[Click play above to check out the premiere of Backwoods Payback’s video for ‘You Don’t Move,’ directed by 51 Deep. The band’s new album, Fire Not Reason, is out tomorrow, Dec. 2.]
From the opening strains of its leadoff track, it’s clear Pennsylvania’s Backwoods Payback have made the choice the title of their third album presents: Fire Not Reason. With a screaming beginning, post-hardcore lead work in the guitar and an underpinning of heavy riffing that somehow ties it together, “Elephants” stomps out more of a genre span in its quickly executed three minutes than some bands do in their career, yet like much of what follows on the self-released outing, it wastes nothing.
It’s been five years since Backwoods Payback released their second album, Momantha (review here), and while they’ve released a 2012 live outing (discussed here) and the 2014 In the Ditch EP (review here) in the interim, the nine-song/30-minute Fire Not Reason hits with all the intensity of the passing half-decade, forming its crux around a brutal honesty of emotion and songcraft that’s neither apologetic nor ironic in the slightest. For founding guitarist/vocalist Mike Cummings and bassist Jessica Baker, it is a realization of the human core that has always gone unnamed as the central appeal of the band: here metal, here punk, here grunge, here heavy rock, but most of all itself in a way that strikes as wholly without pretense. Intimidatingly without pretense.
Not that it’s in-your-face in some cliché metal dudeliness or aggro fashion. Certainly there are aggressive moments, as on “Elephants” or the black ‘n’ roll midsection of “Dirge” (video premiere here), which elsewhere provides one of the album’s landmark hooks — and if you told me second cut “You Don’t Move” was written with the intent of being a pro wrestling theme, I’d believe it — but throughout, Backwoods Payback keep emotional rawness so central to their mission that it comes to be the defining facet of their approach. Fire Not Reason finds further distinction in Cummings and Baker having added drummer Erik Larson to the fold. Known for handling guitar and/or vocals to one degree or another in outfits like Alabama Thunderpussy, The Might Could, Hail!Hornet, Birds of Prey and so on, in addition to his solo work, Larson also drummed in Richmond, Virginia-based punkers Avail, and so is no stranger to the stylistic turns that Backwoods Payback make within these songs.
Rather, he’s right at home in this trio incarnation of the band, and does much to bolster both the start-stop chugging of “You Don’t Move” and the more languid rollout of the later “That Dream Again.” While “Elephants” launches Fire Not Reason at an all-go, all-in melding of styles and drive, songs like “Don’t Try” and the somewhat faster centerpiece “Tuxedo” seem more like signature Backwoods Payback, as much as their sound permits anything to be. Informed by grunge and heavy and Southern rock, they make something that acknowledges all of them and isn’t necessarily shooting to emulate — perhaps less here than ever — but even when “Tuxedo” breaks at its halfway point to build back up to its full-thrust finish, they’re very much in their element if not necessarily their “comfort zone” in the sense of coming across lazy or haphazard in their approach.
Cummings, who has a couple solo acoustic releases to his credit at this point, takes center position for “Even Odds,” which transitions directly from “Tuxedo” before it and provides a sub-three-minute breather that also gives a side-B-style expansion to the sonic palette with which the album as a whole works. It is a long way from “Elephants” or even the slick groove of “Dirge” earlier, and it changes the context of the opening strums of the subsequent “That Dream Again,” which soon enough opens a heavy blues roll with a spaciousness that calls to mind a more on-the-beat All Them Witches in its first half before solidifying around a more forward motion and, as it nears its finish, a lumbering stomp made all the more palpable by Larson‘s crash. The penultimate “Snakes” is more immediately about swing, but its thickened fuzz moves smoothly into and through an upbeat hook before dropping out to give the drums a short standalone section where they’re soon joined by lead guitar and Baker‘s bass, which feels more tonally present in the last stretch perhaps because of the distinction of its kicking in on its own as the final piece to make Backwoods Payback‘s push complete.
It does that, and like much before it, “Snakes” ends efficiently and cleanly, with no frills or veering from its central intent, stopping short to let the nodding “California Lean” close out with one more three-minute affirmation of the truth in songwriting that’s been at the root of Fire Not Reason all along. It might fit in that same category as “Don’t Try” and “Tuxedo” in terms of how its nestles into Backwoods Payback‘s bottom-line aesthetic, as opposed to the branching out in cuts like “Elephants,” “Dirge,” “Even Odds” or even “You Don’t Move,” but “California Lean” also underscores the urgency with which the trio have brought this material to life, and as much as Cummings‘ vocals — willfully strained at times — or his or Baker‘s tones, or Larson‘s drums, or the general rawness of it, it’s that urgency tying Fire Not Reason together. Half a decade later, this is clearly a story the band needed to tell.