Greg Beadle, drummer for the Cancer Conspiracy, is on the phone from the bandís bucolic Vermont home town of Burlington, and heís talking about his love for Rush. Given the instrumental rock trioís myriad psychedelic tendencies and roots in the regional metal/hardcore underground, that might come as a bit of a surprise. But catch them in concert or listen to the cagy rhythmic interplay on their first full-length album, The Audio Medium (Big Wheel Recreation), and itís hard not to be reminded of Rush ó specifically the riveting instrumental "YYZ," a perpetual favorite among high-school-band geeks everywhere.
Beadleís Rush fixation is completely unironic ó after all, he is the drummer. "If someone asked me my favorite bands, I would be more than happy to say Rush. As far as the other two guys in the band are concerned, they wouldnít. Whenever we get compared to them, they kind of cringe ó theyíd rather be compared to King Crimson or Brian Eno. Itís so weird, a lot of people donít like Rush because of Geddy Leeís singing style. And Neil Peartís just a machine of a drummer, but a lot of times people get scared off when you throw his name around. But hey, you can print it all over the place as far as Iím concerned."
Rush are just one of the many í70s prog touchpoints on The Audio Medium: the back cover of the disc sports some hilariously outmoded psychedelic artwork, and the four-part title track clocks in at a positively dino-rocking 20 minutes. Gliding from dreamy synth textures to itchy radio static interludes and dissonant, Sonic YouthĖstyle guitar outbursts, "The Audio Medium" covers just about every aspect of the Cancer Conspiracyís appeal. "A lot of the idea behind that came from the progressive rock that we grew up on," Beadle explains. "Bands like Yes and King Crimson werenít afraid to put three songs on an album, and two of them were 20 minutes apiece, you know? As a band, weíre all very into that stuff."
The Audio Medium is also a concept album, albeit a less fantastical one than 2112 or Tales from Topographic Oceans. The idea stems from the bandís name, which guitarist Daryl Rabidoux casually lifted from a magazine headline back in the day. "The cancer conspiracy pertains to the big cover-up that people think the government has, trying to suppress a cure for cancer," says Beadle. "Instead of becoming political, we morphed that into more of a musical idea, where mainstream radio and all the commercial rock thatís going on has tried to suppress underground and independent music. People donít necessarily get to hear how good that stuff is and some of the new ideas that come from it. The audio medium is radio."
That idea is not exactly evident upon listening to the album, since none of the songs has lyrics. But a quick glance at the liner notes provides clarification in the form of a seemingly legit, vaguely ominous letter the band received from a New Jersey man named Travis John. Claiming to have done independent academic research on the bandís audio-medium theory, he politely warns them of the perils of rejecting the commercial-radio model, then instructs them not to contact him. Itís an interesting twist on the age-old alternative-versus-mainstream debate, and a truly bizarre piece of fan mail.
"We had a playwright that we knew, and we asked him to take some of our ideas and develop them into a story for the album," Beadle continues. "He just got this letter anonymously. He forwarded it to us and we thought it was a joke, but it really wasnít. It was very short and sweet and nobody ever got in touch with us about it again."
As for the bandís ĺsthetic opposition to commercial radio, the music speaks for itself. The disc opens with a baroque-sounding duet between Beadle on piano and Rabidoux on clean guitar before smashing into the acrobatic rock display "Broken Heartbeats Gathered and Rebroadcast," which showcases Rabidouxís melodic, echo-drenched style. Beadle also contributes a few understated saxophone lines to the album, all the while teaming up with bassist Brent Frattini to create some of the most jagged rock rhythms this side of Tool.
Beadle and Rabidoux didnít necessarily have the Cancer Conspiracyís melodic prog formula in mind when they formed the band a few years ago, but they did know they were sick of the metalcore they had been playing in New England mainstays Non Compos Mentis and Drowningman, respectively. They never planned on being an instrumental band, either. "Daryl and I played out of a closet for a year, thinking our plan was to move out to the West Coast to find a singer and a bass player. I donít know how we didnít kill each other," Beadle recounts with a laugh. The duo never saved up enough money to move West, so they eventually hooked up with Frattini and decided to forge ahead without a vocalist. "When we first started, people were like, ĎAw, you guys should get a singer.í But believe it or not, I donít remember the last time we heard that. From then until now, weíve learned to develop our sound so that I donít even know how weíd include a vocalist, and people started to accept us for what we are."
The band are hoping to mount their first national tour in support of the album. And they recently got their road feet wet opening for the Trey Anastasio/Les Claypool/Stewart Copeland supergroup Oysterhead in Cleveland. "We were very well received. We really got a taste of what itís like to be pampered a bit. We werenít used to it. The most amazing thing was having guys that were so on the ball. I mean, the soundcheck was just quick and to the point. Any one of the guys in the band will tell you itís probably the best experience weíve had."
The Cancer Conspiracy got the gig through an association with Phishís management ó itís the Vermont connection, not some kind of jam-band crossover attempt. "Trey talks to Daryl once in a while when he wanders into the tobacco shop Daryl works at. You can spot him around Burlington on any given day when heís not touring." The group also ended up doing a little bonding with Anastasioís celebrated bandmates. "Weíve got some video footage of Stewart Copeland watching the band pretty intently, so we were all pretty psyched about that. The one that I thought would be hardest to relate to was Les Claypool, and he was actually the guy that was the most chatty with us. He came out at the end of the night and wanted to hang out and talk shop. It was kind of cool."
THE CANCER CONSPIRACY may be more scientific about it, but Quitter guitarist Ian Ross feels the same way about the audio medium ó and heís not gonna take it anymore. "My ambition for Quitter is to shake the music scene up and give people something like what they received when Guns Ní Rosesí Appetite for Destruction came out. Iím sick of the radio. Itís a bunch of crap and I think everybody knows it, but they have no choice because money rules the industry and theyíre telling people what they should listen to. If something sneaks through the industry that is honest and raw and pure, then it will eventually get to people.
"Weíre playing stuff that may or may not be radio-friendly. A lot of it is, but weíre not doing that for the radio. Weíre doing it just because we like this kind of material. My goal is to be huge or not, but Iím trying to make people remember what rock and roll is about, and why itís fun and cool."
Ross and singer Hari Hassin formed Quitter when their previous band, local stoner-rock kings Roadsaw, went on hiatus. "Hari and I just spent a lot of time together listening to music, getting fucked up, and thinking about other kinds of music that we could or should be playing that we werenít necessarily allowed to do in Roadsaw, because Roadsaw is a specific kind of music. Itís just always heavy and kick-ass, and thatís great, but there was very little room for anything pop-oriented. As much as we love the loud stuff, we also have a soft spot in our hearts for things as silly as Seals & Crofts and Hall & Oates. We wanted to incorporate that with the heaviness of Roadsaw."
The band realize that vision on their debut EP, Quitter (Tortuga), a steel-throated portrait of scarf-wearing í70s-rock revivalism that almost sounds like an edgier version of the house band from Almost Famous. Roadsaw drummer Hassin makes an impressive vocal debut, resembling a less frantic Robert Plant with a wicked falsetto (Roadsaw frontman Craig Riggs recently joined the band on drums; former Milligram bassist Bob Maloney rounds out the line-up). Certainly you can spot traces of Roadsaw in Quitter, but itís a testament to the bandís versatility that the punk-tempo "Tear You Down" sits comfortably next to the lighter-waving power ballad "Blind."
" ĎBlindí kind of embodies everything we wanna do with this band," says Ross. "Itís heavy as hell at points, but itís also melodic. Itís about me realizing that I had to follow my own path in life, which was following music at any cost. I basically gave up everything in my life at one point to join Roadsaw and get out of Portland, Maine, which is where I was living at the time. Theyíre lyrics that I had kicking around for a while, and itís a very emotional song for me."
The Cancer Conspiracy play the Middle East Upstairs this Friday, January 25. Quitter play the Middle East Upstairs on Saturday February 9. Call (617) 864-EAST.