Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Thrashwagon on the Road: Boston Update


Last weekend was everything it needed to be, crucial hangouts with old friends, moshing and vegan doughnuts. And in the process I was able to score 10 interviews for the Thrashwagon project.  A free Amtrak ticket, a solid show, and reasonable proximity to where I normally sleep in NJ meant a weekend like this could actually happen.

It kicked off perfectly when Craig Arms got to South Station the moment that my train arrived. I didn't even have to break stride. Immediately launching into talking about old days, we eventually landed at Darwin's in Harvard Square for coffee. My good friend Joe DeSilva told me once, everything is better when you have a cup a coffee to go with it. This weekend proved that point, as Caarms and I got juiced up and bullshitted for a couple of hours. The current singer of Waste Management cut his teeth as the bassist for Say Goodbye, an old school hardcore band that continually blended more thrash elements into their sound with time. They were a band that bridged gaps amongst the swirling of mass of sub-genres that congregated in the dusty air of Dudely Square's Berwick Institute. Besides his duties with Say G'Bye, Craig was also a charter member of the Bridgewater/New Bedford Mosh Crew - a group of scenesters that brought the underground of underground punk to Boston hardcore. 

I made my way over to the Watertown diner next, drunk on coffee and armed with a box of Craig's old flyers. There I met up with my old bandmates and some of my favorite people in the world, Eric Yu and Chris Strunk. After quickly inhaling dinner, we adjourned to some nearby benches to talk shit for the balance of the night. I first met Eric at a Fast Times show in Western Mass not long after I arrived in Boston in Y2K. He quickly became a willing car ride to all the good shows in the area, later the incredible songwriter for Glory Fades, as well as one of my best friends. Strunk had arrived from Pittsburg at more or less the same time I had arrived from Atlanta. He was referred to us as a good drummer who also drinks 40s. Throw Terry Fades into the mix and we had a band. As the scene developed, Eric became the go-to-guy for booking shows at the aforementioned Berwick - a dirty ass basement in a rough around the edges part of town that hosted so many HC shows that most of the weekend's subjects couldn't recall which shows they had been to and which they hadn't. 

Chris Strunk drummed for grind thrashers Crucial Unit before making the move to Boston and pounding away in a number of great bands. Check out the discography CD of his time with C.U., Everything Went Strunk. Possibly the best hand-drawn cover out there. What Strunk should be most recognized (nay, revered) for, is the person who swept and mopped the Berwick for the very first time. If you attended a show down there, he is the reason you don't have a lung infection presently. 

Crashed on a familiar couch in Eric Yu's living room. Stick a fork in it, Friday's done. 

At 7:00 am, a hungry Eric nudged me awake and we sleepily ventured out for vegan doughnuts. A pink lemonade and chocolate-covered along with a large coffee set me up for a day of jittery interviews. I eventually made it down to Central Square for a Middle East power matinee featuring reunions by likes of Think I Care, Invasion, and In My Eyes. Also topping the bill were current ragers Boston Strangler and Rival Mob. After discussing SxE for old dudes with Sweet Pete, it was time to see some bands and score some interviews.  Setting up interviews at a show is a perfect blessing/curse. You get a bunch of people you need to talk to all standing around at the same place, but that place is full of endless distraction and other commitments. Needless to say, my endeavoring to knock a few interviews out before the show proved futile.

Still, I was able to pin down the Shumksky bros for a great interview on TIC and RNR. If Winchendon, Mass was not already on the map, it is now as Think I Care emerged from basements and living rooms with Infest-inspired blasts and dark fucking rants, and developed into a moshing powerhouse releasing LPs on Dead Alive and Bridge 9.

Since I met up with the bros directly after In My Eyes, I figured I had missed out on Boston Strangler, but I popped back inside to catch Rival Mob. Vocalist Brendan Radigan was next up on the interview chopping block. As I stood inside the sweaty venue I couldn't help but notice the room clearing out and DFJ breaking down his drums. Oh fuck, I missed both sets! Suddenly I'm getting texts from Brendan telling me to meet up so we can talk. I run out of the venue immediately. Apparently the last two bands split their sets, playing a round robin of three songs at a time. Too efficient for me. 

I found Brendan on the roof of a nearby parking deck where we shot the shit for a couple of hours on one of his first bands - XfilesX. For Brendan, it was all about skateboarding. SxE was easy, because skating was the drug. Where he is confident and sarcastic on stage now, he was self-deprecating and often referred to himself and the other XfXers as "heels," during our talk. Still I remember my jaw hitting the floor the first time I saw them at Relfections in New Bedford. I couldn't believe how fucking loud and fast Edison beat the drums. Brendan, always funny between songs, was fucking terrifying during them. I remember seeing them in some hall with a bunch of other teenage (but not HC) bands somewhere in the 'burbs. At one point during their set, he threw himself sans abandon into rows of vacant folding chairs. It looked confusing and painful, but impressive nonetheless. XfilesX also had tongue-in-cheek militant SxE lyrics that were a foil to any reasonableness I was trying to apply to my own personal SxE as I watched the old youth crew kids break edge one by one. That demo was like the goddamn Judge 7".

"Hey that's Choke over there!" A giddy Jimmy Flynn grabbed my arm and pointed me towards the bar. Sure as shit, it was the guy who sang Chunks, So Ends Our Night, Step On It, and Punk's Dead, You're Next. I thanked him for all the tunes and he laughed at me. And so ends my day at the Middle East. 

That night, Eric Yu volunteered his kitchen for a midnight interview with Scot Oxholm. An ever-present fixture at Boston shows, he also experienced the burgeoning thrash revival in Cali with no less than Life's Halt and No Reply. As we sifted through a box of flyers he fluently told old stories about Boston's dustiest venue. My favorite memory of Scot was him dressed up as a gorilla at the last Glory Fades show in the Shumsky basement in '02.

Seven hours later, Eric dropped me off at Somerville's True Bistro where I met up with Andrew Jackmuah from greats Cut The Shit and Bones Brigade. I first saw Andrew fronting youth crew revivalists Days Ahead. Like it or not, for better or worse, the youth crew was a big influence on thrash. Anyway, yours truly got wired on coffee and attempted to interrupt my subject as little as possible. We talked about everything from singing for two fast HC bands at the same time (but not simultaneously) to the time he lacerated himself mid-set in Europe to get a goddamn reaction from a sedate crowd. This was the start of a trio of back to back interviews. First Andrew, then Cooch, then Al Quint. 

When the clock struck 12:00, I cruised down to Ana's Taqeruia in Davis Square for some lunch. I appreciate that most of my interviews are over food or coffee; shows I'm talking to some like-minded individuals. Chris "Cooch" Minicucci rolled in a few mins later and we launched into a quick interview. Not only did this guy play in a million bands (including the vastly underrated Close Call), he also has an expert memory from the 100s of shows he attended in the early 2000s. He may be most well-known now for running Painkiller records, but I'll always remember him hocking limited edition Western Mass HC box sets at the Last In Line Halloween show in 2001. 

To close out this awesome weekend, I was absolutely honored to interview Al Quint of the legendary Suburban Voice zine. Al seemed to be at every show I was at back then, taking photos and singing along. Then he would print the photos and write about all the fucking amazing bands playing out. Issues of Suburban Voice didn't come out too frequently, but they operated like a yearbook for an incredible time in HC, and some came with CD comps, so you got a sndtk to go with it too. Fucking rad. I consumed my last coffee of the day, while Al told stories. Solid end to a solid trip. 

But what punk rock road trip could be complete without a trip to a punk rock record shop? The answer is none, and since Armageddon lay between Davis Square and South Station (a chilling thought), a stopover was necessary. I had 20 mins to kill, so I had to be strategic. Only thrash records, only filling in the gaps in my collection. I won't tell you what I got, lest you think me a poseur for not already having them. Boston Stranlger Cliff Demedeiros eyed his watch, "you better get a move on." Oh damn, how did 20 mins become 35? 

I had plenty of time to reflect on the weekend, as my train was delayed arriving in NYC forcing me to kill an hour plus in Penn Station (while trying my best to avoid other human beings). I've said it before and I'll say it again, I wouldn't be doing most of what I'm doing with my life today if I hadn't taken a risk and moved up to Boston in 2000. It definitely set me on a path personally and professionally. I'm grateful to Craig, Eric, Chris, Aaron, Joe, Brendan, Scot, Andrew, Cooch, and Al. Thanks for your time, energy, and encouragement. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"I Think I Brought a Sword to a Laser Fight"



If ever a record could be a time machine, a telaporter, and a goddamned star-fighter it's Empty Palace's first full-length. Like a Delorean hurtling towards Twin Pines mall, I'm bracing for old style rock n roll and maybe hoverboards. It's this power, among others, that their new record The Serpent Between the Stars brings to bear. The burgeoning crunch of proto-metal with an unironic nod to 70s glam wrapped in something previously unheard. You there, the reader, the one that appreciates the good shit. Stop what you are doing and start listening now. You already have the answer, the punchline, the moral. You don't need to read any further. Much appreciated if you choose to do so, please know you are absolved regardless.  

...




We need to start this story in the mid-90s hardcore days, down in the South. Double XL days. Choker beads like so many thick black Xs adorned us. Dreaming of chugging barre chords grasping at the virtuosity and precision of Kerry King paired with shouted slogans ala Ian MacKaye. It's as earnest as you get. One Patrick Houston steps on the sweaty stage and smiles at the night's turnout of misfits. He knows most of them; they're friends. There's no fucking barriers here. Jason Walker clicks off four from the drum stool and an explosion of well-tuned, well-rehearsed noise dominates all.  



There's nothing about that night at Birmingham, Alabama's now demolished, Unity 1605 venue that indicated I would be reviewing one of the most inventive and damn near perfect rock albums I've ever heard, penned and performed by this very same duo 20 years later. But it's, in fact, a fact. LA's Empty Palace started their twisted journey in the hardcore band Bear Witness so many moons ago.  




Hidden in the routinely-titled "Intro" is a delicate warning that this will be like nothing else that's graced your eardrums before. You get :40 to prepare. A pulsating heartbeat from the synth reminds me of an Italian horror flick (just before the scare) gives rise to a simple pick slide and the riff begins. The first proper track drives like a fast car and only gently breaks the pace momentarily. It's probably the most straight-forward rocker on the album. Patrick delivers the vocals with a Rob Halford-like conviction; "I'm just a human made of blood and bone."                                                                                                                                                        




















"Human Trampoline" (yeah) - another Judas Priest rocker with retro-fitted Hammond keyboards almost struggling to keep up, but matching Jason's hyperactive rhythm beat for beat. Though this album may be from outer space, Patrick asserts confidently, "I don't come from the future but my ship's still wired tight." For those monitoring, this is the only song where I can detect any hardcore influence.  





Staring at my plate of vegan whatever, a familiar face flashed in my peripheral. Long hair, dark eyes and that goddamn smile. A smile masking anything else, yet sincere to the core. Southern fuckin hospitality. And that was Patrick fuckin Houston. Feelin' exiled from everyone I knew and loved up here in the mountains, searching for loud music somewhere to embrace me, here was the ultimate thrasher, an old friend, and a nice guy, to boot. 




Empty Palace climbed out of the primordial punk rock swamp in Denver, Colorado. First Bear Witness relocated en mass and rebranded as the even heavier, even screamier Angels Never Answer. A holdover from days past, to be sure. Built around Patrick's riffs, accompanied by Jason banging it out far above his hardcore pay grade. Play for the part you want, not the part you have. 




"Unknown Unknown" takes steps towards Bowie meets Queen in composition and nails it. A gliding, pleasant rhythm; sweet vocals. Jason punches the song along preventing it from drifting away. The guitar leads and accents channel Brian May (and the man's not even dead yet!).                                                                                                                                                        













Then the pulsing glow of synthesizers commands the ship - "Separation Sequence." I don't know where to begin, the Author truly is in uncharted territory. Drums swing forward and a rousing robotic chorus. The vocal effect is a vocoder and actually inspired by Neil Young and not by some space robot from The Black Hole. On an incomparable LP, this is an incomparable track. I don't want to tap my foot, I want to shake my ass. The repercussions of that are self-evident. 





When the first band he bet it all on fell apart, as all local bands slogging away tend to do, Patrick cast about moonlighting, jamming, developing, studying studio engineering, always thinking. His hands ever present on the fret board, striving one day to have the ability to play anything he hears on the spot. He spoke of natural talent (rare as they come) and developed talent (his self-appointed lot in life). Jason joined pop-punkers The Gamits, among others; a great drummer in constant demand. All the while, they both knew they would come together for the next band when the time was right.  




As fate would have it, the next band was two bands. The New Rome was meticulously crafted by the pair to be heavy like Judas Priest and sonically intricate like Sunny Day Real Estate. With vocals surpassing King Diamond's range, they manifested on stage on June 6th of 2006. 66fuckin6.  




I was lucky enough to join their ranks for the second band, Brainhammer. The sound was less stringent than The New Rome, taking cues equally from "Kickstart My Heart," Maiden's second crusher, to DRI's crossover blast. The attitude was equal parts rage and party time. I poured all the misery of a recent divorce into lyrics inspired by everything from Rollins-era Black Flag, to the MC5, to the superlative-earning heavy metallers Nitro, to WWII, to Fawlty Towers gags. It was eclectic to say the least, but powerful enough to blow the goddamn roof off the place. I'm honored to have played with these guys for a short time. And it was all so unlikely, a sentiment Patrick and I shared from the stage right before the lights went down on our first show.  




After the sad, slowly bouncing "Games," side 1 closes. If your cassette deck has a continuous auto-flip feature, then you don't even have to get off the couch. While we're waiting for that, I'll take a brief moment to chide Empty Palace for not including lyrics in the layout. That is a general disservice to the listener and musician alike. It's obvious that great care has been taken in the writing process and the words deserve to see the light of day.      











And Side 2 kicks off with the slowly building tension of "Between the Stars." Be patient, for at 2:03 you will be treated with a fantastic hard rock break. All elements present, this one moment is as 70s as the album gets, executed perfectly. The track bends inward and trails off quietly, before giving rise to another slow burner, "I Liked the Old You Better." This number sits nicely on the second side, plods a bit but keeps the listener infinitely interested with a mid-number interlude leading right back to the hard pounding, effects-laden chorus. There's enough going on here to make Phil Spector blush.
  

All of this fanfare leads to the albums strongest rocker, "What Do We Tell the Family?" Hammond organ in overdrive complements the gits and the driving rhythm nicely. Like most of the vocals/lyrics on this album, they are somewhat mournful and cryptically instructive. An earlier recording of this number performed well as a single (with two others) in 2013. It's equally as powerful here not necessarily punctuating the side, but rather bridging the listener to the album's striking three-part closer. 




For a moment The New Rome had the spotlight. Something churned below the surface though and the band cannibalized itself recording its one and only release. Brainhammer soldiered on as the city's premier party punk band, soon to be without me as I relocated back east. The tension was dense at that point and I left my friends, feeling a sense of guilt and remorse for my contribution to the pain.  




One by one nearly all of my friends trickled out of the mile-high city. Patrick and Jason, found a kindred spirit and shared sense of musical mission with Karl Zickrick, The New Rome's bass player. Eventually the trio drifted west to Portland, then one by one down to LA. The city famously churns with dead and dying dreams twisted with new hope, vision, and opportunity. In other words, a perfect place for rock and roll to germinate.  A mutual friend told me at the time that Patrick had walled himself off in a home-made studio. Just work-shedding. What was happening was one of the best guitar players I've know was perfecting his vocal chops for the next band. Empty Palace.  




Part one begins as "(The Pleasure)," a short, graceful near-instrumental. A drawn out lead carries you along through a synth landscape. With a scant :60 to spare the vocals arrive, "he can't feel anything at all." This notion betrays what Patrick has revealed thus far and offers a glimpse into the divided nature of singing in a rock band.                                                         
                                              













Part two, "Compass," quietly builds like a ballad, but when it loses it, we're somewhere in Black Sabbath Sabotage territory. Banging your head to the rocker, but equally pounding a fist into the wall as despair rules all again. "Still don't know which way to go" rings on and on and rings true. Folks, this album is as sad as it is strong.  





If ever Patrick had a home, it was the city of angels. The city was built for him. Hearing Empty Palace confirms, corroborates, verifies. No way this record is happening in Birmingham or Denver. But it wouldn't have happened without Birmingham or Denver. 




Jason thrived too, with the architecture of original LA hardcore set up like a playground for the aspiring. I remember him saying to the reunited cast of Brainhammer before a late July 4th show in 2012, "just look at me for the changes, I got it." Brimming with confident control; like Marty McFly before Johhny B Goode, "try and keep up."  
 
Finally, "To End All Pleasure" is a brief outro with unintelligible distorted vocals, exasperated and drug off into infinity as the last notes slow and speed up before being lost in space at the last. Count to 5, flip the tape and start again.                                                                
                                                                                                                                                                         
As usual, the unassuming Snappy Little Numbers knocks it out of this park with this release. I only hope the reason we don't have a vinly version yet is that they're still deciding between a gatefold sleeve or a holographic cover. Easy answer - choose both.
                                                         




I'm lucky I know these guys. It's endless entertainment and insightful impressions. It's a Friday night of just bullshiting, of laughing our asses off, even with years between encounters. It's hearing the repeated thunderous musical output over time, culminating in something too grande for the cassette it lives on. It's a life's work at 36. What's next? 



 








Sunday, May 17, 2015

Thrashwagon Spring Cleaning


Hey folks! Bet you were wondering where I’ve been. Surely, the absence of any recent posts has not gone unnoticed! In fact, I’m positive it’s left some kinda’ gap in your life. Yeah, right! Still, I want to let you know what’s been going on in Go Start Your Own Band country.  

If you recall, my last post detailed a new project the Author has engaged himself in for the foreseeable future. That project being the ambitious and somewhat public undertaking of writing a book on the 2000s thrash-core revival.  Think Dead Nation, think Tear It Up, think Down In Flames, think What Happens Next?, Lifes Halt, Vitamin X, DS-13, ETA..and keep thinking! 

I’ve committed 2015 to gathering interviews for what will be the primary focus of the project – a robust oral history direct from the movers, shakers, and moshers. In the deep, dark throes of winter, this seemed like a reasonable goal. 50 interviews more or less in 52 weeks. Yet, it’s amazing how fast a month passes when you have a family, a job, yard-work and the occasional hangout with a buddy. Before you know, 30 days are gone. Damn. Well, like sleep, reading, or bad TV, I’ll never catch up. I can only push the boulder forward. 

The Author has been spent the better part of his free-time interviewing folks and compiling source material for the eventual oral history.  A super big thanks (and apologies) to all those who’ve been willing to be subjected to my questioning.  So far, I’ve leveraged my physical location in the Garden State to chat with members of Tear It Up, but also managed some phone conversations with Joe Hawk from RNR and the greater Massachusetts scene, as well as the touring, bass-pounding, open-container-posting machine Robert Collins of What Happens Next? and Conquest for Death just to name a few. Last weekend on the edges of farm country New Jersey, I sat down with Andy from Tear It Up and his brother Brian to look back on Tear It Up’s touring legacy for what I hope will be a stand-alone chapter. It will definitely need to be edited though as we went on and on for hours and eventually made an ice cream run to soothe our now-hoarse throats. A few days ago, I talked with ever-friendly Joe Shumsky from a little band called Think I Care. Even more recently, I’m met up Ian Thompsen from Down In Flames on a goddamn island to talk about the time he fronted a top-shelf thrash-core band as fucking 14 year old. 

And what does the future hold? Well, today Matt Wechter and I will be doing round three with special guest and expert stage-diver Swank. June means a little bit of traveling. First to LA to chat with Paul D'Elia of TIU, Cut the Shit, and The Rites. Then up to Boston for a slew of interviews with as many people as can stand my intrusive questions and frequent interruptions. Hoping the rest of summer will feature some in-roads into the West Coast scene, as well as all the great Euro bands of the time. 

Pathetic self-pity, notwithstanding, there’s been progress.  A lot of enthusiasm too.  I wish I could keep up with the enthusiasm actually. For those folks I've been in contact with already, I really appreciate the energy and excitement you've expressed. It keeps me going and makes me realize that other people hold those times near and dear, and it's not just me tapping my head on the wall of a padded cell. "Doctor, he won't stop rambling about bandanas!" For the folks I'll be reaching out to soon, don't let me down...