To Conquer reappears for two final shows. Unless it plays more.

Divide and Conquer 

To Conquer reappears for two final shows. Unless it plays more.

When Keanon Liggatt, Mike Myers, Chuck Irons and Brad Hodgson played their first show together, they called their band To Conquer?, copying the name, question mark and all, from a keyboard effect. To Conquer officially ditched the punctuation after its first gig, but the sense of mystery conveyed by the symbol remained intact throughout its sporadic career, right up until the group played an August show that drummer Myers cryptically revealed "might or might not" be its last.

At the time, most observers were voting in the affirmative, based on the group's seemingly strained interaction during that fateful concert at the Hurricane. But in fact, Liggatt says, there was no conflict; the impending split was a pragmatic one to accommodate Hodgson's planned relocation to Austin, Texas. "We've all been friends for years, and we started the band just to see what it would sound like if we played together," he explains.

To Conquer's first few practices were filled with tension, though it was the nervous sort rather than the contentious variety. "We were all big fans of each other's bands from earlier generations, and no one wanted to screw up," Liggatt recalls. Bassist Irons played in the group Recliner; guitarist Hodgson had teamed with Liggatt from 1992-'99 in the spaced-out rock quartet Grovel, then fronted the engaging indie outfit the Hillary Step while Liggatt stepped into the harder-edged Haloshifter; and Myers had played with Thestringandreturn and Everest, also serving tours of duty with Season to Risk and Dirtnap. This supergroup had no set genre specifications -- "that was the whole point: to write songs with no goal in mind," Liggatt says -- and its resulting compositions combined the best elements of each member's previous projects with an onstage intensity unmatched by any of their prior experiences.

Hodgson sets the tone for To Conquer's sweat-drenched shows, with each riff's full-body follow-through sending him lunging into equipment or bandmates. (At one El Torreon show, Hodgson, lost in one of the group's mesmerizing two-note meditations, actually plunged off the stage. "You've gotta love playing with someone who's not afraid to fall on his ass," Myers remarked at the time.) Liggatt, who used to be relatively reserved even during Haloshifter's heaviest moments, follows suit, jerking rhythmically to what he calls the band's "grandiose repetitive passages." Myers decorates each sterling progressive epic with complex fills and rolls, and when he and Hodgson switch places, he steps vigorously into the guitarist's role as perpetual-motion machine. Irons, seemingly the steadying presence, actually sets all these events into action with his massive, twisting, smothering python-strength bass lines.

The group's songs, several of which sprawl into the eight-to-ten-minute range, force together two magnetic opposites. At one end, there's progressive rock's cold technical proficiency, manifested in To Conquer's unorthodox tunings, experimental time signatures and disdain for any traditional verse-chorus-verse structures. At the other, there's emo's warm, deeply personal core, which erupts like long-simmering lava in the form of Hodgson's passionate vocals and the band's reckless live presentation. The group conveys its emotion entirely through its music, using lyrics only sparingly.

Acts that are so fluent in nonverbal communication tend to connect with fellow musicians, which is one reason members of other bands, such as Shiner and Season to Risk, were among the first to protest To Conquer's breakup. Liggat recalls his colleagues' rallying call: "You've gotta keep playing." But fans of the local music scene mourned along with participants, disappointed to see yet another promising ensemble disappear before even finishing an album. Last year, Liggatt's Haloshifter dissolved shortly after being named a candidate for a Best New Artist Klammy; To Conquer vanished so soon that it didn't even have a shot at earning a nomination. Factor in the recent passing of Go Generation and Big Jeter, as well as the fresh memory of now-defunct next-big-things such as Lushbox and Cross Country Felons, and it becomes a nightmarish Groundhog Day scenario: Every year the new fall lineup is announced, and every year the excellent freaks and geeks get cancelled.

At least To Conquer, unlike the aforementioned gone-for-good groups, has a few gasps left, and it won't just be rinsing the rust off its long-dormant set list. Liggatt says the group has finished songs it had been working on when it last quit playing, so fans who go see the band play at El Torreon on Saturday, February 9, will get to witness a few previously unheard selections. And even after the Conquering heroes play their final notes at Davey's Uptown on February 21, Liggatt proposes that he, Myers and Irons might well get together, scrap all existing material and pound out some new thickly rhythmic brain teasers.

With To Conquer, nothing is ever really final. "We might get together if Brad comes back in town," Liggatt muses. Perhaps that question mark should be a permanent fixture.

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