It was kind of a surprise when Small Stone signed West Chester, Pennsylvania, riff mongers Backwoods Payback. Not that the band is undeserving. In the live arena, they stand up to anyone you want to put them against (including, regularly, formidable labelmates Lo-Pan), but their recorded output struck me as rawer than most of what the Detroit label gets behind these days, grittier and with more dirt under its fingernails. Listening to the finished product of Backwoods Payback’s Small Stone debut full-length, Momantha, it’s easy to see that same roughness was the appeal all along.
The four-piece have a sound that’s familiar enough to stoner rockers, but not based solely on fuzz-drenched guitar or Kyuss-style desert speeding. There’s something staid about Momantha; it’s like sludge if sludge went to therapy and started the long process of making peace with itself. There are probably a host of bands one could cite as influences or from whom elements are taken and made part of Backwoods Payback’s style, but the resulting brew is much harder to pin down. Captured at Small Stone’s go-to studio – Mad Oak in Allston, Massachusetts – by the label’s go-to engineer – Mr. Benny Grotto – the live edge that made the prior Use Magic to Kill Death EP and self-titled long-player sound so exciting is all the more vivid.
Potentially named after a hockey player (that being Moe Mantha, who did time playing for Pennsylvania teams in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Hershey), Backwoods Payback’s latest balances catchy songs with a driving edge. Momantha takes some time to settle in, but after a few listens, proves indispensable. Opener “You Know How This Works” proves aptly-named, with wavy guitars from Mike Cummings and Rylan Caspar backed by the hard-hit tom work of Steve Curtiss. Soon enough, bassist Jessica Baker also follows the bouncing riff and the album essentially gets its intro the same way the song does. Cummings, as the vocalist, has an approach that has almost no choice but to go all-out as often as humanly possible. It’s melodic, clean for most of the record (the screams on the later “Timegrinder” being an exception), and carries an undercurrent of drunkard’s woes that adds a bluesy feel to the rhythmic delivery of the lyrics.
So if “You Know How This Works” comes from the stomach, it’s even better to launch Momantha, which sets a quick momentum up front and gradually expands on it as the songs progress one to the next. “Flight Pony” keeps some C.O.C. feel in its riff, but is catchy enough to stand on its own, and “Knock Wood” is among Backwoods Payback’s strongest inclusions, with a more open chorus riff and classic bridge that is unapologetic both in its straightforwardness and its low end chug from Baker. The rhythm section first reveals itself as the asset it is in that bridge of “Knock Wood,” with Baker and Curtiss locked with the guitars in a churning progression that then changes pace on a dime back to the chorus to close out the song. It’s one of several really strong changes Backwoods Payback make on Momantha that’s probably too subtle to catch the first time through, but well worth appreciating once picked up on.
After a strong opening trio, “Mr. Snowflake” cuts into a verse groove that would do Earthride proud (one can almost see Dave Sherman putting his arms up on imaginary handlebars to ride that riff), with Cummings adding his madman’s shout to the song’s easy flow. By now it’s apparent that Backwoods Payback have little to no interest in fucking around, and by that I mean that Momantha’s course is pretty easy to plot, but the album does offer a few surprises, among them the shift in the balance of the mix for the opening of “Lord Chesterfield.” The track – which might be a reference to one of rightly-heralded PA brewers Yuengling’s specialty beers – is darker and, like its predecessors, able to shift pace deftly, but Cummings’ vocals sit further back initially and the feel overall is much darker, with Baker more present in the mix. Caspar and Cummings up the level of intricacy in the guitar interplay, but still leave room for riffing out amid the killer solo that leads into the start of Momantha’s second half with “Parting Words.”
With Baker introducing the nodding riff that makes up the bulk of “Parting Words,” the song proves more than worthy of the Small Stone lineage. You could call it undulating, tidal, whatever. It moves out and then it moves back, and in this age where no one wants to call it stoner rock anymore, “Parting Words” unabashedly is. Caspar and Cummings cut out (though make sporadic noise) about halfway through and let Baker and Curtiss lead the bridge, only returning when the far-off-the-mic vocals kick in, and if the track sets the tone for anything in Momantha’s back half, it’s the more vibe of the material. Where “Lord Chesterfield” was the only song that reached over four minutes among the first five tracks, “Timegrinder” is the only song that doesn’t among the second, and though “Poncho” might not seem like any great leap stylistically from “Flight Pony,” Cummings ties the vocal melody closer to the guitar, and the stops that act as transitions feel like a purposeful step away from some of the more seamless movement earlier in the record.
“Poncho” maintains the structural simplicity of Momantha, whatever other shifts it might make, and Backwoods Payback work well within the verse/chorus/verse modus, so I’m not about to critique, but the slower, more doomed feel of “Velcro” – Momantha’s longest cut at 5:54 – is welcome. Cummings affects an early Life of Agony feel (that band’s frontman, Keith Caputo, blurbed Cummings’ Confessions of a Lackluster Performer book of poetry, so that might play into where my comparison is coming from) in the vocals, and where much of the album has been cutting through the atmosphere to give as direct a delivery as possible, “Velcro” shifts into “oohs” and “aahs,” steady cymbal crashes from Curtiss and a hypnotically slow stomp that only gets slower as it goes on.
That’s a more than decent setup for “Timegrinder,” on which Backwoods Payback – if the therapy analogy from the second paragraph of this review is to be continued – show they still have some work ahead of them before being deemed fit for society. The slowness, at first contradicted by an opening verse, carries over from “Velcro,” and Cummings lets loose a few satisfyingly throat-ripping screams. They’re layered in amid a punk rock feel (there is some growling too), but about a minute in, the pace cuts to genuine plod for about the next two minutes of the song until finally returning to the uptempo motion of the track’s beginning. Frankly, it rules, and though that last return maybe doesn’t hit with as much ceremony as it could, the last 20 seconds of the track nonetheless provide ample payoff to not only the song, but Momantha as a whole. The short version is it rules.
And in so doing, leaves closer “Ballad of a Broken Horse” in the position of an afterthought as Momantha’s finale. It’s easy to see the closing credits roll by as the guitar lead brings the song to its end, and when it’s over, Backwoods Payback end cold on a bump and that’s it, you got what you came for, thanks a ton, see you next time. The no-frills, no-bullshit ethic is the perfect way for the band to go out, since it’s more or less what the entirely of Momantha is composed of. Cummings, Caspar, Baker and Curtiss aren’t so much reshaping their genre as carving out their unique space within it, but no question that Momantha satisfies and that its unsmoothed edges are a major reason why. One gets the sense listening that Backwoods Payback’s best work is yet ahead of them, but that’s part of the appeal too.
Tags: Backwoods Payback, Pennsylvania, Small Stone, West Chester