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When Denver's Painstake was formed three years ago, its members adhered to straight-edge, a movement in which followers eschew drugs, drinks and other indulgences. Since then, however, the combo has gone through changes in lineup and philosophy. While some of today's Painstakers (drummer Carl Kumpe, guitarists Jason Andrade and Sam McGibbon, bassist Thom Gann and vocalist Max Michieli) still refuse to swill Anheuser-Busch products, puff anything manufactured by Phillip Morris or scarf down corporate death-burgers, the players are no longer comfortable with the ideological rigidity of the straight-edge scene.
Why not? According to Kumpe, "Hardcore today is all about empty sloganism." Painstake, on the other hand, is about walking the walk without having to talk the talk. "We're strong enough in our beliefs," Michieli says, "that we don't have to recruit others to join us."
Actually, Painstake's best recruiting tool is its music, a twist on hardcore's no-holds-barred lyrical content and brutal sonic attack that's becoming more singular every day. With a frontman (Michieli) who sounds like Henry Rollins in the act of being disemboweled and a rhythm section that seems to dredge up beats from the earth's entrails, the group's sound is the aural equivalent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
The visceral power of the band was not lost on Sean Uprising, a Laguna Beach, California-based entrepreneur who operates his own imprint, Uprising Communications; he signed Painstake to a two-record deal. The tracks on the first of these discs--Consecrate, released in 1995--seem to fall into the death-metal category: They bear a striking resemblance to the work of those songwriters who enjoy ranting about pentagrams and decapitated goats' heads. But repeated listens reveal an outfit that's intelligent and prone to self-examination. To put it mildly, neither "Still Life" ("The fascist voice of pride ceased to rescind/The darkest side of me I wish I could defend") nor "Tear the Muscle" ("Because the pain instigates the growth that makes me whole") has anything lyrically in common with Slayer.
From a commercial standpoint, Consecrate was a modest but noteworthy achievement; Uprising Communications promptly sold out the first pressing of the disc. Nonetheless, Michieli believes that the album fails to adequately represent the band. "I think the general consensus is that we rushed the album because we were real excited just to put something out," he explains. Andrade adds that the album suffers from the unit's inability to find a sound the performers could call their own. In his words, "I think we were still in the process of wanting to be our heroes."
Personnel changes--in particular, the induction of Kumpe--helped take Painstake to the next level. Previously, the band tended toward what Andrade calls "formulaic hardcore: generic E-chord chugga-chugga riffs that people can dance to." But thanks to Kumpe's skills, the quintet is now capable of plowing through complex time signatures and tackling a wider variety of styles. "There's the death-metal influence--a whole lot of that," McGibbon points out. "And maybe a jazzy thing as of late, and even emo-core."
"I think right now the music has a lot more vitriol, a lot more spirit to it," Kumpe claims. "It's just more venomous. If you heard the CD and then saw us live, I think you'd be impressed with the difference."
Kumpe's right: Today's Painstake is simply a better band than the one that made Consecrate. The players unleash so much energy on stage that the ritual slamming that takes place at its shows is inevitable. The sublimation of anger and aggression at the average Painstake gig makes it the perfect setting for a date with one of Al Gore's daughters--provided, of course, that mother Tipper Gore serves as a chaperone.
While Painstake hasn't yet been invited to give a command performance at the White House, the group recently completed its first formal tour of the East Coast. The expedition was a money-losing proposition, but the musicians still consider the journey a success--and not only because the band didn't break up prior to its return to Colorado. "I think that in the long run it's going to help, because a lot of the kids out there haven't heard us," Gann says. "They've seen the CD in various catalogues, but they don't really know too much about us--just the description they've read. So it was fun for the kids to see and meet us."
"In a way, we went from boys to men," Andrade concurs. "Like we were this boy band, the little hometown band, and we got to go on tour. We got kicked in the ass, but it was a lot of fun."
At this point, the Painstake five haven't dedicated themselves entirely to music; all of them either have steady jobs or are full-time students. But that doesn't mean they're uninterested in helping Painstake reach its full potential. They're already making plans to record a followup to Consecrate that they intend to shop to larger imprints specializing in death metal and hardcore. And if that big break comes, Kumpe confirms that they'll put their other ambitions on the shelf and "just play. That would be nice."
Would they toast their new prosperity with ice water or a beer? Only their bartender knows for sure.