Back in 1994, guitarist Jes Steineger, bassist Stacy Hilt, drummer James Redd and singer Sean Ingram began experimenting with a radical hybrid sound. They started with grindcore metal's drumbeats, which come so close to reaching the speed of sound that they occasionally vanish into a blur indistinguishable to human ears. They added vocals so raw that Ingram must have had to gargle with salt water after every verse. And they incorporated insane time signatures, tempo hiccups and riffing patterns that even the most ardent prog-rock disciple couldn't chart. Ultimately, Coalesce created an exponentially extreme attack that turned unprepared onlookers into Scanners victims. Noting the group's mind-blowing potential, metal mavens Earache Records agreed to release the band's three-song demo 002, then paired Coalesce with grind titans Napalm Death for a split EP.
Locally, the Kansas City-based quartet supported its releases with legendarily loud performances at now-defunct all-ages cubbyholes such as the Rhumba Box and the Daily Grind. The hardcore and metal scenes had not yet merged, so Coalesce drew roughly half the crowd it can command today.
"All of the subcategories have morphed into one," Ingram says. That includes emo, a relatively new genre into which Coalesce crosses over through its membership (Hilt plays in the Casket Lottery, as does his one-time replacement Nathan Ellis; drummer James Dewees is a Get Up Kid) and its lyrical content (literate songs such as "Sometimes Selling out Is Waking Up" and "Burn Everything That Bears Our Name" appeal more to bookworms than bullies). "We're the heavy band that it's cool for emo kids to like," Ingram says. "We've never had a tough-guy mentality or image."
Coalesce's current label, Relapse, home of its most recent release (1999's 012: Revolution in Just Listening), doesn't exactly deal in tough-guy groups, but it does offer grimly baroque black-metal ensembles and gorecore stage-blood splatterers. Coalesce has yet to tour with delegates from either of these categories, though it did have a revelatory experience while touring with Nile, Neurosis and Unsane.
"That was the first time we ever saw guys put a fan in front of them so their hair blows when they play guitar," Ingram marvels. "We'd never heard of such a thing, and we were laughing really hard at it. We didn't realize they were serious."
Follicle-freeing fans are child's play compared with Slipknot's full-scale circus, and persistent rumors have Coalesce opening for that truly insane clown posse. "There's just no fact to that at all," Ingram clarifies. "I'd love to open up for them, but it's totally false."
Still, the fact that Coalesce, a band once resigned to playing for modest crowds at makeshift venues, could even be proposed as an opener for a platinum-selling attraction points out how much progress its brand name has made during the group's hiatus from stages and studios.
Dewees, Coalesce's second drummer (after Redd's departure to attend school in Baltimore), became the Get Up Kids' keyboardist several years ago. He also assumed the role of Reggie, the charismatic costumed frontman of the Get Up-offshoot Reggie and the Full Effect. These high-profile positions attracted interest in his prior projects. Likewise, the Casket Lottery's regional appeal had Midwestern fans tracing the family trees of Hilt and Ellis. And Ingram created thousands of instant fans during his one-shot appearance as singer for Dillinger Escape Plan, the one existing band that comes close to approximating Coalesce's meticulously calculated chaos. After the Ingram Escape Plan show, as it has come to be known, the vocalist reconvened Hilt, Ellis (now playing guitar) and Dewees to discuss a reunion show. (Founding member Steineger parted ways amicably with the band, contrary to persistent Internet-fueled claims. "No controversy or dirt there," Ingram says.)
Inspired by the idea, the re-formed band started practicing covertly in the Get Up Kids' rehearsal space. Soon, however, Ellis bowed out, citing responsibilities to both his family (he recently became a father) and the Casket Lottery. Corey White, axman for the Esoteric, took his place.
"We gave him a CD of Coalesce tunes, and the next day he brought in a CD-R of him playing on top of all the riffs," Ingram recalls. "It was perfection."
Excited as he was about the new addition, Ingram wanted to keep Coalesce 2002 secret until he could make a formal statement. When he did so on the band's Web site last December 3, he thanked both KC and Lawrence music-scene insiders and the noted gossip mongers and critics at Buddyhead.com for keeping the cat snugly inside the knapsack. Asked if he's a Coalesce fan, Buddyhead co-kingpin Travis Keller opines, "Not a fan of the Cookie Monster voice."
Keller's comment demonstrates why Coalesce gets categorized as a hardcore metal, rather than heavy emo, outfit. Singers from bands such as Boy Sets Fire (with whom Coalesce has released a split single) can bark with the best of them, but they also make room for some sensitive crooning, often during the choruses. Ingram prefers all screams, all the time -- a credo that doesn't describe his leisure listening habits.
"I'm not metal," he admits. "When I'm driving out to Lawrence, I put in Lisa Loeb." Ingram remains open to actually singing on record if he "could figure out a way to do it without making it sound lame," he says. "It would give me a whole new way to illustrate the words. But we wouldn't just come out with Coalesce: The Emo Record. There'd have to be a really creative way to do it without alienating everyone, including ourselves."
In the past, Coalesce's members often found creative ways to alienate themselves. "If it wasn't money, it was ego," Ingram says. "If it wasn't ego, it was religion. If it wasn't religion, it was women. Coalesce has had every big problem, barring drugs and alcohol."
One of its most traumatic experiences occurred in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where a female fan suffered head injuries after pieces of Dewees' destroyed drum set were passed to the back of the room. "Kids had fits," Ingram recalls. "It was just really insane. People depicted an accident as a malicious intentional event. James offered to take the girl to the hospital, we offered to pay for whatever we had to, and she said she was fine, but everyone else had to give their two cents." As a result of the controversy that followed, Hilt quit the band.
Now that all has been forgotten and forgiven (Coalesce has even received recent offers to play again in Wilkes-Barre), Hilt has rejoined what Ingram describes as the most functional Coalesce lineup to date, one that plans to stay together after its reunion tour, which opens with a date Thursday, March 21, at the Bottleneck. "It's been fun," he reports. "That sounds cheesy, but with Coalesce, it's never been fun, so that's a really big thing coming from us."
Granted, some of that past turmoil resulted in great songs, such as "My Love for Extremes" and "What Happens on the Road Always Comes Home," but Ingram would rather search elsewhere for inspiration. "My only outlet about the band was through the band," he says. "Now, everybody's totally chill. We've all grown up a lot. When you think about it, three years is a really long time."