Credit: Rei Perry
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John Palumbo – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Rick Witkowski – Guitars & Vocals
Joey D’Amico – Drums & Vocals
Bobby Hird – Guitars & Vocals
Glenn Workman – Keyboards & Vocals
Dave DeMarco – Bass & Vocals
Some bands have the innate ability to put their collective finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, and then be able to channel that level of awareness into poignant, affecting music that transcends the bounds of the here and now. Crack The Sky is just such a band.
Though the Weirton, West Virginia-bred rock outfit respectfully celebrated the 45th anniversary of their critically acclaimed self-titled 1975 debut in 2020 (a surefire release Rolling Stone cited at the time as being “original, humorous, and polished without seeming too arty”), Crack The Sky have no intention of gliding by on the past accomplishments of a deep-rooted career, but rather have their respective sights set on conquering the road that lies ahead.
To that end, Crack The Sky have poured their fervently beating hearts and razor-sharp creative souls into a fierce manifesto quite aptly titled Tribes, which was mainly recorded at Studio L in Weirton, West Virginia and produced, engineered, and mixed by ace Crack guitarist Rick Witkowski and mastered by longtime band associate R. Lee Townsend at Real Time Studios MD.
The 13 tracks that comprise Tribes signify what may very well be Crack The Sky’s finest hour on wax to date. Just witness the breadth of its contents, whether it be the drawn swords of the title track, the warning shots of unrest in “Another Civil War,” the grand irony that permeates “Another Beautiful Day,” the 9-minute protective cocoon that runs amok before returning to tranquility in “Quick,” the skittish out-of-place textures of “Stranger in a Strange Land,” or the horn-driven funky turn of “The Lost Boys,” for starters. Overall, Tribes encapsulates the tenor of our times with style and panache by blending the band’s signature Crack crunch with an intrinsic sense of melody in a way that has made the band diehard fan favorites for decades.
Interestingly enough, the seeds for Tribes were planted back when vocalist and chief lyricist John Palumbo had essentially finished penning the songs that would comprise Crack’s stellar 2018 studio effort, Living in Reverse. “When I’m creating and writing, it just spills out,” Palumbo explains. “And because I’m bombarded with all this information like we all are, there’s really no way around it for me. I try to write something every day, so it’s automatic.” Interjects Witkowski, “That’s what he does, you know? He writes. He gets in a mode, and he just goes.” Continues Palumbo, “What happens is, my head is so filled up with all that’s going on, and it just comes out. I suppose I’m even more introspective now, so I’m wondering, How are we going to get beyond this? That’s the trick. I don’t know what’s gonna happen — well, no one does.”
As a writer, Palumbo has often exhibited an inherent knack of being able to chronicle something that’s both of its time, yet also displays a sense of timelessness. Exhibit A for Palumbo’s on-point songwriting acumen is the album’s lead track, “Tribes,” which speaks volumes about modern society and the perpetual political push-pull everyone in it has to grapple with every day. Backed by a punctuated twin-guitar snarl courtesy of Witkowski and guitar partner Bobby Hird, and buttressed by a fierce drum break from Joey D’Amico, “Tribes” tells the tale of each side believing it has an inalienable right to champion the only opinion that matters: their own. “I had an immediate reaction as soon as I heard it,” enthuses Witkowski. “With a title like ‘Tribes,’ I felt like we just had to get some tribal drums in there — and then we had to ‘Crack it up’ a little bit in the way we combust together as a band. We figured out how to make a progression to where the tension kept building and building to illustrate the idea that everyone picks their sides, and then you argue back and forth about them — but it’s all gotta come to a head somewhere.” (See for yourself how it all turns out in the official “Tribes” video that’s now available on Carry On Music’s YouTube channel.)
Maintaining an objective observational tone is yet another one of Palumbo’s strengths. “The super-brilliant part about John’s lyrics to a lot of the songs on this record is that he’s making a point without choosing sides,” notes Hirt, “and that’s so difficult to do. It’s remarkable for somebody to be able to really voice an opinion without actually choosing a side.” Agrees Witkowski, “This record presents the state of our social situation. It doesn’t take sides. It just presents them.” Palumbo’s purpose is simple: “I want every listener to get something out of each song. I’m saying, ‘Here it is. This is what’s happening.’ I don’t know if what I’ve written will ever bring people together or not, but my intention is to never alienate anybody.”
The ensuing one-two punch of the wary plea of “Dear Leaders” and the foreshadowing of “Another Civil War” that immediately follows “Tribes” in the running order is further evidence that Palumbo continues to be quite the visceral song painter who creates auditory-delineated themes for not-so-imaginary Western world problems. “I look at every song and every piece of music John sends us as if it could be a soundtrack,” describes Hirt about the complete demos Palumbo passes along to his bandmates to embellish accordingly. “His lyrics really do transcend the times we’re in, so I never want to limit myself to any particular instrument when I’m working on his songs. I always have an open mind. And John’s gotten so wonderful with that — after he turns the stuff over to us, he goes, “Ok, have some fun.’” Concurs Witkowski, “JP lets us have free rein.” Confirms Palumbo, “I deliver it, and I know what I wanna hear. What I look for from the guys is for them to go ahead and take off with it all from there, and just play.”
Meanwhile, the aforementioned “Another Civil War” depicts the two disparate sides of the same coin, as Palumbo draws a fine lyrical line between people who stick to their philosophical guns, the opposition be damned. Reveals Witkowski, “I was definitely going for a Civil War kind of feel with the instrumentation we put on there, especially when the fife and drum and banjo all come into it.” D’Amico instantly picked up on the vibe going down in Studio L by introducing a militaristic beat into the “War” proceedings, while Hird instinctively picked up a nearby mandolin that once belonged to D'Amico’s grandfather to add even more of-era character to a song that focuses its sharp lens on the state of our current, ongoing great American divide.
The most majestic track on Tribes, the comforting-yet-chilling “Quick” is framed on both ends by a lush string section composed by Crack keyboardist and resident musical maven, Glenn Workman. Palumbo cites the honest sentiment behind the song’s recurring lines, “When you wake up / I’ll be there,” as the crux of its underlying theme of connection and support. “We all need to experience that kind of feeling right now,” he believes. “We need the human touch.”
Not only that, but the true musical meat of “Quick” comes from a massive guitar-solo section comprised of an epic, complementary riff-fest between Witkowski and Hirt. As Witkowski confirms, “Bobby and I made a vow that we would not record Crack The Sky guitar parts without each other in the room, and we won’t even work on our parts until we’re together. We both sit in front of the speakers with our guitars on, and we’ll work up the songs by playing off each other. It’s almost like a mindmeld thing. He’ll start playing something and I’ll come up with a lick, and then he’ll work with something off of that, and vice-versa. It just happens.” Clarifies Hirt, “I call them conversations. They’re conversations we have with each other on guitar. We set each other up and then we pass the baton, or whatever you wanna call it. A lot of times, we even end up landing in the same place together!”
Ultimately, Crack The Sky have multi-tiered goals for what they’d like their audience, both new and old alike, to experience after listening to Tribes. “What I’d like people to walk away with from the record is for them to go, ‘Gee, I’d love to hear that again!’” Witkowski says with a laugh before adding, “I do like the fact that we don’t take sides. We’re presenting the current state of affairs. We are not saying we’re this, or we’re that. I would love people to come together to agree to disagree — but still love one another. It’s easy to love the ones who love you back. But it’s not easy when someone disagrees with you and doesn’t think like you. It’s hard to love them.”
Palumbo acknowledges that we all live in trying times indeed. “The world has changed,” he concludes. “People have some really intense emotions, but if music can knock some sense into some of them, that would be terrific. It’s an aftereffect I’d be very happy about. Is that a goal? Well, I guess, somewhere down in my brain, it must be, because I keep trying to do it.” Palumbo pauses before rephrasing the question. “What am I trying to achieve with Tribes? I want people to think. That’s it. I just want ’em to think. I also want them to be entertained, which is why we do this — but the entertainment part really comes from live performance. But, overall, I want people to think.”
No matter what side any of us are on, one thing we can all agree on is the ear-rousing, soul-rattling, hard-charging music set forth by Crack The Sky on Tribes is the one unifying force that has the best chance of bringing any of us together, no matter who thinks they’ve “got the answers.” In short, Crack The Sky is a Tribe we can all believe in — yeah, yeah.
— Mike Mettler, resident Crackologist
January 15, 2021