By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
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Even so, tribal may just be the perfect descriptor for the music Clifford's Los Angeles-based quintet churns out. At the Soundless Dawn, Red Sparowes' debut full-length, is a pounding, trance-inducing epic akin to a communion of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the Swans and Sister-era Sonic Youth. "It's really droning and repetitive, like gamelan music," he expounds, "stuff that you wouldn't necessarily think of as pop. I think that's what makes it cool. That's one of the interesting things about classical music, too. Sometimes it sounds like it's meandering and going all kinds of places, but within that structure, you can interweave sounds in a way that captures people's emotional or UR response."
And rhythmic transcendence isn't the only kind of tribalism evident in Red Sparowes. The five-piece comprises members of one of experimental rock's most lauded clans: the axis of Neurosis and Isis, two outfits that have utterly reconfigured the sonic and conceptual parameters of heavy music. Isis's guitarist, Bryant Clifford Meyer, started Red Sparowes two years ago with guitarist Josh Graham, the visual artist who has long provided Neurosis with its stunning on-stage film projections. The lineup was rounded out by bassist and pedal-steel guitarist Greg Burns, drummer Dana Berkowitz and Isis bassist Jeff Caxide on guitar; when Berkowitz and Caxide left the band in late 2004 after completing work on Soundless Dawn, Clifford and guitarist/bassist Andy Arahood stepped in to fill the void.
Clifford and Arahood were part of a celebrated, if not quite as famous, clan themselves. From the early to mid-'90s, Arahood played guitar in Angel Hair, the most mimicked and viscerally explosive hardcore band to ever come out of Colorado; Clifford drummed for the VSS, an artier but equally influential group that vocalist Sonny Kay -- who now sings for Year Future and co-owns the indie label GSL with Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of the Mars Volta -- started upon Angel Hair's disbandment. You can't throw a rock without hitting some sassy post-hardcore act aping the spastic assault of Angel Hair or the keyboard-driven, near-gothic tones of the VSS, even if it's just a trickle-down influence from the Blood Brothers or At the Drive-In, just two of the hundreds of bands that have made clear their love for Clifford and Arahood's early output.
"It's flattering to me that people still remember that stuff," Arahood humbly allows. "It surprises me how influential it was. I really had no idea. After Angel Hair, I was in a couple of small bands, but I never did any real tours for a long time. I had no concept that that sound was still going on. I still run into people that know it and like it, and even people who just heard it recently for the first time, which is cool. It's a nice surprise."
In 1996, Arahood moved to San Francisco after a brief stint with Why Planes Go Down, a band he formed with Luke Fairchild (White Dynamite, Git Some). Soon after, Clifford and the VSS also headed for the Bay. And when things fell apart in 1997, the band resurrected itself as Slaves. Within months, Slaves had renamed itself Pleasure Forever and signed to Sub Pop, releasing two critically praised albums full of seething, near-psychotropic abandon.
"I've always been interested in that, keeping one foot in reality and one foot out," says Clifford, who also plays bass in GSL's theatrically aggressive blues-punk signee the Starvations. "One of the biggest influences on the VSS, besides the regular post-punk kinds of things, were bands like Neurosis, who utilized heavy music in an entirely new way, taking elements of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath and combining it with tribal beats and psychedelic music and hardcore. They were just trying to merge genres in a way that sounded interesting.
"The same thing with Andy and Angel Hair," he continues. "Angel Hair was a bit more rote of a band, but at the time, it sounded extremely unique. They were all about the expenditure of energy at the fastest rate possible. I think the VSS was trying to do that, too, but we wanted our songs to be really condensed with sound. Pleasure Forever was exploring ways of doing that more subtly, and Red Sparowes uses droning sounds for a similar effect. I feel like being in Red Sparowes is continuing and refining these same ideas, this kind of psychedelic experience that I've always been interested in."
Well, maybe not always. Before the VSS, Clifford played in Again, a band that pegged itself as straight-edge, the offshoot of hardcore that fanatically abstains from drugs and alcohol. And Arahood has just as blackmail-worthy a past: As a high school kid in suburban Chicago, he was in a pop-punk combo called Tearjerker. "When I was living in Chicago, I was into all the pop punk like Screeching Weasel," Arahood confesses. "There was a mixture of that and old punk like Naked Raygun or Life Sentence. When I moved out to Boulder for college, it was more of a California sound. The San Diego hardcore scene was getting popular, and people in Colorado knew about it, whereas when I was in Chicago, no one had ever heard of that stuff."