Article By: Pat ‘Riot’ Whitaker ‡ Edited By: Leanne Ridgeway
The subject of the following interview exchange that ensues below is singer Brian ‘Butch’ Balich. I don’t even know where to begin. That is something you will rarely ever hear me utter, let alone admit, but here I have.
The man is the powerful voice of at least four current projects that I have immensely enjoyed and submersed myself in, both recently and in the past. See, Butch is the venerable vocalist and lyrical lamenter for Argus, Penance, Molasses Barge, and Arduini-Balich.
Now, if you are even just an amateur newbie in the world of power metal or doom music, then surely you know at least one or two of those acts. If you are like me, a maniacal metalhead that’s neglected other aspects of normal life so you could obsess over underground music for nearly four decades… well then, suffice to say, you know Butch is “The Man” so to speak.
As ‘The Man’, Butch is currently on an oh-so glorious ride upon the topside of this world, as he participates in creating some of the most amazing music known to man. Sure, you can say I am a fan and have been since discovering his work with U.S. doom icons Penance in the late Nineties. Just his work on three of their official releases, ‘Proving Ground‘ (1999), ‘Alpha & Omega” (2001), and ‘Spiritualnatural‘ (2003), gives the guy some major street cred. By the way, it’s that middle album that will be the focal point of some discussion in a minute, but allow me to finish this hype first, please.
From there, Butch‘s involvement with the much-revered Argus is well documented on a string of official albums. The latest of which, ‘From Fields Of Fire‘, was just released this week from Cruz Del Sur Music. You can expect to hear a lot more about it, as it ignites in the journalism realm, and then lands on the annual year-end Best Of… lists.
It won’t end there for Butch though, as I am convinced and have said on record, that I fully expect him to score a triple crown win. I say that, because of the other 2017 releases he’s involved with, including the recently released, superb Molasses Barge self-titled album for Blackseed Records (review).
That also includes the phenomenal collaboration with Fates Warning founder, Victor Arduini. The latter came under the moniker of Arduini-Balich and their ‘Dawn Of Ages‘ début also via Cruz Del Sur Music earlier this year.
Did I tell you that I didn’t know where to begin? Now you have a little inkling as to why I said it, huh? Anyway, the crazy thing is, I have never seen Butch Balich live in ANY of these projects, but if all goes according to plan, that shall soon be remedied!
On Saturday, September 30th, Butch will once again front Penance as the legends headline the inaugural Descendants Of Crom Festival in Pittsburgh, PA. He and I will expound further upon that event, as I now segue us into this thing we’re all gathered here for… It is my great pleasure, and with my own personal, enthusiastic enjoyment to invite you to delve further inward (downward?) upon this page for the Riff Relevant Interview with Brian ‘Butch’ Balich!
Riff Relevant [Pat]: Butch, you currently have quite a bit going on, but let’s start with current events: This month, Penance will headline the Descendants Of Crom festival in Pittsburgh; what is the current status of Penance? I know there have been a few festival appearances here and there, is there any kind of long-term plan concerning the band (i.e. reactivate full time, record new material, tour, etc.)?
Who will comprise the roster of Penance live for the DOC appearance? I have heard this may be the ‘Alpha & Omega’ era lineup, possibly their first show as such in roughly 15 years?
Butch Balich: Right now it’s five friends who missed jamming with each other and thought this gig would be a lot of fun. The last time Penance played was around 2013 – that was Mike, Terry, Rich Freund, Brian Goodbread, and I. We’ve been talking about maybe doing a new album. I know Terry has material ready to go. Everyone seems to be up for it, but we’ll play it by ear once this show is under our belts.
It is Mike Smail, Terry Weston, Mary Bielich, Matt Tuite and me. The Alpha & Omega era line-up. It is the first time we’ll gig together since around 2002-2003.
Riff Relevant [Pat]: Is there any particular band set to play Descendants of Crom that you are personally excited about seeing… and why?
Butch Balich: Valkyrie is the band I’m most looking forward to. They have been one of my favorite bands, since I first heard them. GREAT live band – one of the best. And those guitar harmonies are godly!!! Plus they are really good dudes and it’ll be good to see them again.
Riff Relevant [Pat]: I only recently discovered Molasses Barge (the new LP is phenomenal, by the way), what are the origins of that band? How has the overall reception of the new album been and what prompted the decision to release it through Blackseed Records?
The new Molasses Barge S/T CD comes with a bonus disc of cover tracks, ‘Covered In Molasses‘… how did you all as a band select what songs to cover and what was the criteria (if any) for making the cut? (BTW – The BTO ‘Not Fragile” is so kickass!)
Butch Balich: Molasses Barge was put together by Justin Gizzi and Wayne Massey, to write and play doom and I was asked to join as vocalist. We went through a number of bassists until we solidified the lineup with Amy Bianco on bass and Kenny Houser on guitar, along with Justin. Kenny later left the band and we were joined by Dave Fresch and that’s where we sit now.
Thank you so much for your compliments on the album – we’d been threatening to release one for years and I still have to pinch myself that it is out and that it turned out as well as it did. So far, lots of good feedback on the album and on the covers disk we included with it.
We released through Blackseed, because we trust Shy Kennedy and because of her devotion and tireless energy being involved in the scene here with her own projects (Horehound is awesome!) and her support for bands in town here. It’s a fun band – I really think we just enjoy playing with each other and even though this is a sort of side band for most of us, it really does feel like home, as well. I feel very lucky to play with these folks – I love them as musicians and as people.
Justin came in with a list of songs he thought would be cool, as well as songs we’d discussed over the years. It was a pretty pain-free decision-making process. We just wanted to have some fun and so we were all game for whatever songs were decided on. I think the only one I hesitated on was “Love Child” by Deep Purple, because it is just at the edge of my range and I was worried I’d shit the bed singing it. The whole disk came out great – I love the way “Hiding Mask” and “Sinister Purpose” came out. I know Justin says it his favorite recording of anything he’s ever done. I’m really happy we did it and that it made him happy too.
Riff Relevant [Pat]: People seem automatically inclined to label you a “Doom vocalist” time and time again. Personally, I believe you expand into places far beyond such a limiting scope… how would YOU describe your vocal abilities? Do you play any instruments outside of singing?
And depending on how you answered that last query, how involved are you personally in the songwriting for these varied projects? Is there a point where you may have come up with a melody or vocal part originally intended for a certain band, but then you’ve perhaps thought it would suit one of the other projects better?
Butch Balich: As far as my voice, I think my strengths lie in my power, sense of melody, and ability to take what limited range I have and utilize it to its fullest. I don’t consider myself just a doom vocalist, because doom is just part of what I have done over the years. It’s nice to be respected in doom circles, believe me, and I love doom, but I don’t see myself as limited to just that one niche. But, ultimately, I honestly don’t get too bogged down in wondering how I’m perceived. Yeah, I want people to like what I do, but I learned a long time ago, from those who I look up to, to not to put so much stock in either criticism OR praise. Just do what you do… for yourself and if others dig it that’s a bonus.
I don’t play any instruments, unfortunately. I tinkered with bass and guitar, but never beyond that. I can do some power chords and really simple bass lines, but not even a garage band would want me. LOL! I do have a guitar, though and my goal for the next year is to start learning, so I can get to the point where I can write songs or just play for my own enjoyment. It’s not something I could see myself doing live, but I do want to try to learn and see where it goes. Some day my voice will conk out and when it does it’d be nice to have something to fall back on.
In Argus, I do all the vocal melodies and lyrics, but I’m also involved in arrangements, along with the rest of the band. Dave and Jay are the main writers, but we all contribute ideas at rehearsal. It’s all very group-oriented at that point.
Justin pretty much writes everything for Molasses Barge, including the lyrics and melodies, which is cool by me. He has a certain vision when he writes and it is nice to interpret his ideas, rather than be as intricately involved in the writing. I will make tweaks based on my voice, but generally, he teaches me the melody, gives me the words and we’re off!
With Arduini-Balich… Victor wrote all the music and sent it to me. I did all the lyrics and he and I collaborated on melodies, or I did the melodies on my own. It was a different way of working, as he’s in Connecticut and I’m in Pittsburgh and so a great deal of trust was involved on his part. He’d send finished music tracks and I’d write and record and often he was hearing the melodies for the first time when he received the final tracks. But Vic and I are on the same page with a lot of things, so it worked very well.
Riff Relevant [Pat]: Assuming you write (most or all) the lyrics you sing… where do you cull lyrical inspiration from?
Butch Balich: Personal life, the world around me, history, literature… Sometimes just an emotion. There are a lot of guys I look up to but whom I could never hope to come close to – Phil Lynott’s storytelling, Dio’s realms of fantasy washed through reality. Steve Harris’ historical lyrics always fascinated me. I like clever writers, like Ian Gillan and Steven Tyler and then a guy like Dave Wyndorf who paints vivid paintings with his words. But for my writing, I kind of feel for the moods in the music first and then join that to words that fit that mood.
Riff Relevant [Pat]: You mentioned Arduini-Balich. How was the overall experience of working with Victor Arduini and did you have any inkling that ‘Dawn Of Ages‘ would be so well received? What are the chances of a sophomore album manifesting from that team-up?
Butch Balich: I loved working with Victor. He inspired and pushed me to be a better singer. He was really easy to work with – very creative, open, and enthusiastic. It was one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had. We worked hard, but it was very gratifying.
We knew we had something special with ‘Dawn Of Ages‘ and we’re both really happy that it reached people and spoke to them and that those who have taken the time to tackle the record seem to love it. It’s gotten great reviews and word of mouth from people is really positive. We’re very proud of the album. There WILL be a sophomore album. I think we’ll start talking seriously about it next year. And we’re still hoping to play a few select shows at some point.
Riff Relevant [Pat]: As far as your singing goes, who are/were some of your biggest musical influences at any point, and why do you believe they affected you in such a way?
Butch Balich: Ronnie James Dio is my all time favorite – his range, power… he had a masculinity to his voice that even when he sang high he never sounded thin or wimpy. His voice was deceptively high because he sang so powerfully – you’d think “I can sing that” and then realize “holy shit, that’s up there”. “Rising” and “Heaven And Hell” being chapter and verse of amazing singing.
Of course Halford, Dickinson, but also guys like a Paul Stanley who, with KISS, really made me want to do this. Steve Marriot, Paul Rodgers, Brad Delp, Robin Zander, John Arch, Frank DiMino of Angel… Pete Steele was the first singer who made me want to hit LOWER notes. He was unbelievably underrated as a singer. Tom Jones. Marvin Gaye. James Brown. I am all over the map and find a lot to love and be inspired by in all kinds of vocalists for different reasons – range, power, rhythmic sense, melody, soulfulness…
Riff Relevant [Pat]: You mention inspiration from Paul Stanley… during your youth, what was the catalyst event that set you upon the musical path; i.e.: a certain band, specific album, life event, etc.? (For me it was buying Kiss’ ‘Hotter Than Hell‘ in ’74 at age 5, ha!).
Butch Balich: KISS was THE band that made me want to play music. As a kid of 5 in ’76, I revered the ‘Destroyer‘ 8-track I’d gotten from my Grandmother… and then “Rock And Roll Over“. I can remember listening to “I Want You” and my buddy and I howling with laughter over the stuttered “buh buh buh buh babe…“. Of course, it was the image at first, but I fell in love with their music and that was it for me. It launched me into music.
Riff Relevant [Pat]: Another band you’re part of, Argus, will release their fourth full-length studio album ‘From Fields Of Fire‘ less than a month from now (Sept. 8). What can fans expect from this new album? (Note: This interview was obviously done prior to the Argus record, which is out NOW!)
I know Argus played on the August 16th date of the ‘Tour Of The Doomed’. How excited were you about that opportunity and lineup, and might there be any lengthier Argus touring plans in the future?
Butch Balich: We are very proud of ‘From Fields Of Fire‘. I think it’s the best overall album we’ve done. Heavy, melodic, moody, dark, but catchy too. It’s Argus through and through, but we did try some new things to try to expand upon that sound. Songs like “Devils Of Your Time” and “No Right To Grieve” especially. We don’t want to repeat ourselves or tread water, so we’re always going to see how we can change, yet be true to the Argus that our friends know and love. Move forward, but always remember and respect where you come from.
So – it’s seven full new songs and an intro and outro piece. Lyrically, more personal and dark than we’ve ever been. We tried to do more vocal harmonies and, of course, the guitar harmonies weave throughout the album. I think if folks give it a few spins they will discover it grabs them more with each listen.
The show went well and it was great to see our friends in Beelzefuzz and Spillage and also to see Sheavy live (my first time) – they were really good and tried to cover most of their discography’s eras.
Riff Relevant [Pat]: As an outsider (me) looking in, Pittsburgh appears to have a tightly knit, self-supportive scene, very community-oriented, or where things appear to be like one big family. If I’m not off-base with this perception and you agree, what would you attribute this to?
Butch Balich: It is a pretty cool scene and I wish I could get out more, because there are some really talented people here and there’s a lot of color to the scene… it’s not just a homogenous heap. From metal to punk to experimental stuff… Pittsburgh is kind of a “big” small town, really, so you’ll run into each other a lot, and a lot of us are in multiple bands. So it makes for a cool community!
Riff Relevant [Pat]: Juggling four bands (or three and a collaborative project?) as you are at this time, what non-musical, if any, things do you enjoy doing in your private life i.e. hobbies, travels, etc.?
Butch Balich: Time with my kids is very important to me. Any time I get with them is important. I like to read a lot – I’ll read fantasy, musician bios are big with me… anything that seems interesting. I also love comic books, but that’s an expensive hobby. I dig movies and some tv – Walking Dead, Better Call Saul… big Steelers fan. Split season tickets with my ex-wife.
Riff Relevant [Pat]: Speaking of collaborations and such, if you could work with one person from the world of music history, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Butch Balich: I would love to work with Tony Iommi. He’s THE riff master and his work has been so important to me. I would give my left nut just to do one song with him.
Riff Relevant [Pat]: I’m going to kind of put you on the spot here, Butch so I apologize in advance, ha… If I am an average John Q. Music Fan and run across this interview and have never heard of Brian ‘Butch’ Balich, where or what would be your suggestion as a starting point? Not disrespecting any band over another of course, but which of your musical endeavors would you suggest that person begin with? What specific release and why so?
Butch Balich: I’d start with ARGUS ‘From Fields Of Fire‘ and work backwards. This album and ‘Dawn Of Ages‘ has me at the best I’ve ever been and at my most diverse.
I really love most of the work I’ve done over the years and am ashamed of nothing, but I think where I am now is pretty damn good.
Riff Relevant [Pat]: Hypothetically speaking and depending on the Argus release, you stand a chance to theoretically place on 2017’s annual year-end roundups, aka ‘Best Albums Of…’, lists anywhere from one to three times (all at once), due to the remarkable albums and output you have been part of this year… any thoughts on that either way?
Butch Balich: I honestly try not to get too wrapped up in that, but it’s a pretty cool thought that I am on three albums this year and they are all really good. And that’s a testament to the musicians I am honored to be in bands with. I am very, very lucky that musicians of their caliber chose me to work with them.
Riff Relevant [Pat]: Butch, I have a tradition of closing my interviews with allowing the subject to have the last word – so anything you would like to say, state, share, rant about, or whatever, this is your shot, sir… have at it:
Butch Balich: Thanks so much for taking the time to put this interview together, Patrick. I really appreciate being able to talk to you for Riff Relevant. I look forward to meeting you at the Descendants Of Crom fest. I hope anyone reading this will check out the fest – it promises to be a great event. See you all soon!
Indeed it does! Now, that’s powerful stuff, my friends and I hope you made it to this ending point. Like I said, I’m a big fan of Butch’s, so I was damn sure determined to touch all the bases that I myself was curious of and interested in. I hope you were also and I can’t wait to see him perform live and meet, too.
I want to thank singer supreme, my guest Brian “Butch” Balich, for taking the time, energy, and effort to answer my myriad queries. I want to thank Descendants Of Crom organizer, Horehound vocalist, and wearer of a dozen other hats, Shy Kennedy for facilitating this exchange, and with that… make sure to get to Descendants Of Crom!
You can see a host of kick-ass bands including Butch’s own, Penance as well hob-knob with myself and Riff Relevant‘s owner Leanne Ridgeway, and another of our writers – David Lamay, among many others. We will hopefully see you there!