We live in a fragmented world. You know that. You’ve heard of the internet. Probably even spent some time there. We live in the future, where everyone is famous to 15 people. The monoculture—that single stream of knowledge wherein an entire nation can watch a single TV performance by an unknown band from another country and suddenly know the name Ringo—is gone. Now, we have a vast, weird ocean full of odd subgenres, micro-movements, niche stations and cult stars—all making it clearer than ever that the idea of “timeless art” is bullshit. Works of art—music, theater, novels, movies, whatever—are specific to a certain time and place—each created with a specific audience in mind. Works proclaimed timeless are usually defined by some historical bias. Nothing is timeless. Nothing is universal.
But then again … there’s a strong counterargument to this point, and that’s the first six Black Sabbath albums.
That little run of records, spanning five years in the early ’70s, isn’t universal. It’s not going to speak to everyone. And those albums are definite products of a specific time and place. But they’re also not going anywhere. Like Beethoven or Duke Ellington or Hank Williams, Black Sabbath is not in any danger of going out of style.
Anyway, that gets us to Kanawha, a group of veteran musicians from Reno’s metal scene: Tony Ashworth on guitar, Garett Ball on drums, Chris Mastroianni on bass, and Mark Earnest on vocals.
Comparing a metal band to Black Sabbath is a bit ridiculous—it’s like comparing some new beverage to water. But Sabbath is a clear and direct influence on Kanawha. The guitar riffs are heavy but melodic. The rhythmic section plays powerful, neck-loosening grooves. And Earnest sings with an Ozzy Osbourne-inspired wail rather than the Greg Dulli-like croon he employs for his other band, Vague Choir.
“We sound like if Soundgarden in 1998 got too drunk to play a show and just decided to cover Sabbath for an entire set,” said Ashworth.
Soundgarden is an audible influence—but the drunkenness part isn’t exactly accurate. The band isn’t loose or sloppy. But there’s a distinct lack of pretension. This isn’t a band trying to show off musical chops for the sake of showing off. The songs are tight and grounded.
The band name refers to the county in West Virginia where Ashworth grew up. “I really just wanted to return to my roots, play some rock ’n’ roll,” he said.
An uncle from the area texted him, “Your band is huge around here. I see the name everywhere!”
Earnest and Ashworth split lyric-writing duties.
“I thought it would be interesting to try to translate somebody else for a while, and see how that changes what I do,” said Earnest, who writes all the lyrics for most of his musical projects. “And it did, because Tony’s words are kind of abstract in a really intriguing way—not just word soup. There’s meaning behind them, but you’re only seeing part of the picture.
“The other thing is that all his lyrics are really good. He hasn’t presented a song about a dragon or a super political song in either direction that I wouldn’t want to do. … It’s all been stuff that has made sense to me, and that’s made me want to write more, too. … I like that it’s rooted in human nature and real life, instead of being too far into fantasy land or something that’s too pretentious.”