Iron Range Outlaw Brigade: Backwoods Hellride
It seems that a lot of people go all out and lay down a load of money when recording an album. From Kickstarter campaigns to taking out loans, people often take the recording of an album very seriously, perhaps too seriously. With the case of “Backwoods Hellride” by Iron Range Outlaw Brigade It didn’t take long to get the feel of what something would sound like if one were to find an old lost and forgotten country LP in their grandfather’s attic. I immediately noted a raw and organic feel to this album, a sound that can only come from tape. Using tape (especially cassette tape) on a recording creates a warmth and natural distortion that is truly unique and becoming increasingly rare these days with the availability of digital recording software such as Cubase, ProTools or GarageBand.
The leader of Iron Range Outlaw Brigade, Kirk Michael, included a handwritten note to me and it confirmed what I was thinking on the first listen of the CD. The album is “a complete DIY effort. All recorded in my home on the Northside of Virginia by Glen Mattson on a Tascam four track cassette recorder over a Sonic Youth mix tape,” explained Kirk. Some audiophiles who may be reading this might be feeling a little shaky right now. There are tape emulation units and software but I’ve never personally used them and for some reason I doubt that the products have a “Tascam four track over a Sonic Youth mix tape setting” setting. I wouldn’t be surprised if local audio electronics engineer, Dave Hill, has already created several of these and subsequently scrapped them.
I’ve stated before and I’ll state it again. It’s not about creating the most pristine recording ever with an album, what’s more important in an album is creating an experience for the listener. IROB went out to create a dirty old country album using old school DIY recording methods from decades ago and they achieved a sound that is gritty and unmistakably creates the experience of what the band is all about.
With this second album, IROB takes you deep into the backwoods and drops the listener off into a world of hard-drinking, trucking and other such mayhem. The album wastes no time in getting wild and crazy with the song “Backwoods Hellride.” The song blends IROB’s mix of rock-a-billy, country and punk masterfully.
There are more traditional feeling country songs like “Cornbread Stuffin’,” which details alcoholism, domestic assault and drug use. Although the content of the album is kind of dark at times, it is presented in a way that makes it sound like things couldn’t be better in the world of IROB. I’d liken it to gangster rap in the way that there are elements of the truth in it, but it’s more of a glorification of a certain lifestyle and culture.
The band seems to mock country music as well as they play it, this is mainly present in the vocals and vocal harmonies. “Went Down to the Bar” is laid out like a standard upbeat bar tune right down to the pedal steel guitar played by John Peterson. But Michael’s vocals go above and beyond in creating a country feel. At the end of the song there is a second of a Sonic Youth song that is slowed down to the point where it’s impossible to distinguish what song it is since four track recorders run faster than how fast a standard tape plays.
When I mentioned that this album is like some sort of lost and forgotten old country album, many of the situations have been highlighted in a lot of old time songs, but IROB takes things to a whole new level. “Blood on the Saddle” is a short account of a violent stand off between a biker and a gambler. Songs like “Jerry Fell in Love (with a Tractor)” is a song about a guy who regularly huffs gas from an old broken down tractor, this song’s vocals are done by Glen Mattson who currently plays drums with IROB.
When it comes to natural tape distortion, the whole album is saturated with it and this seems to be the desired effect of what they were going for. Although the recording is somewhat raw and abrasive, it should be noted that the mixing of the album is pretty good overall. I can clearly understand most every lyric and sometimes things float around a little from song to song with the mix, but all in all, it’s acceptable. Glen Mattson from Sparta Sound is credited for mixing and mastering the album.
The song “Red Neck Truckers” pushes the limits of tape distortion. The song introduces us to characters such as “One-Eyed Bill” and “Pregnant Beth.” “Pregnant Beth quit the junk when she had little Lyle, but she likes to relapse every once and awhile,” goes part of a verse from the song. The chorus is as brutal as a CB radio with the squelch turned low with high air-wave traffic. The guitars aren’t distorted on this album, the album is distorted on this album. The whole album edges on a certain amount of sloppiness that ends up actually adding to the chaotic scenes described in the lyrics. There are minor mess-ups with the instruments here and there and it’s hard to really say if the vocals are messed up or not in parts because this album is taking it out that far.
The album has a certain timelessness to it in that it has a feeling of attitudes and culture that could be as easily from the prohibition era as it could have come from this day and age and anywhere in between (excluding the song “Evel Knievel”). A few tracks on the album are not exactly politically correct and I could see certain people who aren’t open to the overall feel of this album taking offense to some of it. While I was out on Superior Street pondering what to write about on this aspect of the album, I ran into my friend and local musician Jeffery James O’Loughlin, “music should never, ever, ever be politically correct,” noted O’Loughlin. I’m going to have to agree with him on that.
Iron Range Outlaw Brigade takes the listener on one hell of a ride with this unusual but somehow familiar album. To top off the DIY recording of the album, the liner and notes are all printed off on paper and are in black & white. “The CD cases are all second hand, all inserts were copied and done by us,” added Kirk in his letter to me. It seems fair to say that most acts should not go about making an album this way, but the Iron Range Outlaw Brigade somehow pulls it off. If you like your music nice and clean, this album is not for you. If you have a little bit of North Woods rebel in you, it might be worth a listen.
Iron Range Outlaw Brigade will celebrate their CD release at R.T. Quinlan’s in Duluth this Friday, October 12 with Fearless Moral Inventory, Phillip of Nazareth and Glenn Maloney. Show up to the show to get a CD and have a wild time. Find IROB on Facebook if you’re ready for some hardcore country music.