While a good portion of my reviews lean toward the fuzzy and riff-laden corner of the rock/metal spectrum, I don’t think I’ve actually covered a straight-up hard rock album yet. Well not until now anyways. Hailing from Reno, Nevada, Kanawha barrelled their way past the armed guards of Burnt Coffee HQ to present us with their debut album The Sky Was The First To Fall.
During the impromptu sales pitch I was able to broker a deal to learn of the secret herbs and spices that go into their signature hard rock blend. This may be a breach of contract, but here goes: Kanawha plays a steady-handed mix of stoner and blues rock, with dashes of doom, psych, and grunge sprinkled in. Think Clutch plus early Soundgarden, but in the desert. They’re a lean four-piece, with one lead vocalist and one member to each instrument. No body doubles, no substitutions.
This approach to instrumentation really shows on The Sky Was The First To Fall. Each member’s contribution to the band shines through greatly on this debut. You can tell the band members really gel with each other. The band has great chemistry, at least their constant high fives and thumbs up to each other in the Burnt Coffee War Room seemed to indicate as much. Not only does this show in the jams and riffs, the mix does the band justice as well. While I find the mastering to be a tad on the quiet side, the mix is full of life. The album sounds like four dudes having a blast playing together – I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they recorded this live.
The solid mix gives way to great guitar tone. The guitar has a 50/50 blend of crunchy and smooth Skippy peanut butter to it. It’s organic, but it ain’t gluten-free. This tone brings out the best in axeman Tony Collyer-Ashworth’s pull-apart riffage, like in the intros of “Come Clean” and “Old Curse”. Bassist Chris Mastroianni takes a more subtle approach to his tone. It’s mostly clean, but with a bit of grit thrown in for good measure. Unlike most rock bassists though, you won’t find him cowering somewhere offstage mumbling something about John Entwistle while the rest of the band does their thing. He makes his presence known, particularly on doomier cuts like “Done Nothing” and “Monster Martyr”.
An old-school yet timeless drum sound is what you need to make a stoner record really pop off, and drummer Julian Iosty brings the goods. Bringing groove and heft to each track, his highlight is the song “Unfuckwithable”, where he pulls off a stunning drum solo and immediately follows it up with an Avalanche of toms in the bridge. And I guess that brings us to the vocals. What if Kyuss’ vocals had more range? What if Orange Goblin sounded a bit less like a goblin? What if Down didn’t have a douchebag frontman? Singer Mark Earnest makes all of these possibilities and more a reality. He has great control over his powerful pipes, allowing him to adapt to any situation his bandmates throw at him. For example, the band throws in this excellent juxtaposition between neighboring cuts “Old Curse” and “Disruption”. To match this, Earnest answers first with soulful, bluesy belts in the former song. In the latter he gets mean, eventually bringing this punky hard rocker to a full-on southern sludge hoedown.
My only real criticism of The Sky Was the First to Fall is that it doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from the genre’s standard-bearers. It doesn’t necessarily need to either. If you’re a fan of this style of rock, Kanawha is a worthy addition to your playlists or album rotation. It’s one hard rockin’ hell of a good time front to back. If you were lukewarm on the last Clutch album like I was, this album is a great substitute. But this album won’t pose a challenge to any of your headbangin’ favorites either. Kanawha’s high-quality, no frills approach to hard rock is a surefire way to help them rise to the top of the current pack, but it’s not enough to distinguish them from the classics.
If I had another complaint about The Sky Was the First to Fall, it’s that it makes me wish I could go to a bar to hear this live! But given the current situation, the best you can do is pour yourself a drink (alcoholic or otherwise), sit out in the summer sun, kick back and enjoy the jams! I hope you have as much fun with their debut album as I did! Job well done fellas – now get the hell outta my office…
Kanawha’s debut album The Sky Was The First To Fall was released on June 13th.
Best Tracks: Disruption, Unfuckwithable, Old Curse, Come Clean
Weakest Tracks: Monster Martyr
FFO: Clutch, Kyuss, Soundgarden, Down
Overall Score: B