Last Halloween a tall, Southern man named Bruce Olsen screamed "fuck you!" at Whoarfrost as they recorded their second album, You Say Yes, at Montrose Studio in Richmond, Va, which Olsen built. "He didn't understand where we were coming from," says Jon Lipscomb, the band's 25-year-old guitar wizard and frontman. "He was coming from a Southern rock vibe."
There was nothing Southern rock about Whoarfrost's self-titled full-frontal assault of a debut album, which was equally influenced by abrasive punk rock and free jazz. But for their second record, Lipscomb and his bandmates, Ethan Snyder and Tim Shaw, had already started moving in that direction, so that on You Say Yes, which the band released last week on bandcamp.com, one finds more conventional rock-and-roll structures and some riffs amid the sonic squalls that are indeed worthy of the Allman Brothers Band. "We used to make crazy riffs from the get-go," Lipscomb says. "Now we start with simpler riffs and mess with them more."
Take the first song, "Absolutely Not." It starts with an intricate guitar run that belies Lipscomb's formal training. When the vocals come in, they follow a melody, as opposed to the screams on the self-titled debut, but there is nothing predictable about that melody. Lipscomb's vocals have a kind of bluesy, heavy-metal quality. He even comes in with some melodic Misfits-y "who-o-os" that are miles away from the anti-melodic screams from Whoarfrost. After the second repetition of the chorus, about four minutes in, there's a fully metal Hendrix-like solo that explodes into a Zeppelin riff.
All of that is there, crammed into this record: Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, Hendrix, Black Flag, Iron Maiden, Sonic Youth, Mastodon, Eagles of Death Metal, Ornette Coleman, and Peter Brötzmann. Such a wide sonic palette isn't rare in an era where a generation of aspiring rockers have the entire history of music at their fingertips. But Whoarfrost has actually taken these elements and digested them and incorporated them into a sound that really doesn't sound like anyone else, in the same way that Zeppelin reinvented the Stones' pillaging of the blues to create something bigger and more bombastic.
The songs on You Say Yes often take a surprising turn in the middle, so that if you're listening and quit paying attention for just a second, you wonder: How they fuck did they get there? "We definitely still push it," Lipscomb says. "But we land well together."
In "Sunshine," it happens almost five minutes in, where the song stops, the drum kicks in, and then this killer riff starts rolling thunder across the low notes and Lipscomb lets out an ecstatic "wooo!" as the whole groove gets heavy and extends into a long jam that simply rocks in the most classic sense.
There is something of the classic rocker about Lipscomb. Sitting in his sparsely furnished Bolton Hill apartment with his long blond locks and a scarf around his neck, he has about him the air of 1960s Haight-Ashbury or 1970s London. He'd be perfectly at home on the album cover of Neil Young's Tonight's the Night, which is to say that he could actually be a rock star in the old sense: full of danger and abandon.
He absorbed some of this rock-and-roll spirit growing up in Randallstown, where his father played keyboards and hosted weekend jams at their house. "He had sessions with this guitarist who was really dark-out there-and he'd sit me down to listen and they'd just play," he recalls. "I didn't understand it but I just absorbed it."
It was at the same time that he met Tim Shaw, Whoarfrost's bass player. "We'd play together all the time," Lipscomb says, adding: "Not instruments, but as toddlers." But when he was 13 and started playing guitar, Shaw started playing bass. They played every weekend in high school, and eventually Lipscomb was accepted into the Berklee College of Music in Boston. "I got introduced to all kinds of music there," Lipscomb says. "But when I'd come back, Tim was listening to the same stuff. He discovered it on his own."
It was at Berklee that Lipscomb met Ethan Snyder, with whom he originally founded Whoarfrost (along with the aptly named bass player Nick Funk). "We wanted to start something that was noisy and not a typical Berklee band," he says. "Berklee's notorious for having bands that are party college-rock bands, but they do it really well, if that's what you're into. We wanted to do something that sounded good to us."
Eventually, the band moved to Amherst, where Funk was interning for Ecstatic Peace! Records. When they weren't able to find enough work to live, Lipscomb returned home to Baltimore and Snyder followed. Funk left the band, making room for Lipscomb to bring his old friend Shaw back into the fold.
Whoarfrost fit perfectly between the avant-garde and heavy-music scenes in Baltimore. They were intricate, heavy, atonal, and exciting-as they say on their bandcamp site, Whoarfrost is a band that is "not afraid to fail."
They toured for their self-titled album, but have high standards. "I'd look on the website and if someone spelled our name wrong, that meant they didn't listen to the music. That's what matters."
And lately, as the band continues to push itself forward, they have become increasingly conscious of their audience. "As we get older, we realize we do have to think about our listeners," Lipscomb says. "We're making this for people."
Whoarfrost plays a release show at Windup Space on Thurs. Feb. 28