Heavy metal is a tree with many branches, dozens of sub-genres and cross-bred styles. But Charlottesville’s Corsair has older influences than most of its peers, reaching back past the aggressive thrash era of the ’80s, to focus on a time when the distinctions between heavy metal, glam, and hard rock were less clear. Its sound is closer to Thin Lizzy, Led Zeppelin, and especially early Iron Maiden. Instead of Cookie Monster-growls or goblin shrieks, Corsair sings in clear, melodic harmonies reminiscent of Ronnie James Dio. The style—retro, yet still intricate and involving—has earned the band fans both near and far, including people who would never consider entering the circle pit at a Slayer show.
“Early metal is like, ’68, ’69 Black Sabbath,” explained guitarist Marie Landragin, a French-Armenian-American whose accent bears heavy traces of her Australian upbringing. “That’s when dudes are starting to play big power chords, putting distortion on stuff, and then in the early ’70s, that’s when things get really interesting. That period, for me, has always been super cool.”
Corsair formed in 2008, in part because three of the band members, guitarists Landragin and Paul Sebring, and bassist Jordan Brunk had played together in Mass Sabbath, Charlottesville’s large-scale Black Sabbath cover band. Landragin and Brunk soon became a couple, and began playing together with Sebring, adding drummer Aaron Lipscombe.
“There’s a lot of harmonized solos, the twin lead [guitar],” Landragin explained. “Not just the solos, the riffs, too. Playing chords is fun and all, but it’s more fun when you break the chords apart and play the corresponding notes together, with the two guitars. It’s a beautiful effect. And I’m lucky to have found another guitarist who’s interested in playing all of that, who’s not just like, ‘That’s too hard. Too many notes.’ Paul is unbelievably talented, he can play any type of music well.”
The Mass Sabbath project eventually morphed into the Mock Stars Ball, for which Corsair once played the part of Spinal Tap, a pitch-perfect imitation (Sebring’s Nigel Tufnel is flawless), which has permanently crept into their band dynamic, a continuing source of in-jokes at every practice.
Part of the appeal, and the formula for Corsair’s success, is that the band is self-aware, and has a sense of humor about itself, while still taking its craft seriously. They’re not afraid of flirting with the ridiculous, but they’re too focused on making awesome music to think about tickling anyone’s funnybone. Their songs include “SkyKrakken,” “Wolfrider,” and “Warrior Woman.”
“Some people are like, ‘What’s so great about writing fantasy lyrics?’” Landragin said. “Well, what’s not great about dragons and wizards? Some people think it’s corny, but that’s all good stuff.”
“It’s just more fun than lyrics like, ‘My girlfriend sucks/my girlfriend sucks,’” Sebring added.
“Even if you’re fantasizing about that stuff, you’re still projecting something of yourself into that fantasy, and there’s something that other people can see of themselves in it,” Brunk said.
“It’s not like we have lyrics that spell out, like, ‘I walked up to the king, and then I gave him my sword, and then the dragon killed us all,’” Sebring interjected, breaking into sarcastic sing-song. “You want the listener to infer their own sweet story from the lyrics.”
Corsair released two EPs, Alpha Centauri and Ghosts of Proxima Centauri in 2010 and 2011, both CD-Rs in silk-screened sleeves with cover art by Landragin. A self-titled full length was initially also self-released, in April of 2012.
“There were all of these blog reviewers writing shit like, ‘This is their third presentation, why hasn’t anybody picked these guys up?’” Landragin said. “And then Tim from Shadow Kingdom called us in September.” The label offered to give their album a proper release, exposing them to a wider audience. “They’re cool because they also re-release a lot of older bands from the ’70s, that not a lot of people know about,” Landragin said.
That call came just as she and Brunk were relocating to France. “We had planned to move there permanently,” Landragin said. “We signed the [record] contract right before we left, and we had already bought the tickets, and it wasn’t like we were going to not go to France. So we stayed as long as Jordan’s visa lasted—I stayed a month longer, because I’m a Frenchie.” [Landragin has dual citizenship.]
Eventually they both returned to the U.S., reunited with their bandmates, and began writing another album. “Maybe we’ll have it by the end of the year, we’re hoping,” she said. “We’re still finding our feet again as a band, after coming back from France.”
Shadow Kingdom’s backing has won Corsair the allegiance of an international group of fans. “Germany loves us,” Landragin said. “Over 75 percent of our sales are to Germany, it’s insane.” They’ve accepted an offer from a festival organizer in Hamburg, and are weighing the option of a three-week European tour around the date. They also continue to promote themselves locally: currently, all sales of Falconer beer at Mellow Mushroom and Champion Brewery come with a free download of the Corsair song “Falconer.”
Corsair will play The Southern on Saturday, June 15, the first hometown gig since reuniting. The opener is All Them Witches, a Nashville group with whom Corsair recently shared a stage in Harrisonburg. “They’re a pretty rad bunch of guys,” Brunk said. “The guitarist has a pretty sick tone, the drummer grooves pretty well. A good combination of stoner metal and Nashville rock.”
Tickets are $8 in advance, or $10 at the door, which opens at 8pm with music at 9pm.