Godsmacked

Seventies heavy-metal pioneers Sir Lord Baltimore have returned with a new sound and a new master

It was such a crazy thing, to go out of the basement and play Carnegie Hall," recalls Sir Lord Baltimore drummer-vocalist John Garner. "Where does that happen? We were in the fast lane all the way down. . . . I believe that had the element of drugs not been in the picture, we'd be a household name today."

In some households (especially those where drugs are still in the picture), they still are. The Brooklyn band put a uniquely East Coast spin on the late-'60s/early-'70s power-trio sound, combining Cream's instrumental overdrive with Grand Funk Railroad's raw power. It all started when Garner invited his high school acquaintances Louis Dambra (guitar) and Gary Justin (bass) to jam. After about a week, Garner recalls, "I saw an ad in the Voice that said, 'Heavy band needed to record album.' That was it. We put about 10 riffs together, some crazy avant-garde singing and a few beats here and there, and we went down to audition." Signed (and named, allegedly, after a minor character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) by manager Mike Appel, Sir Lord Baltimore recorded for Polygram and made their live debut in 1970.

More fleet than peers Mountain or Dust, they came out of nowhere to become New York's best metal act for a year or so. Indeed, Metal Mike Saunders's Creem review of their debut CD, 1970's Kingdom Come, featured the first documented use of the phrase "heavy metal" as a genre descriptor. But after another album and an abortive tour supporting Black Sabbath, SLB imploded. Neither Kingdom nor 1971's self-titled follow-up sold particularly well, and both went out of print (they're now paired on a single CD) while all three members went on to other things.

Now they're back. Garner and Dambra have reunited after 35 years apart and self-released a third record, Sir Lord Baltimore III: Raw (available at sirlordbaltimore.com). Recorded with session bassists Tony Franklin and Sam Powell, it packs six songs into just under a half-hour, reviving the band's formula of ultra-hard riffing and thunderous drums. This was always the SLB sound—as Dambra puts it, "I would throw riffs at [John], and he would come back with the drums. He tried to copy everything the guitar did, which was really unusual, because drummers would always just lay a backbeat. But we were high-intensity, we were aggressive, and we were filling every space we could."

Indeed, Kingdom Come songs such as the title track and "Hell Hound" find Dambra and Garner competing for the spotlight every instant, with the bassist left to maintain rudimentary song structure. The same holds true on this new disc, as opening cut "(Gonna) Fill the World With Fire" proves. Dambra's guitar technique is as ferocious as ever, though his sound is very slightly cleaner than it once was, mostly due to advances in recording technology—the difference is comparable to the Greg Ginn of In My Head versus the Ginn of My War . Meanwhile, Garner howls and assaults his kit—his opening drum solo gives way to a riff straight out of late-'80s metal–hardcore, the song crashing along like an out-of-control steamroller. Garner's vocals, meanwhile, inevitably changed somewhat as the decades passed. Where he once sounded like an unhinged caveman, he now evokes an unhinged Ian Gillan, with occasional side trips into David Thomas (Pere Ubu) territory.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Sir Lord Baltimore circa 2007 is their new lyrical perspective. Despite titles like "Love Slave" and the aforementioned "(Gonna) Fill the World With Fire," their new songs are quite explicitly Christian. "On the narrow road/Burn chariots of fire/Living on a hope/Make God your desire/If ya see Satan coming/Better change your stride/Don't try and stick with him, kid/It'll be suicide," Garner sings on "Fire." When asked about this, Dambra laughs. "Basically, over the years we've made that transition to changing our lives, having godly lives," he says. "In fact, I'm a pastor now. I run a full-time homeless-ministry program for families in Los Angeles [where he lives] called the Homeless Housing Program. It's like a Good Samaritan thing. But even though I'm a pastor now, I haven't lost the knack for playing." That's for sure; his technique is as savage and barely contained as on the most amp-frying moments of Kingdom Come. Even Raw's single ballad, "Wild White Horses," eventually explodes into a frenzy.

The next move for Garner and Dambra is to find a label willing to release Raw more officially. They're not dreaming of rock-star glory, necessarily—they had their shot in 1970. But given the scope of their influence on present-day stoner-boogie metal and the level at which they're still working, somebody at Kemado or Tee Pee or even Southern Lord oughta step up. Especially since it's for a good cause: Dambra is hoping to apply some profits to his ministry. "We're all in the hands of the Creator," Garner adds. "And maybe he has a plan, but I don't know. I'm getting kinda old."

 
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