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Conspiracy Assassins slow down the thrash but pledge not to sell out

Dave Lierman (from left), Tano Archuleta, Tony Engel, Cy, and Victor Acquilla are Conspiracy Assassins.

First there's the noise — the random, free-form fiddling musicians do at practice, waiting for everyone to get set up, dial in their tone. Bassist Dave Lierman slaps out a funk line while drummer Victor Acquilla pounds out a few rolls and adjusts a pedal. In terms of cohesion, it's not unlike what you might hear in an orchestra pit before the concert begins.

The difference here is that when Conspiracy Assassin rehearses, it's loud as hell. Everyone plays through a full stack. Even Acquilla's kit is amplified; the kick hits like a jackhammer. And when he counts off and the band launches into a set that's abrasive to the point of sadism, it's clear that this is the music of anger. It's enough to enrage your parents, anyway.

"It's a kind of release," says guitarist Tano Archuleta. "You know, I'm not an angry person, but when I play this music, I can kind of vent with it."

"I think that's why a lot of people do it," Lierman agrees. "You can't just go out and deck somebody in the middle of the street when you're pissed off, but you can write a fucking metal-ass riff to make other people deck each other.

"It's like a grudge fuck," he concludes.

What's funny, though, is that amid the eardrum-shattering clamor and the frenzied shredding, in a room containing a bloody papier-mâché leg with a sock on it that hangs from the ceiling and about ten grand worth of the loudest amplifiers money can buy, the guys actually creating this frenetic din are doing so with the placid expressions of someone flipping a coin. Except for vocalist Cy (no last name), for whom the effort of producing his guttural shriek requires a somewhat more anguished countenance, the predominant emotion in the room seems to be one of serene concentration.

Really, Cy is the only member of the band who seems authentically pissed off, in a general sense. "I have nothing to sing about, you know?" he says, explaining his choice of the death growl over more, uh, conventional forms of vocal expression. "Usually, I write based on shit that makes me sick, like how people act, or how they react. It's a general statement."

In a manner of speaking, Conspiracy Assassins (which the members affectionately refer to as "Con-Ass") is a general statement itself: It's metal as fuck. From the guys who make up the band — the type of big, elaborately facial-haired dudes who wear concert T-shirts until they're reduced to rags — to the image the group projects, to the cover art of its new release, A Self Destructive Delusion, which features an image that's, well, there's no other way to describe it than "repulsive," to even the name of the band, Conspiracy Assassins traffics in a classic genre trope: Don't tread on me.

"We gotta keep it metal," offers Acquilla by way of explanation.

Indeed, the band has had a relatively metal history, rife with betrayal and bad blood. The original lineup was formed in 2005 by Acquilla and a guy the members will refer to only as "Ed," who left the band after allegedly embezzling funds the group had socked away for recording.

"It was like Bernie Madoff," says Lierman, "and he made off with all the money."

"The thing about Ed," adds Acquilla, "is we don't mention his name in our presence anymore."

Money problems led to more money problems, and a failure to get reimbursed for funds he had spent out-of-pocket on recording eventually led Lierman to announce he was leaving the band just prior to the 2008 release of Equal Opportunity Destroyer, Conspiracy's first album. Shortly after, the entire crew called it quits.

But about six months later, Archuleta and Cy decided to start it up again. "I was in a project that just wasn't working out," says Archuleta, "and Cy and I wanted to start something new. So we just thought, instead of starting all over from scratch, why don't we just start up Con-Ass again?"

The two brought back Acquilla and played as a three-piece for a while, then worked with another bassist for a few months more before Lierman came back in late 2009. Some months after that, the band recruited its latest member: lead guitarist Tony Engel, an engineer at the studio where they recorded A Self Destructive Delusion, who had been tracking the album. "He learned all the songs in like three weeks," Archuleta recalls.

Crediting the change to their history of playing together, along with Engel's ability to play leads ("We've never really had leads before," says Archuleta), the bandmembers describe the new release as "more cohesive" than the previous one. "We're trying to write songs instead of just writing, like, cool riffs," Acquilla points out. "The first time, it was like we'd all have three or four riffs and just put them together, but this time around, we're more about the writing process, beginning to end."

"We were writing for technicality on the last CD," notes Archuleta. "This CD's a little more structured."

Perhaps, but it's no less technical — in fact, it's probably more so. Where Equal Opportunity Destroyer was steeped in a more traditional metal framework — crunching, blues-based guitar riffs overlaying copious double-kick — A Self Destructive Delusion, while still offering plenty of punishing Mesa Boogie snarl, edges toward a mathier, more hardcore sound that betrays the influence of genre pioneers such as Dillinger Escape Plan. Like that band, Conspiracy Assassins is somewhat self-consciously eclectic, playing around with rhythm, time signature and conventions of the genre (some of the leads are obvious nods to '80s-era metal; Engel is an admitted Maiden fan). And while it is appreciably more structured, that's not to say that the structures aren't complex and multi-layered.

"It's more mature," offers Lierman.

"Yeah, that's everybody's excuse," Engel gibes.

Lierman laughs. "That's what happens when you get old, yeah. 'Fuck playing fast. We're not selling out — we're just getting mature.'"

"Just remember," says Engel, "that leads to Bob Seger covers."

Bob Seger the record is not, nor does it sell out in any identifiable way. A Self Destructive Delusion is just as brutal as the first record, if not more so, and the musicianship is just as accomplished, as virtuosic as it is vicious. Like so many hardcore musicians, the ones in Conspiracy Assassins are clearly skilled — and it's surprising, in a way, that musicians of the caliber required to play it would want to make music that, though technically challenging, is so fundamentally repellent.

For Lierman, the musicianship was the draw: "What attracted me to it was — well, at the time I joined, I was like, 'I don't know. I don't know if I want to be metal anymore.' I was thinking of doing jazz or funk. But when I came down to check it out, I was like, 'Holy shit, they got this much talent in one room?' Wow. You know, we all play classical guitar, we all play multiple instruments. Any of us can switch. It's really cool. And then we just go out and create abrasive chaos."

Perhaps it has something to do with origins: All of the members got into metal in their formative years, around middle school ("When Metallica was still cool," quips Engel. "That was a long time ago"). And in that way, maybe it's about guys who spent years building chops continually returning to play within the framework of a genre they learned to love when they were kids. Or maybe it isn't. The players don't seem particularly interested in the underlying psychology either way, and it's a query they don't seem compelled to ponder.

For his part, Lierman taps his chin with his finger for a moment before coming up with an answer he phrases as a question: "I just like to see people hit people?"

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