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PANZER DIVISION

"Thank God that metal is going back underground," says Daniel Conca, vocalist for Colorado Springs' Jag Panzer. "Back in the days of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, it was always underground, and it was great. And then MTV came along and destroyed it. But now that Headbanger's Ball has been canceled, maybe things will start getting good again."
Such is the hope of Conca and his cohorts--guitarists Mark Briody and Chris Kostka, bassist John Tetley and drummer Rikard Stjernquist. The band has been around so long that most locals either take it for granted or have forgotten that it exists. But the act has proved tough to kill, and as a result of a new record deal with Pavement, a prominent independent label based in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, it has its most impressive platform in years. "I can't see us turning into Green Day overnight," Kostka admits, "but that's fine with me. You've got to start somewhere."

According to Briody--who, like Tetley, has been in the group since the beginning--Jag Panzer was formed by a handful of high school buddies in 1982. Its moniker, a reference to German tanks, has an ominous Nazi ring to it, but the group's members insist the appellation was chosen for reasons of strength, not ideology. Still, the designation has had a pleasant side effect: "We're really big in Germany--that's where our international fan club is," Conca notes. "It's probably because of the name."

In short order, the players put together a demo tape that began circulating through the then-burgeoning heavy-metal community. Six months later they signed a contract with a Los Angeles indie, Azra Records, and put out an EP, 1983's Tyrants, that was heavily influenced by inspirations such as Black Sabbath. A year after that, the band made its full-length bow with Ample Destruction, a disc so well-regarded among hard-rock aficionados that the Metal Blade imprint issued a remixed/extra-tracks version in 1991. European listeners were the most smitten by Destruction, which spawned a faction of followers who've made it their mission to collect anything and everything recorded by the outfit. "Every demo we did ended up getting bootlegged somewhere," allows Briody, a graphic artist who, believe it or don't, created the illustrations for The Story of Dinger, a children's book about the Colorado Rockies' dorky mascot. "Of course, we didn't get any money for that."

Nor did they climb to the top of the charts, largely because they ran afoul of mid-Eighties trends. "We had some discussions with different indie labels, but they wanted to push us in a more commercial, Stryper-type sound," Briody recalls.

Adds Kostka, a two-year veteran of the group who's been friendly with Briody for over a decade, "They didn't want to write songs that were faddish. Just because Bon Jovi was happening in 1986 didn't mean that they were going to start writing songs about chicks and fast cars."

The Panzers finally received an offer to sign with Island Records in 1987, but they turned it down because, Briody claims, "the contract was the size of the Yellow Pages. And when we read it, we figured out that even if our record went gold, we would have made more money working at McDonald's."

In the years that followed, the band suffered through a slew of personnel changes--so many that it would have been a simple matter to kill it once and for all. Instead, Briody and Tetley kept the project afloat. The Ample Destruction reissue justified their persistence, and the addition of Kostka, Stjernquist and Conca, a survivor of eight years on the L.A. hair-band scene, gave the unit new life. "When I met the guys, I expected that they'd have this big rock-star attitude," Conca confesses, "but they turned out to be some of the most sincere, down-to-earth people I've ever met."

With Conca handling the words, Jag Panzer started working on the material that eventually landed on its latest release, Dissident Alliance. The sound of the disc (released last month by Pavement following its 1994 appearance on the German imprint Rising Son) has a few contemporary flourishes. For the most part, though, Alliance is unapologetic Eighties metal of the sort that made the Scorpions so unavoidable way back when. The lyrics are tougher to peg: "Jeffrey, Behind the Gate" and "Psycho Next Door," for example, deal with the kind of twisted, dangerous characters that pop up on Metallica albums, while "Spirit Suicide" is an ode dedicated to the residents of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation.

Whether Alliance will catch on with the masses is largely irrelevant right now, since those dedicated metalheads hiding in dark corners in this country and abroad will like it just fine the way it is. The musicians learned this firsthand during an extensive tour of Europe late last year, and they hope to experience similar acclaim during their set at the annual Milwaukee Metal Fest scheduled for this summer. The band may also gig more often locally in an effort to raise its profile near its hometown (their next area date is May 5 at Pure Energy in Colorado Springs, with Assassin). But even if they're not embraced by Colorado's new punk-rock generation, Conca believes that hard rock will never suffer the ignominy of extinction.

"Metal is always going to be here in one form or another," he announces. "Call it thrash or death or whatever--it's aggressive, ballsy and rebellious, just like it always was. And we want to bring that feeling back.

 
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