of the Solarburn album sort of gives me a “working” title vibe — and after all, without any lyrics for the titles to need to relate to, they could pretty much be anything…
1. Titties on the Floor
2. Russ’ Shitpipe
4. Dental School
5. Horn of the Minotaur
6. Beard of the Wizard
7. Scumbag Inc.
9. Hail to the Chief
12. Sleeping with your Shoes On
Most or all of the songs included here are generally incorporated into the band’s ever-changing live setlist, but the order can vary significantly — and they always jump from one song to the next with absolute precision, without missing a single beat. You can see there’s occasionally a little bit of eye contact between the band members, but for the most part the three of them just appear to be in their own little worlds — each of them as much entranced by the music as I’ve felt each time I’ve seen them play — but it never fails to amaze me how tightly locked together they always are.
That same precision translates perfectly on the CD, as well. Even though there are cuts (and samples) separating the tracks, it still gives the impression of having been recorded live — and played straight through, just as the shows are performed. (In fact, I’ve heard a rumor that the band is planning on releasing a free sampler that contains a single — approximately nineteen minute — track, consisting of an unedited version of a few of these songs played in succession.)
Anyway, there are moments throughout the album that feature a near-military precision, often featuring drummer Russ Tompkins and guitarist Mike Stains (formerly of the legendary thrash band Crayon Death) chugging away in perfect lockstep, while bassist Tony Thomas (also of soul/funk ensemble The Old E All-Stars) lays down plenty of groove over top of it all (often while using a wide array of wah pedals). At other times, Stains and Thomas might fall into unison on certain riffs, just to move off into various complementary directions at the drop of a hat. Excellent examples of both of these can be found in the song “Scumbag, Inc.”
The album has plenty of melodic moments — one of my favorites being the intro to “Beard of the Wizard” with an exotic (nearly middle-eastern) harmonic guitar lead that hauntingly hovers over the groove of the rhythm section. On the other hand, there are many spots that feature interesting or peculiar meters. The locked-in-unison feeling also extends to the spaces between notes, as the band frequently and unexpectedly will simultaneously stop on a dime — such as a notable grand pause (where the whole band chimes in, saying “fuck you!”) in “Dental School,” and another spot in “Beard” where Tony often makes a symbolic “shhh” sign when they play it live.
Here is the song “C-Section” which was originally featured on Iron Atrocity V.2, and which also closes out 13:
You can also check out a bit of the band’s material on their ReverbNation page. They also hope to have it available on iTunes shortly, but for now the best way to get a copy of the CD is to buy it directly from the band at one of their shows. (The best way, obviously, since you also get the added benefit of watching the band in person!) However, if you aren’t in the Pittsburgh area, or you aren’t able to make it to a show, you can also get one by writing to the band — thescumbag(at)gmail(dot)com.