Escaping the doom: Kanawha’s new album ‘Broken Branches’ marks a turning point

Doom metal is often assigned adjectives like “sludgy,” “swampy” or “grimy.” In its muddy cultural footprint are images of purple witches and green goblins, badass trucks and motorcycles, and a relentless, churning beat that powered bands like Black Sabbath, Electric Wizard and Candlemass to their places in music history. 

But if doom metal were to crawl from the muck to find itself sprawled beneath the high desert sky—were the mud baked into fine dust and blown across barren ranges to settle on sagebrush, lonely highways and humming neon lights—it might sound something like Reno band Kanawha’s newest album, Broken Branches, released in September 2023. 

“They classify us as this idea of ‘stoner/doom,’ which is still how other people kind of know us,” said vocalist Mark Earnest. “Even though if you listen to the first two records, we’re heading farther and farther away from that and more into this semi-unclassifiable, ’90s hybrid, loud-guitars, in-your-face stuff. They called it desert rock for a while, too, which I kind of dig.” 

The four-piece band got its start in 2016 when guitarist Tony Ashworth went looking for a new project to bring him back to his ’90s rock roots. He linked up with Earnest, a long-time friend from the Reno music scene, and a few other musicians. 

“We still tell people when we first started, we kind of sounded like Soundgarden covering Black Sabbath,” Ashworth said. 

Kanawha, named for Ashworth’s home county back in West Virginia and registered under Earnest and Ashworth’s label, ToneMark Sounds, cut two records with their original lineup, generating some local buzz and praise from online metalheads near and far. Their first LP even found airtime in the United Kingdom, and inspired vinyl sales in the U.S. After some amicable lineup changes, though, Ashworth and Earnest were joined in 2022 by drummer Julian Iosty and bassist Alex Alcantar. 

The new lineup has a near-instant onstage chemistry, born from years of stage experience and camaraderie. Most were already fans of each other’s previous bands or projects. They started recording a new album in the winter of 2022. 

“Mark said something in some other interview that he did recently, that Kanawha didn’t find its sound until this lineup, and I think that’s something that is really truthful,” said Ashworth. “Having that kind of friendship and intimacy with the four of us, like, if we’re going to take care of each other outside of the band, we make sure to take care of each other inside the band. So we don’t let each other write crappy riffs or lay down some lazy fucking bass lick.” 

Recording Broken Branches also gave Kanawha an opportunity to fundamentally change the sound and direction of the band at the mechanical level. As new members, Iosty and Alcantar were able to put their marks on the existing songs and draw from their own tastes in developing something new. 

“When I came in to record our first full-length album, I had a skeleton of somebody else’s songs, because their original drummer had already laid down stuff,” Iosty said. “Then through my own head, or what I hear, what I feel, I could just add in a little bit of this—there’s this little spice; here is this little fill here. And with Broken Branches, it was all me.” 

Said Alcantar: “As the newest member of the band, I had a lot of anxiety about it, because there is so much love, and a lot of the songs, especially the ones that had already been written before, I almost felt like the stepdad. I just want to make sure that it’s good. I remember sitting there. It was me and Tony, and he’s got the best bedside manner I’ve ever seen of anybody guiding you through the recording process.” 

Broken Branches was recorded and mixed over several months in the Great Divide Den, Ashworth’s home studio. In Ashworth’s words, he’s “fairly new to the mixing game,” and was meticulous about the sound of their new album. 

“These guys were very great at being like, ‘Hey, you’re new; what you’re trying, it’s not working,’” Ashworth said. “There were some things that Alex pointed out, some things that Mark pointed out, and some things that Julian pointed out that I’m like, ‘All right, there’s something I’m not getting.’ So, after months, I just stripped it down. Stripping it down, and just having us as the band in the room, made that record what it ended up becoming.” 

The bandmates noted that they come from disparate musical influences—everything from early punk to indie rock to Pacific Northwest grunge—all of which pulled Kanawha even further from the doom-metal moniker they had acquired through their early work. 

“I think just throwing this blanketed genre on, it’s always kind of bugged me,” Ashworth said. “We’re very talented dudes. Why would we just pigeonhole ourselves? So we decided to not just slowly progress and open our box a little. We were just like, ‘Let’s just have fun with this.’” 

Branches has plenty of notable moments, from the double-time, mosh-pit-worthy breaks on the intro track “Strings,” to the true doom sludge fest that is “Destroyer,” or the blues-esque solo on “Screaming Eagle”—the band’s homage to the life of soul singer Charles Bradley. 

To all four members of Kanawha, though, “Long Lost” represents a true turning point in the band’s sound. Melodic and grungy with soaring vocals and an uplifting message, it’s a riff-driven standout on an otherwise consistently heavy album. 

“It’s about someone going through a rough situation, but it’s definitely like, you know, ‘We’ll find you,’” said Earnest, who co-wrote the lyrics with Ashworth. “‘You may be gone; you may be lost now, but you have us, you know.’ That was really a moment where our identity kind of changed.” 

With the newest album in the rearview, Kanawha’s next steps are, as of yet, unclear. There’s already talk of getting back in the studio, perhaps recording an EP in Seattle with the engineer behind Sound Garden’s first few records. 

As for local shows, they’re biding their time. Aside from the daily stresses of life that make shows and tours difficult to plan, the four veterans of the Reno music scene confess to being disheartened by some of the setbacks the city has seen in the aftermath of the pandemic closures. The loss of iconic local venue Jub Jub’s Thirst Parlor, they agreed, was particularly heartbreaking. 

But new venues like the Cellar Stage at Alturas Bar signify a renewed enthusiasm for the scene and have the band members hopeful that they’ll be playing live again soon. 

“Everybody in Reno that’s in this music scene, everybody’s so thirsty to see something weird and new,” Alcantar said. “It’s just a matter of getting that stage for them to play.”