Metal machine music

Two new releases from Missoula metalheads Illuminati and Sunder keep the flame burning

| February 27, 2003

Talk about blasts from the past! In tallying my share of the votes for this whole “Best of Missoula” deal, I nearly choked on my Hot Pocket when I saw that some lone holdout among you had actually voted for Fuel Altered as best band! Yes, Fuel Altered—one of Missoula’s premier metal bands, circa 1994! Now that’s devotion! Now that’s someone who hasn’t been to a show in years! Now that’s a desperate plea for help!

It made my whole day, too. Back in 1994, with Jay’s Upstairs still making the transition from heavy metal vomit party to punk rock clubhouse, punk and metal bands were on even cozier terms in Missoula than they are now. They regularly shared bills and played house parties together, and even through the nacho-scented fog of all these many years I still remember times when it seemed like members of every Jay’s band past, present and future could be found peeing all over one another in a SRO bathroom at a Fuel Altered party. I remember these times now as though two great Allied armies were shaking hands across the proverbial Elbe, swapping Hershey bars and cigarettes with each side intrigued by the little quirks of the other. For the punk rockers, it was like, “Holy shit? You guys can play _____ covers? That’s rad!” On the ballpoint-pen-Dio-logo-on-denim-jacket side of this great coming-together, it was like, “Holy shit, you guys are fast! You’re faster than Slayer!”

It may or may not have really happened like that. But anyway, when I read this guy’s vote it cast my memory back there, Lord, to the heyday of bands like Fuel Altered and Shades of Reality. Like Van Morrison, I was overcome thinkin’ ’bout all the laughing and the moshing, hey hey, and the making love in the green grass behind the stadium. I don’t know what ever happened to Fuel Altered, beyond them quickly getting tired of my friend Yale yelling “Twisted Beef! Twisted Beef!” at every show (in a fruitless attempt to get them to change their name to something more to his own liking) and eventually not hanging out with us anymore. I know they put a tape out (and I’m sure I still have a copy of it somewhere—I think it’s got a pyramid of skulls on the cover), but beyond that—well, what usually happens to metal bands in Missoula? Things fall apart. Someone moves to Phoenix to audition for Flotsam and Jetsam or something and the band just kind of fades out of the picture. Phoenix, incidentally—and I’m damned if I know why—used to exert the same kind of gravitational pull on Missoula metalheads that Portland currently does on indie-rock types. The grass is always greener, etc. etc.

I think punk rock got the better end of the deal, myself. It’s like metal gave punk the keys to Jay’s for the weekend and came back on Monday to discover punk, both feet up on the dining table, casually announcing that it was going to crash there for awhile until it found another place. Which it never really did. In late 1993, the very metal Shades of Reality (Shades of Realty, as we liked to joke back in the day) were still the de facto Jay’s house band, presiding over a big plastic garbage pail of jungle juice ($5 got you in and a cup) once or twice a month. But punk rock and Jay’s Upstairs proved to be almost as volatile a combination as spotted knapweed and native prairie. Shades of Reality began inviting punk bands (and bands that were just punk in spirit, like the peach-fuzz Oblio Joes) to play along. Next thing you know, Jay’s was the punk rock bar and metal bands were in the minority, trying to get themselves added to punk shows instead of the other way around.

It’s still like that, actually. Since at least 1995, the metal scene in Missoula has mostly accreted around other bars (Buck’s Club, for instance, although I don’t hear much news about it lately) and largely vacated the Jay’s premises. For good? Search me. Metal bands still wander onto the stage at Jay’s from time to time, and when they do it’s usually like a whole different scene altogether. Like when Sunder plays. Going to Jay’s on a Sunder night whisks me back to being just a punk rock sapling in late 1993, rounding that corner at the top of the stairs and not knowing a soul.

Of course, a lot of other things have changed in the interval as well. There was no KBGA or The Blaze back in the mid ’90s, so most of the people who routinely went to see local bands at Jay’s did so for the camaraderie—in other words, for the “scene”—and not because they had heard the band or something similar to it on the radio and decided to investigate further. But now there’s a college radio station, which regularly plays local bands, and The Blaze, which keeps the mean local BRMC (Blood Rap-Metal Content) hovering near the legal limit night and day. Sunder, it seems, is one of those rare cases for Jay’s where a band seems to bring in most of its fans from outside the existing scene instead of promoting them, so to speak, from the in-house ranks of Jay’s regulars. And I think it’s because of the strong rap-metal presence on the radio.

It’s the opposite of how it usually works. As a rule, Jay’s bands tend to precipitate out of the loose mob of people who spend a lot of time at the bar or have done so in the past, which also accounts for the abundance of new faces at Sunder shows and the somewhat alienating effect it has on the regulars—the “lifers,” if you like.

In any event, that’s how it should be. A scene should evolve. A bar that prides itself on being Missoula’s rock ’n’ roll community center shouldn’t back down from the social experiment of reintroducing a native species—and make no mistake, metal was the native species at Jay’s before punk, garage and indie rock came along and started crowding it out.

Currently, the five-piece Sunder has the highest metal profile in Missoula (they didn’t make the top three in the “Best of” poll, but they garnered a good fistful of votes). They’ve also just released a five-song CD/EP, Burn All the Barns, and if it sounds instantly familiar, that’s probably because different variations on the same basic style are currently all over The Blaze and MTV. It mostly comes down to rock-hard riffing with rap breakdowns and/or gang vocals delivered in a rap/metal hybrid, part Rage Against the Machine and part Limp Bizkit, and it’s pretty good for what it is (i.e. the local spin on a pretty shop-worn sound). Both the lyrics and the accompanying promo kit hint at Sunder—or some mystical force also calling itself Sunder—rising up in rural Montana like some scorched-earth radical agrarian reform movement, which adds an interesting localized wrinkle to the usual turgidity of metal for the masses. Montana’s vigilante history also seems to hold a special fascination for the band, to judge from the number of times the numerals “3-7-77” appear in the packaging. The title song pretty much lays out the Sunder blueprint: macho rock swagger, pissed off and loud as hell. “The Deep Hit” upholds the fine tradition of having the band name double as a call-and-response vocal (“Can you feel it coming? SUNDDERRRRRR!!!!”), and the other three songs keep a consistently bilious vibe aloft in the rent-asunder air. Recorded, printed and produced on Montana soil, as the CD jacket proudly proclaims. Guitars could have done with a little more beef in the mix, but that’s a minor quibble.

Guitars, though—Jiminy Christmas, the guitar sound on Illuminati’s eponymous CD is about the gnarliest I’ve ever heard from a Missoula metal band! We’re talking full-on down-tuned death metal crunch—reminiscent of the Swedish “Sunlight Studios” sound on albums like Dismember’s Like an Ever-Flowing Stream or the Entombed’s Left Hand Path. Purely accidental, no doubt—but still! Extremely punishing. It just burrows into your head and starts rasping away, like the Ceti eel in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

What Illuminati is playing isn’t actually death metal, though, guitar sound notwithstanding. The lads in the band—Josh Gill, Per Carlson, Mark Marx and Brian Besel—are basically Missoula metal stalwarts Saint Rage with a different name and a slight change of lineup since their last recording. The Bevel Studio Web site, in fact, indicates that Illuminati were still calling themselves Saint Rage as the album entered the mix-down and mastering stage. Even more perplexing is the credit on the CD jacket that says “Produced by John Campbell and Saint Rage” when the CD spine and cover just say “Illuminati.” So I don’t really know what the deal is, except that Illuminati blows down doors on a lot of the competition in Missoula, yesterday and today, and farther afield. That’s a testament not just to the awesome production, but also to the complexity and darkness of this slowly but steadily evolving metal collective.

Folks who remember Saint Rage from their last long-player, 1997’s Stressed, will be a little surprised but no doubt pleased at how far the band has come. Stressed was a great, hairy Sasquatch of a metal album, but a backwards-looking record in that it seemed somewhat root-bound to the ’80s metal that the band members were weaned on. The Saint Rage of Illuminati, on the other hand, has absorbed more in the six years since Stressed was released than a truckload of Bounty towels. Dauntingly technical in parts but still charging full-speed ahead, Illuminati is the album that would have rocketed Saint Rage into the Northwest metal stratosphere if they’d released it five years ago. Sad that the creeping tendrils of nü-metal choking the airwaves everywhere (and, let’s face it, it is everywhere—bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn are a dime a dozen these days) detract somewhat from the freshness of this album, but don’t let all those depressingly legion dull-witted clones discourage you from adding Illuminati to your collection. Saint Rage (Illuminati, whatever) make it pretty clear that they’re the ones still sitting on the jeweled throne—and any would-be usurpers just better keep sharpening their swords.

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