The music of Balaclavas is at once tribal, angular, discordant and completely modern, snagging influences from bands like Public Image Ltd, Can and latter-day local psych legends Indian Jewelry. In Houston's musical climate of smiling indie-rockers, innovative hip-hoppers and the random grindcore band, the quartet doesn't cotton to any.
They already stick out like a black leather thumb on a dominatrix's glove as one of the city's more mature bands. On the eve of the group's darkest, most visceral album to date, Roman Holiday, Balaclavas' reputation as an "adult" band will only grow larger.
It's a label the band appreciates and wears proudly. People notice that they are calculated in what they do, and younger bands come out to watch them play even if they don't quite "get" what's going on. Balaclavas won't play three shows a month at Mango's, keeps only minimal MySpace and Facebook fan pages and, in an age when even restaurants have Twitter accounts, remains delightfully tweetless.
In fact, the band's last full-length album, Inferno, was only released on vinyl.
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The whole idea of being part of the machinery of some sort of scene bothers bassist Brian Harrison. "I never wanted to be plugged into a scene. It's great people respect us all the same," he says as the band finishes up a Tuesday band practice at the house on Richmond where three of the four band members dwell.
"We're serious about what we do, and that definitely comes across in our music," adds drummer Chaz Patranella.
Balaclavas carries a vibe that is alien to everyone except the band members themselves. The group is clannish, the way bands are supposed to be if they want to survive and create a symbiotic relationship. Living and practicing together under the same roof has something to do with that. They have all lived in Montrose for the better part of a decade, mostly together or in some other situation.
Brent Tipton, owner of Balaclavas' label Dull Knife, concurs that the band's living situation helps the sound.
"I won't pretend to be in the true inner circle, but from my vantage point, I can see that they click so well because they are true friends who take their craft seriously," Tipton says. "They all live together, so while they each lead their own lives, the band is a major part of their daily lives and it shows. They're also not content with sitting still."
Bassist Harrison lives in the downstairs apartment, while Patranella and singer/guitarist Tyler Morris live upstairs. Harrison is currently finishing up his degree in criminal law at the University of Houston, but he's quick to make the distinction that he is not going to school to be a "corporate whore."
Morris has also been Balaclavas' most musically prolific member. He started in the requisite high school bands and slowly progressed to weirder, more intricate work as time went on and he saw more of the country. He did time in The Round Table, The Drugged, and Eat Grapes, and he and Patranella still work on their Meat Glove project from time to time.
Morris also sits in with friend Domokos Benczedi's various noise projects like Future Blondes. His distinctive yelping vocal style makes the band stand out even more — especially live, as his face gets frantic and his glasses fall to the floor.
In summer 2007, Balaclavas released the first edition of its debut EP, which quickly made people turn and notice that something different was going on. That led to more shows around town with Indian Jewelry, as the band gained a following in Houston's like-minded art crowd. Not typical art people, mind you, but people who actually make and appreciate dangerous art.
Later that fall, the band recorded the full-length Inferno with Chris Ryan at Dead City Sound. Harrison says that the band got "darker and more tropical" around this time, and began incorporating sounds that may have been ignored before.
They started using tape loops, while Morris was adding synths and drum machines. Inferno borrowed heavily from the Dante work of the same name, and at one point Morris screams, "They call me the great Lucifer and I stand 20 feet tall!"
It was fucking scary. As this started happening, Patranella's drumming style became even more pronounced, a kind of martial beat mixed with a lumbering funeral dirge. Watching him and Harrison interact live is a lesson in tightness.
Inferno grabbed hold of Houston's ears almost immediately. It was accessible enough, yet somehow evasive because, again, Balaclavas did not claim (or care to claim) any of Houston's pre-existing scenes. But the moment the album hit turntables around town, it could change the entire mood in a room.
It was also crazy beloved all over the country, getting college radio play and blog love beyond the city. Polite yet lazy journalists were wont to throw the "drug-rock" term around here and there, which discounted what the band was doing.
In early 2009, the debut EP was remixed to include new saxophonist Ralf Armin's brass lines, adding a whole new depth to the sound. The band's hourlong SXSW set last year at the Independent sounded like the Stooges' Fun House slowed down to half-speed, with Armin wailing away.
The Roman Holiday sessions came in fits and spurts throughout 2009. At first it was only supposed to be an EP, but soon got picked up by Dull Knife and became a full album.
Holiday could be the score to a David Lynch film, not too far removed from the composer Angelo Badalamenti's work on the Lost Highway or Blue Velvet soundtracks. It's chock-full of eerie loops and samples, with Patranella drumming like a robot on Adderall. "Night Worship" is the stunner here, full of that sax and Morris singing in an echo chamber.
Tipton has nothing but high regard for Holiday, and speaks about it in the same breath as some of Houston's most bedrock works.
"Roman Holiday is up there with Rusted Shut's Rehab, the past two Indian Jewelry albums and Insect Warfare's World Extermination. This thing sounds like a beast," he says.
"Musically, the album has the band's best and most consistent batch of songs to date and really is the first Balaclavas recording to capture the more electronic side of the band's sound," Tipton adds. "It really excites me to know that the band has already made an album of this quality without hitting their peak. The best is still to come."
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