Just the Ax, Man

The Atomic Bitchwax and Nebula are among a new breed of bands putting the wank back into guitar rock.

"You know what amazes me?" asks Ed Mundell, guitarist and frontman for the Atomic Bitchwax but perhaps best known for his efforts in Monster Magnet. "It amazes me that there are kids out there today who don't know who Jimi Hendrix is. I'll be in a guitar store, and I'll see these kids playing guitar or whatever, and [they'll] be like, 'Hey, you play in Monster Magnet, and blah, blah, blah.' But then we'll start talking, and it turns out they've never heard of Hendrix or Blue Cheer or any of this great music that's been around for the last twenty or thirty years. I can't believe what a sad, retarded world we live in sometimes."

Mundell's choice in adjectives may not be to everyone's liking, but his point is spot-on. MTV-driven hacks like Marilyn Manson and Korn are piss-poor substitutes for rock powerhouses like the Rolling Stones and Cream, no matter how you slice it. Even more tragic, however, is that there are actually plenty of good, if not great, rockers out there right now who are being flat-out ignored by radio, television and the mainstream rock publications. Still, they are making painfully slow progress. Punk rock-and-rollers the Gaza Strippers, the Hellacopters and Zeke have built respectable followings here in the States, thanks to word-of-mouth support and nonstop touring schedules. Meanwhile, a whole different sect of decibel addicts, collectively known as "stoner rockers," has slowly been creating a foothold here and in Europe. Spurred on by Nineties heavy-rock pioneers Monster Magnet, Kyuss and Fu Manchu, these groups take the explosive energy of Eighties and Nineties punk and dress it up with colossal riffs, agile bass lines and drum fills befitting a Ginger Baker LP.

In addition, most of these bands employ enough full-on guitar noodling to choke your average Jerry Garcia fan -- a quality clearly lifted from rock's early days, when axmen like Eric Clapton and Duane Allman were treated as gods among men. In fact, if the stoner genre is to leave any sort of distinguishable historic mark at all, it will no doubt be the re-emergence of the guitar hero. Already, there are several pickers of note emerging from the pack, two of whom will be participating in the Riff Rock Railroad Tour, an extravaganza making stops in Denver, Boulder, Laramie and Fort Collins this week. The first, Eddie Glass, has been creating a stir among scenesters for a few years now with his Los Angeles-based power trio Nebula, while the second, Mundell, is bringing the New Jersey-based Atomic Bitchwax through middle America for the first time. As Mundell points out, though, the band (also featuring Chris Kosnik on bass and vocals and Keith Ackerman on drums) has been around for quite some time -- as long as he's been in Monster Magnet, anyway. He is also quick to note that not all Monster Magnet fans may necessarily appreciate the Bitchwax's decidedly different approach to rocking. "We play a lot of instrumentals. I just want to make that clear right now," he says with a laugh. "We're an entirely different animal."

Indeed they are. While Monster Magnet indulges in a more theatrical, song-oriented style of lysergic rock, the Bitchwax is purely and simply a jam band. And a damned fine one at that, judging by the outfit's new LP on Tee Pee/MIA Records. A veritable wank-fest of riffs, drum fills and guitar workouts, the self-titled platter finds the boys venturing through more musical territory in fifty-odd minutes than most bands attempt in an entire career. What's more, they do so without boring the listener to death, in large part because each player manages to apply his own personal fingerprint to the collaboration. Mundell's fretwork, of course, is always at the forefront, but Kosnik and Ackerman (who also do time in the groups Godspeed and Slaprocket, respectively) shake up the guitarist's onslaught with fills and solos of their own. And Kosnik's colorful, at times hilarious vocals -- "I hope your clothes don't fit/and I hope you hate this shit," he proclaims at one point during the tenderly titled "I Hope You Die" -- lend the whole ordeal an air of unpretentiousness that even the staunchest punkers would have a hard time ignoring.

According to Mundell, the Atomic Bitchwax has always been serious about not taking itself too seriously. "I don't know how it is in Denver," he explains, "but in New Jersey, everybody is in, like, three or four bands, trying to keep busy. When we started back in '92 or so, I was in [noise-rockers and one-time Rockville signees] Daisycutter, but I was also jamming with these guys, although we didn't really have a name yet. We would just get together in my basement, smoke too much pot and play old riff rock -- stuff like Mountain -- all day. All of us either worked nights or didn't work at all, so we were just sitting around with nothing to do, anyway.

"A few months later I got a call from the guys in Monster Magnet, asking me to jam with them," he continues. "I said sure. So I figured out the whole Spine of God album and started touring with them. But every time I came back, I'd get back together with [Kosnik and Ackerman] and write tunes. It kept me out of trouble."

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