In May of 2016, singer/songwriter/guitarist Zak Ward (of Son of the Sun) was offered a gig at 12 Gates Brewery. Deciding not to go it alone, he asked Buffalo music scene veteran Josh Mullin (of The Last Conservative) to accompany him on bass and recent transplant Dave Harris to join him on guitar. Shortly thereafter, drummer Peter Metzler joined too, and First Ward was born.
Their debut EP, “Live at Raven,” is a strong introduction to one of the best bands in Western New York. Released while First Ward works on an upcoming album for 2017, Live at Raven is more than just a placeholder; it contains some of the best local music put out in 2016.
The songs have the warm, fuzzy inspiration of early ’90s alternative rock. Ward’s howling vocals call to mind a powerful combination of Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell and Tom Petty, while the guitars push the songs ahead with beautiful, chorus-filled splendor. Often when listening to an album, I find myself picking out places where perhaps something should be different, but everything on First Wards’ debut, from part to instrumentation, sounds perfect where it is. The two guitarists interact with intricate parts that slide together seamlessly in a way reminiscent of Death Cab for Cutie. The bass thumps at just the right frequencies, with a small amount of warm fuzz giving it character and making the bass lines feel extra smooth. The drums are sturdy, uncomplicated and hold the whole thing together. Overall, the music has a great groove, with solid interplay between the drums and bass.
The first track, “I Am A Winner,” is a strong start to the EP. It clocks in at only a minute and a half but feels so complete you barely notice how short it is. “Simple Things” is a blues song at heart, with a dirge-like guitar and a smooth, sliding bass line. The chorus picks up with beautiful guitar parts that help highlight the thoughtful lyrics (“Used up and broken like words from my past/You make me feel like I did when I was 14/Simple rhymes and simple chords help me to say/All that I wanted but I didn’t know how to throw in your face.”)
“Lost,” a song about getting lost together, sounds like a Tom Petty B-side with modern flair. The haunting vocals and interwoven guitars take center stage, with keyboards adding a swirling feeling. You really feel every word of Ward’s lyrics. Lines like “We’ll take a drive where satellites can’t reach us/’Cuz when you don’t know the way/That’s when you find the bits of life that make it all right” feel like they’re coming right from his soul.
“You’re Not Alone,” the final track, is the star of the EP. It’s a straightforward song with a little flair of country, a la Rilo Kiley. The track (and EP) ends with a fantastic guitar solo.
First Ward’s debut shows them exactly as they are: a group of experienced local musicians who’ve got the chops and creativity to create something beautiful and unique. I look forward to seeing what they have in store for us in the future.