The Phoenix rises again

Black Phoenix Orchestra unveils long-awaited debut EP

It’s been a busy few months for Black Phoenix Orchestra since it was named a must-listen emerging act in Fast Forward Weekly ’s fall music issue. For one it completed its eight-song debut EP which had been stalled due to funding issues giving its monstrous psych tracks the glisten of professional recording. Next the local orchestra walked away with $25000 as the recipient of the X92.9 Xposure contest — and as a result is vying for a spot playing with Jane’s Addiction at XFest. Then there’s the touring: Beyond crossing the mountains for numerous coastal shows it also logged 18-hour days in the van to travel to Toronto for Canadian Music Week.

Call the Phoenix’s rise meteoric (har har). But guitarist Erik Ermantrout on this day languishing in the sun with his guitar isn’t taking any of this for granted. In fact his enthusiasm is audible when he speaks of headlining a show at The Horseshoe that hallowed ground of Torontonian rock ’n’ roll.

“We were playing to a whole crowd of strangers — it was the best. Nothing beats that feeling” says Ermantrout. “You can feel the energy when you walk in. The fucking Rolling Stones played there — they still do for secret shows. Jack White played there. To be standing on the same stage as them…. It’s fucking amazing.”

But that’s not the only gift Ermantrout and co. took from Toronto. In fact the spoken-word opening track of BPO’s eponymous EP “Rock ’n’ Roll Don’t Pay the Rent” — a passionate diatribe on the transformative powers of well rock ’n’ roll — was penned by Toronto music journalist Brian Banks who caught the band’s set at the Horseshoe. After an interview with singer Darren McDade Banks shared some of his poetry with the band — and as Ermantrout describes an immediate connection was made.

“Every word [in that poem] was the truth. And we’re not paying our bills with music but you gotta accept it” he says. “Like Brian says the adrenaline keeps you going. The music keeps you going. Leading off into [second track] ‘No Guarantees’ it was perfect — as there’s no guarantees in music. You roll the dice and see what happens.”

Ermantrout’s right: Records aren’t pressed on smiles and hugs. But that open-ended approach and willingness to gamble is also evident in its music. While giant rockers such as Kasabian and The Verve still serve as valid reference points BPO’s sound — perhaps the influence of jazz-trained drummer Greg Brown or bassist Devan Forster’s love of Quest for Fire and Dead Meadow — has become harder to define.

Ragged dust-bowl blues? Check “Waitin’ in the Water.” Free-form psychedelic histrionics? “Swamp Song” covers those bases in eight minutes. Muscular stadium-ready bangers? “Punch Drunk Lover” complete with fuzz-drenched bass tone is likely more effective than most 5-Hour Energizers. Ermantrout for his part just calls it rock ’n’ roll.

“I’m really influenced by early blues. I’m into Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins. There’s so much heart and soul into how they play guitars” he says. “We owe rock ’n’ roll to them. Guys like Robert Johnson — how they wrote their songs you feel their pain. You feel their joy in everything. That’s what I really fall into.”

There’s that enthusiasm again. Not a band to rest on its laurels Ermantrout says BPO will take a staggering 30 songs into the studio this summer hoping to hammer out a cohesive LP. And they’re hoping to squeeze in a wilderness retreat to refine a few gems from the band’s tie-dyed psychedelic haze.

“The EP is a sample of our different songs and a lot of it was rushed. When we were in the studio I was trying to figure out some of those songs” says Ermantrout. “We don’t know how to describe our sound. We’re constantly changing constantly writing. We’re thinking of getting out of the city and renting a cabin in the middle of nowhere — [somewhere with] no influences.”