The Boston Phoenix
December 9 - 16, 1999

[Music Reviews]

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Metal militias

The wild kingdom of Scissorfight and Nightstick

by Carly Carioli

"On a recent sharkfishing excursion to southern Florida I ate alligator balls," begins a column in the latest edition of the locally produced metal 'zine Hexbender, "or alligator nuggets, if you like." Prefaced with an epigraph attributed to, of all people, Blue Öyster Cult guitarist Buck Dharma ("Nature winds up the folly of men"), the column proceeds as a quick, smart evisceration of several conventions: naturalist journal writing, "adventure" travelogues, the ubiquitous local-character profiles found in quaint seaside glossies. The author heads to the Everglades, where he boards a hovercraft with two humorless German tourists and a loose cannon of a pilot who's quoted in the author's description of a bloody wild-boar hunt to which "he brings a staple gun along to `staple the hounds back together so they can finish the chase!' "

The author of the column is named Ironlung -- which is also the name he uses when fronting the low-riding metal band Scissorfight -- and the column, a fictional endeavor, is titled "Ironlung's Wild America." I love the way Ironlung quotes the fictional hovercraft pilot in his column: fractionally, as if he had been working from the transcript of an actual interview that proved too winding or long-winded to quote in full. The tale's exaggeration -- its amplification and distortion -- is proclaimed right at the beginning, established with a wink and a nudge. Ironlung gains your confidence by letting you in on the joke at the outset, and so you're inclined to trust both the tale and the teller, assured that you are in good hands, that he will pull your leg but not yank it out of its socket.

The same promise holds true for Scissorfight, who always appear to have stepped directly from some Hell's Angels version of a wilderness-survival camp. A physically imposing specimen -- around six feet tall, bulging about the belly, with a beard that puts ZZ Top to shame -- Ironlung resembles, more than a little, the larger-than-life mountain men, pirate captains, and backwoods rogues who populate his band's songs. He proclaims amplification and distortion just by striding onto the stage; the snaking, detuned, intestine-emptying thud that follows both confirms and refutes your suspicions. "It's not rock till you piss your pants," went a chorus to a song called "Musk Ox" (off their recently released third album, New Hampshire, on Tortuga), which they played in a December 1 show at the Middle East. Or at least that's how it seemed to go. "It's not rock till I piss you pants," Ironlung clarified afterward, declining to elaborate further. (In a photo accompanying the latest installment of "Ironlung's Wild America," he's festooned in another willful decimation of grammar -- a T-shirt that says only "I Fucking You.")

Scissorfight's previous albums have steered a nebulous course through all manner of tall tales -- some of the band's own devising (including their signature local hit, "Planet of Ass"), some plucked from the rummage bin of regional folklore ("The Gibbeted Captain Kidd"), some an impervious combination of the two. Early on, says Andrew Schneider, who produced New Hampshire, "I saw that Scissorfight were not just a metal band. In fact, they were way more rock. So my main goal at first was to get some 'ZLX [the classic-rock station] in there. And then the more I worked with them, the more I realized that not only was it sort of a rock thing but that there were elements of Frank Zappa in there, and elements of the Butthole Surfers, there's all this shit in it. And Ironlung knows it: he hams it up, but he knows what he's doing. I don't know if anyone else knows it."

Thanks in part to Schneider's production, New Hampshire is the consummate Scissorfight album -- bookended by tributes to their adopted home state ("Granite State Destroyer," which alludes to survivalist compounds, tax revolt, and, of course, the state-license-plate slogan; and the closing "Mountain Man Boogie"), it's a series of postcard-sized snapshots from an outlaw state of mind. The rhythm section straightens out into a Zepplinesque four-on-the-floor stomp, the riffs maintain a bulging, brontosauran beefiness without turning to mud, and Schneider even coaxes the band into the occasional three-part harmony. On "Lamprey River" and "Injection Site," searing slide guitars and harmonica and Neil Young's Dead Man reverb conjure a more successful version of what Clutch attempted on The Elephant Riders: a bayou-bred swamp-boogie blues band, updated for the late `90s.

"The band originally started practicing in the basement of a house in Newmarket," says Ironlung, who grew up in Newton. "And I drove every weekend up to Portsmouth to practice in this meat locker that I couldn't even stand all the way up in. I had a real stressful job, but then I'd have a license to do whatever I wanted all weekend and then come back, and that was perfect. I went to school up there for five years, and after a year of being in the band, I moved up to Portsmouth for a couple of months. And it's always had for me, having grown up in the city, this kind of mythos to it. It was where the imagination ran wild, because there were the woods and all this mystery and folklore -- you're in the woods, and what the fuck is out in the woods? If you're from the city, it's also a place that you think of as an `other' -- I think of it as this sort of Jungian mythic landscape where man is delivered into another plane to contemplate . . . whatever. That's sort of the theme of the album."

As a kid growing up in Weymouth, Robert Williams immersed himself in the local theater. He was a founding member of the Company Theatre, which is now based in Norwell, and he performed in the Boston Shakespeare Company before taking, as he puts it, "a bad turn into rock and roll" precipitated by a Minor Threat show at the old Gallery East. The band he formed in high school, Siege, recorded a demo in the early '80s with Lou Giordano (Negative FX, SS Decontrol, Proletariat). Siege played only a handful of shows, but the demo became a hit in the international tape-trading network of underground hardcore fanatics and, if you believe Napalm Death, was a primary influence on the development of the subgenre known as grindcore. (The demo, called Drop Dead, was re-released by Relapse in the mid '90s; the band also appeared on the highly collectible compilation Cleansing the Bacteria that was released by the skate-punk illustrator Pushead.) After Siege folded, in the early '80s, Williams went on to Emerson College, where he hosted WERS's hardcore program Faster Than You, a job he took over from Taang! founder Curtis Casella. And then he dropped out of sight.

"I guess I can confess I was using drugs rather heavily and spent a period of time on Cape Cod drying out," he acknowledges. And it was, of all things, his return to theater that gave him the confidence and the currency to return to Weymouth to make music. A brief Siege reunion followed in the early '90s -- with Anal Cunt's Seth Putnam on vocals -- but Williams, the drummer and lyricist, became disillusioned when his "revolutionary" lyrics were, as he puts it, "blanketed with pacifism." Whereupon he formed an entirely different sort of band called Nightstick, whom I first saw perform on a bill with Japanese noise terrors Masonna and Merzbow around 1995. Williams's favored description for Nightstick, Flipper as fronted by Jim Morrison, was not far off -- if either the Doors or Flipper had employed an "interpretive dancer" and maracas player dressed as a clown who appeared to be in the throes of the DT shakes. The guitar player smashed three guitars in the course of what appeared to be one long, half-hour song infused with protean sludge and a tendency to radical improvisation.

"We have a love," says Williams, "for what most people would refer to as classic rock. When punk rock went into postpunk, like around the time of Sonic Youth, I started listening to the kind of stuff I used to hate because everyone else liked it -- like the Doors and Floyd -- and that was what led me to explore the weirder psychedelic music and dig a little deeper -- like Vanilla Fudge, etc. So it was only when punk rock became noisier and more psychedelic that I began exploring the historic psychedelic music. Our concept is to combine rock music with noise. That is our concept and our mission, and we have coined the phrase `psychedelicore.' I feel we're arriving at something completely original, as far as the degree and dose and helping of noise we channel into quote-unquote rock form."

Beginning with 1996's Blotter, Nightstick have released three albums for Relapse, despite several setbacks. The original clown, according to Williams, became a homeless IV-drug addict and was replaced. As part of Williams's crusade against "a suburban club scene retarded by cover-band mentality," the band encountered some legal hassles when a battle-of-the-bands showcase they'd infiltrated at a cover-band club erupted into a violent melee and the proprietor was smashed in the face with a weighted mike stand. In an unrelated incident, singer/bassist Alex Smith was also briefly incarcerated.

Nightstick's most recent album, Death to Music, isn't nearly the amusical screed the title suggests. Noise, in their hands, is a matter of texture, the grain of the music suggesting an overload of the circuitry employed to record it -- a subtle but economical method of dramatizing a rebellion against the constraints of technology and, in the process, communicating the meltdown heat of the performance itself. Williams's mantra, in conversation, is revolution, an attitude extrapolated from his fondness for the Beats and the more militant wings of the civil-rights and anti-war movements. And Nightstick's noise is of a similar vintage: Floyd's psychedelic expansiveness, the second-hand free-jazz approximations of the MC5, and the sprawling, flexible cacophony of Blue Cheer. In Nightstick's hands all this unfurls at a snail's pace -- as with the Melvins and Flipper, there's a sense that some heavy-machinery vehicle is inching down the highway, a sense of speed in proportion to sturdy, if cumbersome, tonnage. Fu Manchu, Nebula, and Monster Magnet have capitalized on similar reference points, but Nightstick's formulation -- given to extended conceptual suites, relentless run-on dirges, and the occasional free-form alto-sax squall -- remains delightfully esoteric. In the midst of recording a new album, they'll give a rare performance next Monday, December 20, at Bill's Bar.

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