OK, so it was the Fugees singing "How Many Mics." But the words are no less prophetic. Musical clans have mirrored the life-and-death cycle of the seasons since homo erectus performed the first guitar solo in a fire-lit cave. Bands are born, they live, they play "Baba O'Riley" at Jimmy Schmidt's bar mitzvah, and then they die.
Ad Astra Per Aspera is an odd little spring chicken that has only started to spaz out; a national tour and impending record deal has made the Esoteric the boys of summer; the Sound and the Fury struggles for a break in the autumn of its career. But each needs only look to the Casket Lottery (page 48) to know that winter awaits them all.
It's Friday evening, the sun is shining, and the weekday lemmings are becoming weekend lushes. The prefunk has only begun for most people, but the crowd packed into the Beaumont Club isn't most people. And while the funk is nowhere to be found, the noise announces its presence loud, if not clear. And it's not even 8 p.m.
Damn all-ages shows.
Nobody starts concerts on time, let alone early. But these kids need to get their mosh on before curfew and the Esoteric is happy to oblige. Killswitch Engage and In Flames are technically the main event, but the fans caught in the churning maw at center stage didn't get the memo.
The five-man Esoteric blurs with raw, hardcore fury that leaves them and the crowd lathered with sweat when the dust settles on the short, ferocious set. Panting fans back away from the knot of humanity to catch their second wind during the break. They wear studded belts and black T-shirts that say "Anti-establishment," "I Hate Everyone" and "I'm all gay about Hobbits and shit." Many hands bear the telltale "X" mark reserved for underage patrons and straightedge types.
"I would much rather play an all-ages show," vocalist Steve Cruz confides later. "These kids are loyal and dedicated. They are so much hungrier than a normal crowd. Other places, we get a lot of deer in the headlights."
And you don't want to be caught in the headlights, lest you be obliterated all over the highway. To some, the band's punishing sonic spasms are hellacious noise; to others, glorious 4-minute hemorrhages of percolating emotion. And there are enough "others" around to warrant a large metal/ hardcore following.
The band's new EP, 1336, just might take that appeal national. Its four songs were intended to be demos recorded in the basement of a house in Lawrence (the title references the address), at least until the songs caught the ear of Black Noise Records, which promptly released 1336.
"It was just us messing around at home," Cruz says. "But I guess it gets the point across."
Although, you might have to be fluent in hardcore to completely understand the message, because many lyrics are a tad, well, esoteric. "Until the Grave Gives up the Ghost," for one, offers salient musings like, Angelic assassin, monkey in reflection, infinity mocks its definition.
Somebody's monkey is doing what now to whom?
And when the trained voice shrieks, Possibility of position/Collapse the mainframe with the stars of the brain/Spots that shine in all directions/ Remembering the birth of initiation, the untrained ear hears "Pwwaaaeedeeaahhwaationn!!!!"
Not to worry. Intelligibility is inconsequential because what the Esoteric says isn't nearly as important as how the band says it. And where it says it -- namely, everywhere.
"Some bands are content with playing their hometown over and over, and that's cool," Cruz says. "[But] this is a way of life for us. If you want to share your music with a lot of people, you have to be in people's faces all the time. It's the only way a band in our genre -- whatever that is -- can support itself."
Not that the band is hurting for work. A full national tour is already scheduled, and the band expects to sign a record label contract within weeks.
"Everybody's feeling it right now," Cruz says. "Everybody's juices are flowing pretty good. The band has never been in as good a position as we are right now."
It's Saturday afternoon, the sun is shining, and the music nerds are swarming inside Recycled Sounds. The crowd of Neutral Milk Hotel T-shirts and Buddy Holly glasses is so thick, in fact, that the congestion forces some people to get much closer to a used copy of Corey Hart's First Offense than any human being should.
The audience isn't here for a rare Kraftwerk bootleg sale or to ask employees what Prince is really like when he's buying giant posters of himself. They're here for Ad Astra Per Aspera, and that makes the band members a little uneasy. They titter nervously and stare at the floor while tuning their instruments, which have somehow been shoehorned into a claustrophobic patch of space in the back of the store.
Five people, three guitars, three keyboards, a drum kit and assorted noisemakers are wedged between stacks of posters. This performance celebrates the release of the band's EP, Cubic Zirconia. As fate would have it, the finished album was flown in that morning, albeit too late for the previous night's show.
"It was a total Spinal Tap moment," lead singer and guitarist Mike Tuley tells the crowd with a laugh. "We had a CD-release party with no CDs."
Not that convention is a high priority for Ad Astra Per Aspera. The band begins its Recycled set with soft atmospherics, Tuley playing his guitar with a violin bow, Julie Noyce massaging the keyboard, both singing in a whisper. Drummer Kurt Lane delivers staggered pa-rum-pum-pum-pums, Scott Edwards plunks a bass line, and Brooke Hunt fiddles with the sampler.
Then all hell breaks loose.
Noyce is pounding on the keyboard. Tuley is screaming into the belly of his guitar. Lane fires Uzi drumroll bursts. The music builds feverishly, then abruptly drops off a cliff into placid waters. It is loud. Then quiet. Then loud again. Some beeps and whistles, scrapes and twangs, a chime -- did I just hear a baby rattle? -- and some screams, and plenty of guitar squall. It's a subtly organized and wonderfully chaotic mess.
"We're going to be at the Westport Coffee House on the 15th," Tuley says casually after ripping through an abbreviated set. "Unless you're going to prom. Then we're the official prom afterparty."
He's only half-joking. The band's experimental punk does draw a broad spectrum of indie aficionados.
"There's a pretty strange mixture of people at our shows," Lane says. "But people seem to like what we're doing fine. They seem able to overcome the fact that our songs are a lot of disparate parts."
Indeed, a lot can happen during an Ad Astra song. Bells. Whistles. Rattles. Drums. Guitars. Keyboards. Sir Ian McKellen reading a riding-lawnmower service manual. OK, not the last one. But Cubic Zirconia does manage to sprawl across musical borders. And the songs are complex for a reason. The band pieces them together with the painstaking diligence of a cut-and-paste ransom letter. The band has completed little more than ten songs in two years as a result, although Lane assures that the band is just starting to find its stride.
"Some of the first songs we did were pretty all over the place," Lane says. "It would take us a long time to put something together. Now, I think it's a lot more focused. We all have a more solid idea of what we want to do."
It's 1 o'clock on Sunday morning, and the spotlight is shining in the eye of the Hurricane. It's that time of night when everything blurs into one big Picasso, when you hardly notice a man in a green M&M suit gyrating to "Shake Ya Tailfeather" on the Hurricane's outdoor stage. Melts in your mouth? Good lord, we hope not.
Inside, things are less surreal but just as riotous. The sweltering club is full of scenesters wearing each other's T-shirts and singing each other's songs. These are the ardent local music supporters who play together, stay together, and whose bands will die ignominiously together.
Then there are the guys in the Sound and the Fury -- veterans reviled as much as they are revered within the music community. But this is their night. A celebration of the new Another Stage. And this band can reach that elusive other stage. They know they can. They've done the time. Done the work. Their sound is "infectious," which means catchy music that's almost too accessible for the discerning critic.
The band drew some 600 people to a hometown show in Pittsburg, Kansas, the night before. After the band launches into "Millionaire Losers," it's no mystery why. The song is made for rock radio. Air-guitar riffs. Shout-along chorus. The crowd is infected.
Lead singer Jeff Wood exhorts them with "everybody" proclamations ("I want to see everybody sing along!") before the band finishes with crowd-pleasing covers of Tool's "Aenema" and the Beatles' "Hey Jude."
The latter selection might seem curious for a band called the Sound and the Fury, whose members look like they spend far more time at Gold's Gym defining their deltoids than at Barnes & Noble leafing through Faulkner. But Wood wears his heart on his bulging sleeve. This isn't Elliott Smith rip-your-heart-out-with-a-spatula-and-stab-it-to-your-arm-with-a-rusty-nail, but it is emotional and it is rock. Not unlike the fare of maligned native son Wes Scantlin.
It's also earnest. And marketable. But while the band's mainstream chances are greater than, say, Ad Astra Per Aspera, it's perhaps even more likely to wallow in local-fame purgatory. Nine years, three albums and a Club Wars championship have yet to yield the break.
"It's 10 percent preparation and 90 percent luck," Wood says. "You have to be prepared, do what you're supposed to do and hope that the right people find you."
But while bassist Jay Kassen and drummer Nathan Russell are considered amiable participants in the local scene, there are grumbles about perceived posturing from Wood and guitarist Aaron Ogle. Wood admits that he and Ogle aren't "social butterflies," nor is he particularly interested in indulging the egos of other bands.
"As long as I know that the other three people in this band like what we're doing, I don't really care too much about what other people think," Wood says. "We've played bars where the only people who showed up were the employees, but we still tried to play like it was our last show."
Few dispute the group's hard work, but Wood acknowledges the urgency hanging over what he calls his "pipe dreams" to break into the mainstream. Ultimately, the band wants to make a living playing music. And it has. But the pace can't go on indefinitely. There won't be many chances after Another Stage to reach another stage. But optimism remains.
"We have spent many, many hours away from a so-called normal life in order to pursue our music," Wood says. "We have put in a lot of hard work. But I think we're on the right track. As long as we keep working hard, things will start to happen for us."