That group is Thrust, and its radio-friendly "Smack" gave the titular treatment to its opponent in KQRC's New Rock Rumble, leaving throbbing scarlet handprints across the faces of Republic recording artists Flaw. The next night, Thrust crushed One Side Zero (a group poised to follow in the multiplatinum footsteps of Warner Bros. labelmates Linkin Park) by a margin that made a mockery of that band's name -- one side had virtually zero support, while Thrust's side garnered 93 percent of the votes.
Opening with eerie distorted guitar reminiscent of Marilyn Manson's "Sweet Dreams" remake, "Smack" strikes suddenly with a shouted declaration of its title and a few massive riffs, then settles back into psychedelia for the verses. Its chorus blends the arena-ready bombast of latter-day Metallica with the vulnerable self-reflection of Staind and other still-chained-to-Alice tortured neogrunge souls, as singer Greg Divine growls I feel that I'm addicted/Does that make me a loser? The backup vocals echo Loser, playing the part of an accusatory Greek chorus. Not the cheeriest sentiments, perhaps, but gloom sells when it comes to hard rockers and old-school metalheads. Factor in gruffly melodic hooks and transitional guitar solos as well as professional-quality production, engineering and mixing courtesy of Wes West (son of Shooting Star's Gary West and heir to a top-notch studio), and Thrust's most accessible offering became impossible for even The Rock to ignore.
"They're not there because they're a local band," says Neal Mirsky, 98.9's program director since September 2001. "It's the quality of the band that earned it a place on the New Rock Rumble." Mirsky admits he hasn't seen or heard many local bands yet (he relocated to Kansas City from Philadelphia to take the 98.9 job), but from what he's encountered, "Thrust seems to clearly be the leading local band within the genre of The Rock's music."
Mirsky's first contact with the group came at last year's 98.9-sponsored Freaker's Ball, where Thrust, by virtue of its controversial (more on that later) victory at America's Pub's Battle of the Bands, earned an opening slot in support of Soil, Sevendust and Alice Cooper. "I was pretty impressed with their live performance, and even more impressed with the crowd's reaction," Mirsky recalls. "So I thought I'd throw 'em in the rumble and see what happened."
That marks one of the first tangible benefits from Thrust's big-venue shows, guitarist Mike Scott says. In addition to last year's Freaker's Ball, Thrust's Battle rewards included a warm-up gig for Mötley Crüe at Memorial Hall in 1998 and a show with Megadeth and Static X in 1999. "We've had a lot of offers from people who say, 'I want so much from your first album and so much of your second album,' and it's like, fuck that."
Now Thrust is concentrating on creating its own opportunities. On Saturday, March 2, the group holds a release party for its new CD, Parade of Idiots (the album on which "Smack" appears), at the Uptown Theater. The goal, Scott says, is to "set up something that looks bigger than what we really are, something that will bring people out to find out what we're all about and what [openers] Bent and the Sound and the Fury are all about." There's a high price to pay for this grand illusion. Scott estimates the band will have to sell more than 1,000 tickets to break even; as of a week before showtime, it had moved approximately 600. Budweiser, perhaps intoxicated by Thrust's tune "One for the Bottle," has chipped in with a few posters and the official-looking "Budweiser presents" endorsement on the event's tickets. The Rock is also a big part of the promotional push, although it should be noted that this isn't charitable assistance -- Thrust pays the station handsomely for ad time.
Thrust also has adopted the up-and-coming musician's version of door-to-door salesmanship, passing fliers to fans outside major shows such as last week's System of a Down concert at the Uptown. (And anyone who watched that crowd knows that this was an appropriate setting for stirring up interest in something called Parade of Idiots.) Finally, Thrust printed 5,000 three-song discs ("Scrape" is included), which it plans to distribute across the metro area as a free sampler.
Contributing further to the buzz about this show is the fact that Bent is on the bill. The groups are reputed to be bitter rivals, with hard feelings simmering after close clashes in the aforementioned Battles of the Bands. After Thrust's most recent triumph, Bent fans cried foul, and some of them still maintain that the club's judges were as fragile and misguided as French figure-skating judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne. But as their collaboration on this double-headed affair implies, the beef between Thrust and Bent, if there ever really was any, has long since been squashed. "There's no animosity at all," says Scott, who voluntarily vouches for the quality of Bent's new disc.
But while its tunes might have inspired unlikely converts, Bent should have a much harder time winning airplay for its heavier, largely melody-free material. For that matter, other local hopefuls might do well not to read too much into Thrust's surprising breakthrough.
"I don't want to kid anybody," Mirsky says. "My job as program director isn't to break bands or to get bands signed. My job, first and foremost, is to get ratings and program the music that's going to gain us the most listeners. If local bands come up with music that's on par with a lot of the national stuff, I'd jump at the opportunity to support them, but that's not our primary purpose. Our purpose is to entertain, not to educate. If a local band makes great music and people get into it, then I'm serving both masters."
For now, Thrust continues to represent local rock nightly in a clash against mediocre MTV metal, a battle with no small symbolic value. Ironically, if Thrust rules the Rumble for two consecutive weeks, 98.9 will retire "Smack," making possible permanent removal from the airwaves the terrible reward for the song's winning ways. However, the song's success could also earn it a spot in regular rotation, a possibility Mirsky doesn't debunk. If nothing else, Thrust's story provides instruction to groups in the area's mostly densely populated musical genre: If local radio programmers won't play your songs, give 'em a "Smack."
Last but Not Least
At least modern-Rock acts have a prayer of getting a few spins; many of this week's most intriguing shows feature artists who have nowhere to turn for salvation on the dial. Kid Koala once took advantage of early-a.m. MTV play on the electronica showcase Amp with a mind-warping video for his tune "Fender Bender." Now that such resources aren't available, he builds his reputation by participating in supergroups such as Gorillaz and Deltron 3030. His new group, Bullfrog, puts on a funky, all-the-way-live show with plenty of groove-oriented instrumentation at the Bottleneck on Thursday, February 28. Local firebrand As Memphis Burns specializes in extreme scream-powered metal that's as coldly precise and sharply unnerving as a coroner's tools; it is to Flaw and One Side Zero what director Peter Jackson's gore-splattered Dead Alive is to his creepy yet cuddly The Frighteners (Davey's, Friday, March 1). And Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys and Richmond Fontaine (Davey's, Wednesday, March 6) play genuine, heartbreaking country, the kind that Nashville bad-taste-makers decided went out of fashion decades ago.