Placing a phone call to Austin Barber, vocalist and guitarist for Oakland-based quartet Saviours, can be off-putting. After a few rings, his voicemail greeting comes on, a recorded clip of a hillbilly-sounding guy ranting, possibly about gold. It's utterly creepy, hard to shut off, and goes on forever.
"Oh, that's Charles Manson," Barber later says, finally lucid after 12 hours of sleep caught on his band's tour bus as it rumbles through endless Texas.
Um, it's really long — and disturbing.
"Oh, killer! I try to deter people from actually leaving messages." He delivers this sentiment deadpan, but still, his knowing wink is almost audible. Saviours play serious, heavy music, but with a laughing awareness of squares' notions of metal stereotypes and the bands that, without that self-awareness, fit them. Both, to Saviours, are bullshit. As are any kinds of geographical or scene classifications. The band is, in its own word, just devoted to all things "gnarly."
"A lot of people, especially when we do interviews, say, 'What's up with the Bay Area? You all have this evil fucking vibe,'" Barber says. "I just think living in Oakland makes you play gnarly music. It's a dark, nasty place."
Still, the band's members have a knack for heading up certain identifiable waves of ultra-underground rock. In the late Nineties, most of the band members were in Yaphet Kotto, a spastic outfit named in honor of the American actor and crown prince of Cameroon. While barely known outside crusty circles, that band was revered by fervent fans for its lung-collapsing, knock-you-on-your-ass brand of hardcore. And it was also a forerunner of a number of similarly thrashy Bay Area groups. Now, as Saviours, the band is one of a few to explore a sludgier, slower sound, along with acts like Annihilation Time and High on Fire (the latter headlines the band's current tour).
But the change was organic, Barber says, the result of band members living in a house together and getting bored with their other musical projects. "I just wanted to do something heavy," he says, and, again, "gnarly." Around 2002, he was on tour when the ideas began percolating. "I thought of the name and started to write lyrics, and some of the visual stuff — like, we started out playing on a giant pentagram rug with all our astrological signs on it and shit. And while I was home, they were working on two or three songs."
Those eventually coalesced into the band's debut album, Crucifire, released on Level Plane in 2006. That eight-song record boasted all the essential elements of quality heavy noise. First (and, some would say, foremost) there was the band's logo — scratchy, angular, and reminiscent of the crotch-grabbing power of the classic late Seventies. There was the titillatingly transgressive cover art, featuring a prostrate female slumped backward over some kind of altar, in front of an ankh plaque and candles. Then, of course, there was the riffage — pounding, but still fast enough to almost be punky, with the blunt force of "New Wave of British heavy metal" outfits like Motorhead. All of this was enough to gain the band instant ballpoint-scratched, Trapper Keeper-cover real estate.
Further, it didn't dovetail neatly with anything in either the punk-offshoot rock scenes or with the purist metal microgenres. Which did not trouble them at all. Rather, while many similarly positioned bands operate by accepting slots on nearly any tour for nearly any kind of rock crowd, Saviours have stayed selective.
"We have no fucking desire to do anything but be ourselves. Sure, everyone says that, but we won't go on tour with, like, Trivium or some bullshit fucking metal band," Barber says. "Well, we always have a pretty mixed crowd. A lot of gnarly, dirty heshers show up to see us, and then kids in sweaters.... We like to be with just our bros and bands we like and respect, and put out records with people we fucking trust and want to do us right. We got a rad team going, and we couldn't be happier."
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Indeed, with the current state of the music industry, it's rare to hear a band wax effusive about its record label. But Saviours love Kemado, the indie imprint that released the band's sophomore album, Into Abbadon, two weeks ago. "Scott [Batiste, the group's drummer], always says they're a pro-band label. They wanna get you on the road; they wanna promote your album.... They're really on it." In fact it was Kemado who suggested the band record with producer Joe Barresi, revered by stoner rock fans for his work with bands like Kyuss, the Melvins, the Jesus Lizard, and even Tool. (Local trivia: He graduated from the University of Miami.)
Working with Barresi, Barber says, "every day was fucking magical. If you have good songs, he's gonna make them sound fucking awesome." Above all, he pushed for truth in the sound, and his influence is noticeable on Into Abaddon. Where before, Barber's vocals were often mired in reverb, and the guitars bathed in artificial distortion, here they're crisper. But rather than sound too clean, the song's pure tones come through more urgently, as a result sounding even more immediate, and heavier. "You can hide behind a lot of shit when you're making music," Barber says, "but his fucking approach is exactly how music should be made."
Everything about the band is getting refined to its essence. Gone are the pentagrams of previous live shows; now the group plays in front of a mystical tapestry by an artist friend. Their look is classic getting-high-in-the-parking-lot chic, all long, curly hair and the occasional flash of flannel. Their logo has become more twisted, the new album artwork a colorful, psychedelic rendition of a pyramid that is harder to immediately parse. And the songs themselves have expanded a little — Into Abbadon boasts only eight tracks. But they're still driven by Barber's Lemmy-esque, gruff wail and the driving, stop-start drumming of Batiste, who, improbably, is also the band's chief songwriter.
Lest they seem drifting off into lands of dungeons and dragons, their latest video, for "Narcotic Sea," reassures that they're still just a bunch of rockin' party-time dudes. Beginning outside a friend's warehouse, the video follows the bandmates ridin' hogs, bangin' their heads, takin' a walk on some mystical cliffs, hangin' out on a beach. "It's very fucking us as a band — rocking, partying, and then just having fun," Barber says. "It's totally silly and completely fucking who we are."