By Team Backbeat
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On stage, Cephalic Carnage's Zac spends most of his time swinging his head and his guitar, sweating, screaming and abusing listeners with the brutal bombast that issues from his instrument. But today, sitting in his publicist's office almost 2,000 miles from his Denver home, there is little evidence of that raving performance persona. Zac is friendly and not at all demonic-sounding, even when he mentions nonchalantly that he's "the only real satanist" in the band.
Zac and the rest of his mates (none of whom appear to have last names) are happy these days -- content, even -- and it isn't just because of all the weed they smoke. Three years ago, the Denver-based five-piece -- widely regarded as the original arbiter of pro-pot "Rocky Mountain Hydro Grind" music -- signed with Relapse Records, one of the country's most reliable sources of underground and extreme heavy-metal music. In late August, the band released Lucid Interval, its second album for the label. Sales, so far, have been relatively brisk: The disc has already outsold 2000's Exploiting Dysfunction by several hundred copies. Reviews from the College Music Journal, which said the band "has a few mind-fucking elements on its side," and Alternative Press, which described the players as "gifted grindcore nutjobs" and "methed-up jazz virtuosos," have been added to a press kit that's already stuffed with stunned accolades from the indie-metal press.
This kind of thing tends to lighten the mood of an ambitious musician, even one who would like to one day make a full-time living of obliterating live audiences, tearing down metal conventions and just generally freaking the shit out of listeners everywhere.
"Really, I'm amazed that any of this is happening," Zac says on the phone from the Relapse office in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. "We've never wanted to be a part of what's selling, because what's selling is usually at its peak and on its way out. But we have been just busting our ass for so long, and it seems like, finally, there's this little revival of interest in metal that might, eventually, lead somebody over to what we do."
What Cephalic Carnage does has little in common with the nu-metallers, the rap fusionists or the Ozzfest clones that started popping up like prairie dogs in the early and mid-'90s in Denver and elsewhere. First founded by Zac and vocalist Leonard (also known as Lenzig) in 1992, the band held on to its death-metal approach while weathering personnel changes and the waning interest of fans who were moving away from the style. By 1996, the pair had enlisted guitarist Steve, who'd played with the Denver band Molester, filling out a lineup that included Jawsh on bass and John on drums. Unfortunately, Cephalic soon discovered that its audience had diminished at the precise moment its foundation had solidified.
"When we started, death metal was way in decline, and black metal was selling just a little bit," Zac says. "When Korn came along, whoever was left sold their soul to sound just like them. Local bands that had been into Pantera and Metallica wanted to be [Korn] all of a sudden. Everybody sold out. They totally turned it around and turned it into this radio-friendly thing."
That shift in the scene eventually led the fivesome to focus its efforts beyond Denver, where audiences had become indifferent and, on some occasions, hostile. When locals made it clear that they had little use for Cephalic's music, the band realized the feeling was mutual.
"It almost seemed like we were hated here, so we said, 'Screw it. There's nobody here who likes us anyway,'" Zac says. "So we started touring and just getting out as much as possible. Because of our location, we've always had to work twice as hard to get half as much. Now it's like we're seeing people come back to our shows at home, because maybe they heard about this band on Relapse and didn't realize it was right in their own back yard."
After releasing a debut album, Fortuitous Oddity, on its own in 1997, Cephalic Carnage inked a deal with Italy's Headfucker Records; Conforming to Abnormality followed in 1998. (A reissue of that album is the first offering from Hyghbryd Records, the band's own imprint.) Touring intensified as the outfit sought opportunities beyond the Colorado state line. Appearances at festivals such as the March Metal Meltdown, the Ohio Deathfest and the Milwaukee Metalfest -- as well as a 1999 Denver event known as Hatefest -- led to inquiries from Relapse, which signed the band in 1999 and released Exploiting Dysfunction in early 2000. For Cephalic, landing on Relapse was a dream come true. Since the early '90s, the company has served as a kind of pipeline between the harbingers of extreme hard-core heavy-metal music and the somewhat fanatical web of devotees who worship it. The label is responsible for introducing acts like Neurosis, Nile, Soilent Green and, perhaps most famously, the Dillinger Escape Plan -- the art-punk grindcore outfit that found a home on the Warped Tour, and then Epitaph Records, after releasing an EP with Relapse.
"Relapse has, like, everything. It's a very professional operation," Zac says. "They've got computers and desks and maps on the wall. I just want to go back to the warehouse where they keep all the CDs and salivate. It's just amazing to me to actually be working with this label, to be friends with these people, when they were responsible for the music I was listening to when I was just a young metalhead, you know, tuning in to Headbanger's Ball and just waiting for something good to come on."
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