[This first appeared in Impose Magazine, June 2016]
The first few steps into The Black Sparks’ new self-titled full length reveal something of a false floor. The Washington, DC post-punks open the album slowly, with a handful of measures bathed in sludgy guitars and crashing cymbals, but that’s all a ruse. From there, the album’s first song, “Corporate Shuffle”, blasts off, with twitchy drums and singer Andrew Salfi’s desperate screams. The band takes no rest from there.
The 10-track album, out tomorrow on Fredericksburg, Virginia label Tape Modulator, captures the evolution of what has long been one of Washington, DC’s most promising punk bands. The five-piece’s earlier work – particularly 2014’s three-song demo, recorded in Salfi’s basement at some point that winter – hinted at an expanding music repertoire. Two songs on the demo appear on the new record, including “Corporate Shuffle”, and the band’s shifting approach to their punk mission, from the guitar work of Jonah Antonelli and Sam Grove, to Ray Brown’s romping bass and Nathaniel Salfi’s manic drumming, pushed promise through the low-fi tracks.
Now, that basement fuzz has been replaced with masterful clarity and depth. Recorded at legendary DC punk mainstay Inner Ear Studios, The Black Sparks captures the band’s admirable range and depth, which extends beyond what the less adventurous among us would be willing to consider. The record churns, it screams, it’s punk in most every way, but the band’s disparate musical influences and interests shine throughout. Where another band might stick to punk backbeats and wrap things up in a couple of minutes, The Black Sparks injects dub influences, jagged rhythms and whatever other fixings they care to add. The sonic cornucopia is uniquely theirs.
The band says they feel no allegiance to genre. They’ve been playing music since they were preposterously young, second grade or so, and their closeness to the music has left them without the often unimportant designations an outsider might devise for the kind of music the Black sparks make. “Because you’ve been with it for so long, you’re so enveloped in it,” Nathaniel Salfi says. “We’ve never thought much about our genre.”
That disconcern bleeds through. On the record, the band weaves in and out of frenzied, syncopated post-punk on the bombastic “Nuke ‘Em,” warbling stoner solos of “Rocketbird,” and the straight ahead hardcore bursts littered throughout. But even in its nooks of momentary quiet, the album rages, combusts, vibrates with the manic energy of youth. On “Burn To Earn,” Salfi stretches his voice to its outer limits, belting out the song’s titular refrain until his screams crack and peel. The song winds down to a low rumble for just a moment, a few measures, before catapulting to its chaotic end – a car slow-motion careening off a cliff, almost graceful, before engulfing in a fireball below.
The excellence of the record prods us to mention, ever so briefly, the band members’ age. They’re young – considerably so, given the complexity of their music. See, the members of Black Sparks have always wanted to just be a band. They didn’t make things easy for themselves, they admit that now. Putting on Bethesda Youth Shows, a DIY concert series by and for young people in the DC area, left them waving a flag they didn’t always want to wave, Brown says now. But it remains worth mentioning that The Black Sparks has been present in the DC punk scene for years. They’ve performed on the hollowed DC stages at St. Stephens and Fort Reno. Last week, three of its members graduated from high school.
The DC music community has made space for all-ages shows and young bands since the scene’s earliest days; that tradition continues today. The Black Sparks have grown up in that scene, and it’s allowed them to shine. So now, let the release of their first full-length album be a right of passage, and forget their ages; they never mattered anyway. The album treads boldly into territory few punk records dare. Doing so takes skill, and guts. The Black Sparks has no shortage of those.