Children of the Grave: From Brownout to Brown Sabbath
Brownout found unlikely success in writing two albums of Latin music and funk interpretations of early Black Sabbath tunes. Their most recent album, Volume II, is an assemblage of Sabbath material that runs through 1975’s Sabotage. The band, a nine-piece Latin music group from Austin, Texas, have presented themselves occasionally over the past few years as Brown Sabbath. While the band does pay due reverence to the source material, Brownout enriches it with each member’s personal experiences and music backgrounds.
Greg Gonzales, bassist for Brownout, had a lot to say about Brown Sabbath’s unexpected appeal before diverse audiences. I met Gonzales before Brownout’s show in West Hollywood at The Roxy Theatre, one stop during their two-week tour along the west coast. There we discussed the origins of Brown Sabbath and how the language and culture of funk and Latino music direct the band’s personal touches which appear in their productions as Brown Sabbath.
“Where we really crossed the threshold into this doom funk sound of Brown Sabbath was actually an accident.” Gonzales says. The story goes that Brownout played four, themed nights at an Austin club called Frank’s. They played a b-boy night, a a hip-hop night, a James Brown night, and decided to do Black Sabbath for the fourth night.
“Alex [Marrero, vocalist,] came to the rehearsal and he just crushed it. We had never heard him sing with that aggressive, metal kind of vocal sound. We had played metal before but we hadn’t tried to take those heavy sounds and combine them with the Latin funk we were already doing.” He also credits Mark “Speedy” Gonzales, horns director, for embellishing the songs with interesting textures without being overly jazzy or stripping away the edge of the originals. Listen to their takes on “Supernaut” or “Into the Void” for the most direct examples of this.
“We played the show not really knowing what to expect and it ended up selling out with a line out down the block,” said Gonzales. Apparently, Ubiquity Records got a hold of a video recording taken that night then contacted Brownout about putting out a record. “We didn’t ever think it was going to become a thing.” Two albums and several tours in, it clearly did.
Symptom of the Universe
One great thing to be said about Brown Sabbath’s albums is that they are great gateways for understanding the traditions of various music scenes. At The Roxy that night, long-haired Sabbath heads headbanged to “Sweet Leaf”. Just next to them were Hollywood housewives extending their arms to Lucifer during “N.I.B.” And alongside them were other people grooving their hips and shoulders to the distinguished percussive shuffles added to “Snowblind”. You wouldn’t expect to to see a gathering like this over a cover band or any singular band really.
Gonzales appreciates the varied allure of Brown Sabbath but is at times worried about Brownout falling into a niche or being relegated to the tribute band shelf. All things considered, he is stern about Brown Sabbath being but one passionate facet of the band’s original intentions: expressing themselves as musicians and bringing people together. “Our music builds on the appeal of Black Sabbath. People are curious to hear new takes on stuff they already appreciate. [But] we’re not pretending to be something we’re not. It’s an avenue for expressing who we are.”
Brownout is able to take unique snapshots of different eras of Black Sabbath but they get to add their own heartfelt affectations. In their case, those includes congas, a horns section, and funk-fueled guitar solos. “We’re trying to push the envelope a little bit, and Brown Sabbath is our vehicle for doing our own thing.”
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Children of the Grave
That vehicle doesn’t just pay homage to Ozzy and the lads, but to Latin, Caribbean and funk music, too. “When we play this music, we’re bringing people back to older traditions that we appreciate and respect. We’re doing our own thing and we’re never gonna pretend that we’re Caribbean salseros or South American cumbieros or Black dudes from the 70s. That’s all inspiration for us and we love that music. And we hope that our music will turn people onto the original sources.”
If by any other means, Browout’s Brown Sabbath accomplish their goals by breaking down the perceived expectations of a music scene. They add something more akin to music from other cultures with more instrumentation and syncopation on top of the base material of Black Sabbath. In that sense, Brownout is an channel for people to experience a rock band scene or a Latin music scene, which they might not understand or be familiar with. “We want people to meet and cross those invisible barriers and talk to each other, dance, party, rock out, make new friends, and accept one another for who they are. The labels we put on each other are bullshit. We’re all human.”
Into the Void
Though it would be amazing to hear more Brown Sabbath renditions of other great Sabbath songs, Gonzeles feels that he and the band should never feel shackled to one sound or one band. “We’re chomping at the bit to get back to our own stuff. We want to take what we can gather from this music and bring it to our own. We’ve been inspired by all these sounds and the new growth we’ve experienced. We’re well overdue to put our new stuff [as Brownout] and be more ourselves.” That leaves us in anticipation for original doom funk, a growing tangent of heavy music, from Brownout in the future.