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? 


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