album review – Black Mantis’s self-titled debut
By Brian Tucker
Mainstream rock music has taken its share of abuse over the years from critics and non-fans alike. In the process the genre has been largely cast off, and unfairly. Not every band in the genre is Nickleback or 3 Doors Down. I don’t mention them because I have an opinion about them. I’m just not that familiar. I do so because they are popular acts that get knocked about in the press and social media.
To be fair, not every group in the genre is so middle of the road. We have local acts in Wilmington within the genre and do it well. Look no further than Damona Waits, a polished and tight playing outfit that released a new album last year. They weren’t alone.
Last fall the Black Mantis quietly released a self-titled debut EP of six songs and played a few shows around town since. It’s an enticing and melodic collection of songs created in part by musicians immersed in ILM’s music scene. Lead singer Steve Mousseau played in Great Zeus’ Beard and drummer Matt Barbour has been in bands like The Black Sox, Boogielip, Billy Joe Murphy.
The EP does a lot with its players, making sure there are layers in the songs. In its recording you can hear instrumentation distinctly, each standing out equally (notably on “Blinded” where Mousseau grinds out the lyrics). The EP is a sometimes a time warp, songs echoing parts of 90s grunge (“Blinded”) and exploratory indie rock sounds (the radio ready “Gone”). Underneath it all is catchy, melodic music that aims for a larger soundcsape. It does, whether on soaring, airy rockers like “Blinded,” “Save Me Now” or one nuanced with rippling guitar work by Madison Bunting on “Down.”
Together with Barbour the two play with an economy and mirrored energy that can be punchy or rollicking (see “Ups and Downs”). Throughout the EP Barbour’s lively, punching drumming style is consistent, be it the quick tempo on “Gone” or on the moody “Save Me Now.” I’ve seen Barbour perform live a lot over the years and he remains a humble player with tight musicianship and understated fight in the delivery. Here it serves well the driving vibe of the album’s material.
Across it Mousseau (who also plays bass) sings with weighted presence, sometimes delivering understated vocals as powerful as those reaching skyward. For fans of Tool it can recall their coarse, howling vocals but with Mousseau there’s humility in the aching, haunted qualities of a voice that works well for hard rock material. Its more emotional here, more arm around the shoulder if you will, especially on songs mixing hard rock and indie rock.
Black Mantis works the genre of hard rock in emotionally driven ways, either bending flavors into it or taking it to new, edgier places. Ultimately it’s a textured rock album with plenty of warmth inside those heavy grooves and bristling guitar licks.