By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
By Jena Ardell
By Mary Willson
By Bree Davies
Just outside Denver's city limits, before the parched, sparsely populated plains swallow the last of the suburbs, there is a basement that regularly reverberates with a certain primeval intensity. Remarkably, the water heater still functions, even after its cumulative absorption of innumerable decibels. This small, underground room -- nicknamed Helm's Deep after the darkest, dankest corner of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth -- is the practice space for Phantom Trigger, a similarly dark two-piece rock band.
"Most bands are basement-dwellers," says drummer Todd Discher, the resident of the house above Helm's Deep. "It's really difficult to climb out of the dungeon." Beyond the subterranean atmosphere and absence of light, there's a sonic comfort level to the den. As Discher explains of his band's music, "It never sounds any better than it does in the basement."
Not that Phantom Trigger doesn't sound good on the stages of local rock clubs. Guitarist/vocalist Brian Fausett delivers more pyrotechnic riffs and feral wails on his own than do most two-ax outfits, and Discher, a veteran of several jazz and blues bands, pounds the skins with precise abandon. The product is base and simple on one hand, challenging and intricate on the other. At its best, Phantom Trigger's musical formula of aggressive riffs and furious accuracy is rock concentrate, a force of nature consisting of geometric explosions of sound.
9 p.m. Friday, September 13
With Jucifer, High On Fire and Jet Black Joy
Fifteenth Street Tavern, 623 15th Street
"We're pretty much a mutt band," Discher says, acknowledging influences that range from rock and punk to surf and jazz. (He also currently mans the drums for the Magma Trio, an experimental jazz act.) Energy is a key component, he adds. "It's the only exercise I get, so I try to tear it up as much as possible."
"If I'm not sweaty, I'm questioning how much I put into it," Fausett says. "Our mission is to channel the spirit of rock and roll. Volume and sweat. It ain't rocket science."
Maybe not, but it takes something of an evil genius to craft a soundtrack this hot-blooded and cathartic. On stage, Fausett is a compelling and intense figure, branding his audience's eardrums with escalating patterns of reverb and feedback. Full of disquieting whispers and hellbound shrieks, his vocals probe themes such as vampires, UFO sightings and the pleasures of driving a gas guzzler. Discher's melodic rhythms are full of twisting and turning guitar riffs that race toward the unknown.
It's apt that Phantom Trigger is a duo, as a third person would have trouble finding a space to stand in the aforementioned cramped basement, let alone finding room to play in the dense mix.
"Our main influence has been being a two-piece," Discher says. "You really have to fill out the sound. That, fortunately, makes you play really hard and loud and, for me, fast and syncopated."
"Being a two-piece band was never our intention, but we just had so much fun playing together," Fausett adds. "It initially, to me, was absurd." A positive response from the crowd at an early open-stage gig in Nederland changed his mind, and the band retreated from the idea of recruiting a bass player. Five years later, the move looks prescient, with successful rock duos such as the White Stripes and Jucifer popping up everywhere.
"I feel very satisfied in the sonic space we're filling," Fausett says. "We certainly have to leave space for each other, but the payoff is that when duty calls, we can play very big parts -- loud and proud. It's also intimidating. You can't screw up; it's going to be heard."
Mistakes don't seem to be much of a problem in the preternaturally tight project.
"Brian and I have had this unspoken musical evolution," Discher says. "Over the years, we always seem to end up on the same page."
"It's funny -- we've both walked the same paths musically," Fausett says. "I think it's true for a lot of musicians: You try to better yourself beyond where you've been."
Fausett and Discher both grew up in Michigan and met at college a decade ago. After Discher moved to Asheville, North Carolina, with his blues-rock band, Cuttin' Heads, Fausett paid a visit on a road trip in 1994, and the pair began jamming on a semi-regular basis. After seven months in Asheville, Fausett headed west, meeting up with Discher again in Colorado in 1996. The two called Fausett's van home for three weeks while they found jobs in Boulder and a mountain rental to share. Then they resumed jamming.
"Every morning, we'd get up, start chugging coffee and play as much as we possibly could before we had to go to work," says Discher. The bent was initially toward eclectic jazz and blues, but the caffeine -- and an ensuing three-month stint living in Louisville -- started shaping a darker sound.
"We were living in the mountains, and at the time, I was pretty pacified with mountain living," Fausett says. "Todd had more urban ambitions." When the cold mountain winter approached, a move to Louisville seemed like it would provide a happy medium. The cookie-cutter suburban environment proved anything but.
"I fucking hated Louisville, and this angry, harder-edged sound emerged," Fausett recalls. "That's where I started running two amps together and blending distortions and effects." The new sound cemented the pair's belief that their two-piece band was more than feasible for live shows, and Phantom Trigger was officially born in 1997.