The Hard Way

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If you can’t kill ’em all, join ’em. MAGNET presents six brand-new heavy bands that seek metallic glory by simply destroying: the Sword (pictured), Early Man, Pearls And Brass, Goblin Cock, Rosetta and Torche.

It’s not like we’re asking you to drink goat’s blood.

In fact, it would be misguided—wrong, even—for MAGNET to get all Metal Maniacs just a few pages from our regularly scheduled profiles on fashion-forward post-punks, well-mannered pop artists and alt-country songwriters. The brief explanation for this section? Here are some new, heavy rock bands we think you’ll like.

But it can get more complicated than that. If we’re looking into our crystal ball at the correct angle, 2006 is going to see some crowding in the heavy-metal parking lot. Last year saw the coining of the term “instru-metal,” with bands such as Pelican and Explosions In The Sky delivering epic sheets of noise with little use for vocals. The stoner-rock camp still lives and inhales, even if nobody can quite remember what the genre sounds like; new albums by Nebula and Kyuss’ Scott Reeder reveal completely different sounds when held up to the blacklight. Nobody has even labeled the psychedelia-inflected (Comets On Fire) and shoegaze-tinged (Jesu) variants yet, but you just wait—somebody will, and it will sound even worse than “indie metal.”

Heavy music already has its own underground and its own indie labels (Relapse, Hydra Head and Level Plane, just to name a few), and the artists mentioned above only represent some of the louder music MAGNET has recently covered. We’re not even scratching the surface of speed metal, death metal, grindcore and progressive metal. (In some cases, we’re not sure we want to; Bloodbath, we’re looking at you.) The debut albums by the six bands featured here do have some common denominators: some guitar sludge, some Black Sabbath influence and a serious dedication to bringing the noise.

The Sword
MAGNET staffers will occasionally brainstorm interview questions before speaking with a band, which led to one editor suggesting that we ask the Sword “how it can rock so hard.” Although a cheeky inquiry, it’s also legitimate. Not only does the Austin, Texas, band rock hard, it gets medieval on your ass. “A warrior’s hand and a wizard’s mind to wield,” intones guitarist J.D. Cronise on “Barael’s Blade,” recalling Ozzy in his pre-dementia years while molten riffs lay waste to everything within earshot.

If you think these guys are joking, you need only to refer to a treatise on swordsmanship posted at the band’s Web site: “The sword has thus a double office to perform: to destroy anything that opposes the will of its user and to sacrifice all the impulses that arise from the instinct of self-preservation.”

“It’s not tongue in cheek,” says a reticent Cronise of the Sword’s Dungeons & Dragons imagery. “I’m interested in history and things like that.”

“It’s not shtick,” agrees bassist Bryan Richie. “We’re dark dudes. We’re into dark, evil shit. [Long pause] I think I just dug myself into a hole trying to be funny.”

The Sword was forged in May 2004, when Virginia transplants Cronise and drummer Trivett Wingo hooked up with Richie and guitarist Kyle Shutt in Austin. Cronise was playing guitar in garage-rock outfit Those Peabodys when he began assembling his own songs, six of which appear on the Sword’s debut, Age Of Winters (Kemado).

“He made demos with a drum machine and did all the parts,” says Richie. “He gave them to us and was like, ‘Here you go. Here are some sick jams. Go ahead and learn these.’ And that’s what we did.”

Unlike most bands these days, Cronise and Co. are unafraid of touting their influences. “In my formative years, I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses,” says Cronise. “I started playing guitar when I was 13. I heard The Song Remains The Same soundtrack, and that’s when I decided to learn to play. As I got older, I started to get into Sabbath and Judas Priest and that kind of stuff.”

“It’s basically anything from ’70 to ’79,” concurs Richie. “Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Yes, Black Sabbath, Zeppelin. Just anything from that time period that sounds good and dead-on. What better to be compared to than bands that are that awesome?”

Not surprisingly, the Sword’s music is a clinic in Sabbath-influenced heavy metal. “Iron Swan” is case in point. While the song nicks the opening riff from “War Pigs,” it soon takes off like a wooly mammoth on a killing spree. “It’s a little more precise, a little more direct,” says Richie of his band’s style. “It’s not like, ‘Here’s our rockin’ part, and here’s our jamming part.’ It’s all one big dish. One big Bobby Flay barbecue, served up Iron Chef-style.”

Er, maybe, but what’s for certain is that everyone who bears witness to the Sword is bowing before the group’s might, from the Austin scenesters who voted it “best new band” in 2004’s AMP Awards to the critics showering it with accolades for last year’s South By Southwest festival performances.

“Everyone likes this stuff,” says Richie. “Not just the Hessians and not just the rockers. It kind of transcends. We just want to play a set where people are going to say, ‘Man, these are some badass songs.’”

Early Man
Mike Conte’s first life-changing musical experience was witnessing a band that you’ve never heard of. Stranger still, the singer/guitarist of New York City duo Early Man owes his heavy-metal indoctrination to his grandmother.

“She had a child late in life, so I had an uncle who was a couple of years younger than myself, and he ended up being very into metal,” says Conte. “I was sheltered from any music that wasn’t top-40, and I remember watching my uncle’s high-school band practice in a basement, just getting blown away by these early Metallica and Megadeth covers. I never knew anything like that even existed, and my grandmother was very supportive of this; she was actually into metal. One of the times that I visited before she passed, she was wearing a Megadeth T-shirt.”

Plenty of assumptive murmuring preceded the release of Early Man’s devastating debut album, Closing In (Matador). That’s what happens when a metal band signs with a traditionally indie-minded label. Or when Slint’s Dave Pajo plays bass, as he did for some Early Man shows last year. In this writer’s less-than-enthusiastic review of Early Man’s self-titled EP in issue #68, the band was declared an “aggressively underwhelming nail in indie metal’s coffin” and was said to be “to real metal what A.R.E. Weapons are to Suicide.” On first listen to Closing In, those preemptive slaggings proved aggressively wrong.

There has also been conflicting chatter about the band’s background. While Conte and drummer Adam Benatti grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the two did not, as suggested by their official bio, move to New York after getting kicked out of their respective Pentecostal homes at age 19.

“The dominant religion in my life was Jehovah’s Witness,” says Conte. “I’ve been in New York for eight years; Adam moved here three years ago.”

Closing In is an experience of solid, real steel that recalls the magic hour in which the new wave of British heavy metal (Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Saxon) collided with what would become thrash and speed metal, resulting in a melodic-yet-potent “power thrash” that yielded Metallica, Helloween and the more intense practices of Accept.

“The band that had the biggest impact on me, and I think that it’s obvious, is Diamond Head,” says Conte, referring to the legendary British metal band that was a massive influence on James Hetfield and Dave Mustaine a quarter-century ago.

As for the steadily growing trend of indie bands waking up one day and deciding they’re metal (or worse, groups that execute a metal project as an exercise in irony), Conte has little patience.

“I take what I do very seriously,” he says. “If someone gives their band a silly name and rips off Sabbath riffs, it’s hard for me to take that seriously. But it’s really trendy now to go loud or metal. I’ve had the same practice space for years, and I share the building with another practicing band, a somewhat known indie band. Five years ago, they were always asking me to turn down. And, I swear, overnight, they became this loud, heavy-riffing band.”

And the war against the false prophets continues.

Pearls And Brass
In mid-2003, Pennsylvania power trio Pearls And Brass was heading through the Midwest on what was plainly a fool’s errand. A week before the live dates supporting the band’s locally released, self-produced, self-titled debut album, roughly three-quarters of the scheduled gigs got cancelled. What began as a carefully planned tour became a nightly hustle to find work at dive bars, punk clubs, pizzerias and open mics. Rolling into Louisville, Ky., the band spotted an ad for a show by Slint guitarist Dave Pajo and passed the venue’s manager a copy of its album. Liking what he heard, the manager called Pajo to ask if the group could join the bill.

“Pajo said, ‘Absolutely not,’” says Pearls drummer Josh Martin.

Martin, guitarist/vocalist Randy Huth and bassist/vocalist Joel Winter ended up playing an open mic in Louisville. But when Pajo showed up for his gig that evening, the manager still had Pearls And Brass playing over his PA system. Impressed, Pajo asked who the band was. “These are the guys you turned down,” replied the manager.

“That’s how we got invited to the All Tomorrow’s Parties U.K. festival in 2005, the year Slint curated it,” says Martin with the tiniest hint of satisfaction.

Pajo and the Fucking Champs’ Tim Green brought the band to the attention of the Drag City label. The Indian Tower—the title references a Nazareth, Pa., landmark, the highest point in Pearls And Brass’ Lehigh Valley home—is the result, an unhurried and intricately performed record of riff-based hard rock in the vein of Blue Cheer and Mountain. Distilled from extended jams in the band’s practice space in nearby Allentown, the track list boasts weighty titles such as “Beneath The Earth,” “The Face Of God” and “Black Rock Man.” But Huth thinks The Indian Tower’s true sources are somewhat humbler.

“There’s not much to do in Nazareth,” he says, which may be why Pearls And Brass is now based in Philadelphia. “The Indian Tower sounds grandiose, but it’s really just that place you go when you’re a kid to smoke weed and look down on the town. I think in the same way, the songs take our experiences there and exaggerate them, make them sound bigger than they actually were.”

There are a lot of shared experiences in Pearls And Brass: Huth, Martin and Winter began playing together as teenagers in 1993. The band’s initial speed-punk sound changed direction when its members, independently of each other, began getting into blues and ’70s hard rock.

“There’s such grace in early blues music, a real complexity, in the simplest media format possible,” says Martin. “It was the same with the hardcore four-track bands, the sense that there’s a hell of a lot going on in a really limited space. We’re trying to borrow some of that feel, some of the emotional force behind those types of music.”

Much of Pearls And Brass’ revised aesthetics—doubled bass-and-guitar melodies and complex time signatures—echo the formative era of grandiose progressive hard rock, but the group’s own methodology is almost minimalist. For The Indian Tower, Pearls And Brass traveled to Green’s Louder Studios in San Francisco, where 10 of its 11 tracks were recorded over four days in September.

“We were very wary—stubborn, almost—about having anyone help us out,” says Winter. “We didn’t want a lot of layers. We’ve always worked best when we play off each other live, and Tim saw that immediately. The whole album was recorded live in the studio. We didn’t even wear headphones.”

The tight sound of The Indian Tower is derived from the band’s collaborative spirit. “We’re so intuitive with each other, it feels funny playing with anyone else now,” says Winter. “When we were first playing together, it was for those really mixed punk audiences: the hardcore punks, the straight-edgers, the goth kids. We’re all a decade older now, but when we started playing as Pearls And Brass, we all got that same feeling again. That sense of everything coming together like it should.”

Goblin Cock
Just as Gollum consumed every part of Smiegel’s feeble being in The Lord Of The Rings, some unearthly creature has overtaken Rob Crow. Its name is Lord Phallus, and it’s hijacked Crow’s identity (he’s otherwise known as the driving force behind indie-rock outfits Pinback, Thingy and Heavy Vegetable) along with the phone line to his San Diego residence.

Although the sleep-deprived Lord Phallus groggily slurs his words, he’s hellbent on clearing his name and spreading the word of Goblin Cock. The band of true heavy-metal believers—also featuring guitarist Bane Ass-Pounder, drummer Braindeath, bassist King Sith and keyboardist Loki Sinjuggler—denies any connection to the indie crowd, barring the occasional World Of Warcraft role-playing game with “those Pinback guys.” Lord Phallus hopes to emulate the showmanship of the metal bands he loves, specifically Manowar, Thor and Venom.

“The big three, as I like to call them,” he says. “We’re just trying to bring it back to the crappy sound: big, loud, slow. That’s what we like here in the caves.”

Bagged And Boarded (Absolutely Kosher), Goblin Cock’s debut, does carry some heavyweight stoner sludge, but the load is lightened by the songs’ uncomplicated structure. Epic riffs range between early Metallica thrash and Kyuss-style meditative plodders, but Bagged And Boarded is just as noteworthy for what it doesn’t sound like. If Goblin Cock is poking fun, then modern metal’s uniform growls and slick production provide the real punch line. The band aims to be as fun as Gwar without necessarily being offensive—the veiny, pierced, floor-grazing penis on Bagged And Boarded’s cover notwithstanding.

Is Goblin Cock a fun-loving group of earnest musicians or a Halloween in-joke carried out for too long? The court of public opinion has so far been mystified. Lord Phallus claims audiences at live shows take his band seriously, and he scoffs when pressed about the perception of his music as tongue-in-cheek: “All Goblin Cock songs are just slices of life from the daily adventures of ourselves and the friends and foes we meet on the black-lit path through the plains of our native Perineal Raphia along the way to Post-Eden.”

In the midst of sermonizing on Goblin Cock’s experimentations with otherworldly substances (apparently, drinking from the mystic horns of Lucifer will get you “wasted”), something causes Lord Phallus to break character.

“My kid is up,” he says, before catching his mistake. “I mean, not Lord Phallus’ kid!” With the awakening of his six-week-old son, a softer-voiced, Earth-dwelling Crow shows up. “He’s an angel,” says Crow of his child, Robertdale Rulon Crow III. Though he’s a new father, Crow swears his workaholic reputation still applies. His hyper-prolific songwriting hasn’t slowed since Robertdale’s birth.

“I can sorta feed him with one hand and mix (song tracks) with the other,” says Crow. “The only thing I’m afraid of doing with him in the room so far is singing loud. I’ve already finished two-thirds of the next Goblin Cock record with him in the room.”

But just as Crow begins talking about the next Goblin Cock release, his alter ego returns to boast of the group’s plans for imminent world domination. “We want to storm the globe, taking no prisoners, riding willy-nilly into the hearts, minds and nether-regions of the public.”

Rosetta
For millennia, the idea of interstellar travel has fired many a man’s imagination. With double-disc debut The Galilean Satellites (Translation Loss), Rosetta makes navigating the universe a reality: You need only synchronize the two discs—one caustic, one ambient—and close your eyes.

“The lyrical content is based on a children’s story called The Little Prince,” explains vocalist and sound manipulator Michael Armine. “In this story, a boy leaves Earth in order to strive for something better. My spaceman is a friend who suffers from severe mental illness, someone who really belongs in a different time and place. All the metaphors in my lyrics—the monolith, Europa, oceans made of ice, atmospheres—revolve around my observations of a man with mental illness.”

This isn’t only a commentary on the lyrics but also the otherworldly sonics of The Galilean Satellites. The vocals and walls of guitar recall Isis at its most abrasive (that band’s frontman, Aaron Turner, designed the graphically stunning digipack that houses the first 1,000 copies of Satellites). But Philadelphia’s Rosetta—which also includes bassist David Grossman, drummer/engineer Bruce McMurtrie Jr. and guitarist/violinist/producer J. Matthew Weed—also deals in moody electronic soundscapes and melancholy strings.

“We are not going to hide the fact that we love Isis, Neurosis and Tribes Of Neurot,” says Armine. “We built Satellites as a tribute to those guys.”

Indeed, the idea of a hardcore/metal disc that could be played separately or simultaneously with an ambient disc was arguably invented in 1999 with Neurosis’ Times Of Grace and its counterpart, Tribes Of Neurot’s Grace. For Rosetta, such an ambitious undertaking didn’t come easy.

“We spent every weekend, all weekend, for six months recording it,” says Armine. After producer Scott Hull (Merzbow, Mercury Rev) was dismissed from the project, Weed invested more than 480 hours mixing Satellites. “This was a project that we felt we needed to have complete control over,” says Armine of Hull’s departure. “One of the problems we ran into was that we had a very precise idea of how it should sound when it was mastered.”

The realization of this masterplan can be heard on opener “Départe” (and ambient companion piece “Deneb”). As a bass throbs like an alien heartbeat, washes of electronic sound and disembodied spoken words complete a hypnotic triptych before Armine sends you hurtling into a black hole with a galaxy-destroying roar. “Please, please take me again, crossing over,” he howls, providing an appropriate lyrical encapsulation of the Rosetta listening experience. These fearsome vocals belie Armine’s somewhat more genteel daytime occupation.

“I tried so hard to keep this from everyone,” laughs Armine, a high-school history teacher. “I have to be the teacher, not the cool guy in a band who doubles as a teacher. But when you walk in and a student says, ‘You’re in Rosetta,’ word tends to spread quickly.”

Torche
It’s theoretically possible to be a rock-loving teen growing up in Florida and not be an acolyte of the state’s death-metal scene, but it just wouldn’t be right. Torche singer/guitarist Steve Brooks is no exception, faithfully following home-state groups such as Obituary, Death and Morbid Angel.

“I loved all those bands in the mid-to-late-’80s and early ’90s,” says Brooks. “I even had a fanzine called Scrolls Of Sickness devoted to promoting underground death, thrash and weird, heavy bands.”

By the time Brooks helped form seminal Miami sludge-rock outfit Floor in 1992, he had expanded his influences to include such fashionably dissonant bands as the Butthole Surfers, Swans and Melvins. After two records that combine explosive emo with pulverizing sludgecore, Floor played its final show in 2003, and Brooks wasted no time before forming Torche in its wake. As its name implies, Torche is about keeping his creative fires burning.

“It’s about moving forward with a sound I helped create,” says Brooks. “That ‘torch’ being carried from what I worked so hard for with Floor and starting over using the skeleton of that particular sound.”

Musically, Torche improves upon Floor’s powerful, if somewhat limited, palette. Floor’s lone tempo is slower than that Prestone-huffing kid you sat next to in civics class. Torche, on the other hand, has a more varied style. Brooks describes the outfit as “more of a focused rock band. I’m finally playing with musicians who aren’t limited in their skill, and we’re able to go anywhere with the sound.”

Aside from a penchant for death metal and ’80s college rock, Brooks and guitarist Juan Montoya share a love for “swirly, loud, noisy guitars,” says Brooks. “All that Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, as well as My Bloody Valentine, Stone Roses and Ride. Those influences are much more evident in our sound today.”

On Torche’s self-titled debut (on Robotic Empire), “Erase” provides the best example of the quartet’s toothy brand of shoegazer rock. With Rick Smith’s Gatling-gun drumming and Montoya’s hard-charging riffs, “Safe” is pure death metal. Sprawling closer “The Last Word” is textbook cosmic doom. But the most noticeable quality of Torche is that the songs are able to be melodic without sacrificing any of their potency. It is, quite possibly, the poppiest doom record in existence.

At the beginning of opener “Charge Of The Brown Recluse,” Brooks sings the chorus, “War is beautiful/New Rome falling/Pillars crumble to the ground/War is beautiful.” Lest anyone think Torche is making a comment on our country’s campaign in Iraq, Brooks sets the record straight.

“Nah, I hate politics,” he asserts. “The lyrics are really about the battle between man and spider. Because of the song title, some people think it’s about using the bathroom. I like that interpretation, but unfortunately, it’s not true.”

While Torche means business on the musical end, its members don’t take themselves too seriously. Writing a song that chronicles man’s war against deadly arachnids is reminiscent of the horror-movie imagery prevalent in Florida’s prime years of death metal. In a world of constant flux, it’s nice to see that some things never change.