It's the night before Independence Day, and the moon is seemingly radiating heat. In the maze of strip malls that is South Parker Road, illuminated by the occasional premature firework, Heimmie's Pub looks the part of a prototypical suburban dive, at least from the exterior. Take a few steps toward the entrance, though, and the similarity begins to evaporate: Once you're within earshot, the sounds don't match the visuals. In place of a jukebox set exclusively to honky tonk and butt rock, strains of frenzied metal guitar seep into the air. Inside, the young, on-the-fringe crowd demolishes any remaining preconceptions.
The July 3 event at Heimmie's is running behind schedule, in more ways than one. At half past midnight, the third band to take the stage, Child Proof, wraps up its set. The crowd begins the standard milling-about procedure as the players in the headlining act, Denver metal standout Throat Culture, ready their equipment. The night was intended to be a release party for Throat Culture's semi-quarterly, eponymous magazine (subtitled "Denver's Abrasive Music Rag"), but a glitch at the printer translates to nary a freshly shipped bundle. Post-soundcheck, the announcement that the mag is late results in a few grumbles and boos, but they are quickly eclipsed by the roar from the band's amplifiers: a demonic keyboard intro followed by the rush of full-throttle hardcore guitar.
As sounds from worlds more electronic than metallic start to hit the hundred or so people in attendance, it becomes clear that Throat Culture's audience, although starting to orbit in pre-mosh mode, is not exclusively metal-centric. Short hair abounds, as do styles from skate-punk to gothic. A U2 T-shirt is worn alongside those of Mercyful Fate and Slayer. An Ol' Dirty Bastard poster hangs on the wall.
This ain't your older brother's heavy metal.
The first incarnation of Throat Culture took shape in 1996 with two singers and zero bassists; it was a four-piece thrash experiment that included two current members, singer Chris Vigil and drummer Rod Brown. Bassist Cassie Begay came on board in 1997, and the band started picking up a little steam, playing gigs at such local rock standbys as Cricket on the Hill and the Iliff Park Saloon. Last spring, several guitarists later, Nick Jackson, formerly of local death-metal outfit Flesh Flood, hooked up with the band.
Since that point, "things have been snowballing for us," says Vigil from the couch at Throat Culture's East Colfax practice space. He's referring to a dense slate of local shows, including opening slots for national acts like Anthrax (on July 7) and the Genitorturers and Type O Negative last year, as well as the release of an eight-song self-titled CD last year. "I think the last year and a half is the hardest we've worked as a band," he says. "Everything before that was just getting to that point."
"We've got our sound," echoes Brown. "I really believe that we do."
That discovery might have happened last August, when Throat Culture took a stylistic leap by inviting keyboardist Brian Fisher to jump into the fray. Vigil had initially thought that something synthesized would help Throat Culture flesh out its sound, but skinsman Brown had a different outlook. "I was completely against having a keyboard from the beginning," he says.
Like Vigil, Jackson was all for a five-piece, so he brought his friend Fisher to the band's attention, asking, "Why not expand a little bit more?" The pro-keyboard faction won out, and the enhanced Throat Culture sound quickly made a convert out of Brown. "I think [the keyboard] is what now sets us apart from all these other, heavier local bands," says a confident Jackson. "It just deepens it."
Vigil sums up the move, saying, "Whether it's a dance beat or a dark, eerie sound, we just want to be able to have that tool."
Past experiences had soured Fisher on playing in a band, leading him to independently create electronic music prior to giving multiple-player rock and roll another shot with Throat Culture. This time around, the band experience is better: Fisher sees his goth-, ambient- and techno-inspired keyboards as a launching pad for Throat Culture to tinker with genre. "With guitar effects, you can do different sounds," he notes, "but with keyboards you can build an atmosphere, throw in beats or throw in samples. You're not limited by it." Melding techno and thrash metal isn't much of a stretch, Brown adds, because everybody in the band loves "aggressive music," be it metal or classical.
In Throat Culture's collective mind, the "heavy metal" label can be a burden. Says Fisher: "When anybody thinks of heavy metal, they're going to think Ozzy, or think of something like a hair band, but heavy metal's always been an experimental, loud, abrasive kind of music. Not real nice, not real cozy. There's no way around the fact that, yeah, we are a metal band...[but] I don't think I've ever told anybody, 'Yeah, we're a metal band.'"
"It's such a huge label," adds Jackson. "Heavy metal can be anything from Ozzy to..."
"Limp Bizkit!" offers Vigil, visibly amusing his cohorts, who are all in their mid-twenties and devout fans of late-'80s and early-'90s speed metal. While Vigil's exclamation is half-facetious, Fred Durst and Kid Rock just might be the current standard-bearers for the genre, at least in the eyes of the average seventeen-year-old Y2K metalhead -- if there is such a thing. Nonetheless, the rap-metal phenomenon is not a boat aboard which Throat Culture has intentions of jumping anytime soon.
"I think it has become a gimmick, a DJ," says Fisher. "If you look at a lot of these [rap-metal] bands, they were all death-metal bands or thrash-metal bands, and that's not 'cool' anymore, so then they get a DJ or start rapping a little bit. They're basically playing the same style of music. In the next couple of years, people who jumped on the gimmick and really didn't do too well at it are going to jump to another style."
"The only bands [in rap metal] that are going to stay around are the originators, like in every genre," adds Brown.
Regardless of staying power, rap metal has had a positive impact on American youth culture, says Begay, Throat Culture's bassist and lone female member. In the cliquey '80s, she remembers, "there was such a big issue. If you were a rapper, you were a rapper. If you were a metalhead, you were just a metalhead. That was just a wrong thing. I think it was pretty neat when Anthrax started doing their stuff with Public Enemy. I thought, 'What if something actually good came out of this, where everybody was really into it?' It's happening. It's happening right now."
One obvious example of these blurred subcultural boundaries: the July 3 melting pot at Heimmie's. On the third song in its set, "Follow Me," Throat Culture snaps from Fisher's spacey, swirling keyboards into Begay and Jackson's industrial-strength guitar-and-bass riffs. Brown's adept, zero-to-sixty drumming style provides science behind the chaos. "Let's get it on, motherfuckers!" barks Vigil, then the keyboards once again take the lead, sounding very much like Beelzebub's very own music box. "Aggressive" and "foreboding" are apt adjectives here, but they're also understatements. Like a single-minded cybernetic cobra, Throat Culture's music slithers and strikes, spewing venomous angst and sonic dementia.
Later that night at Heimmie's, Vigil takes a bullhorn-into-the-microphone approach as the beat warps toward techno speed on "Walk in the Park." "What's your God?" he half-asks, half-rants, a question of faith through a fast-food fuzzbox. The searing rhythm sends the all-ages audience into its most frantic mosh of the night. After the set, Vigil calls out to the "Throat Culture Babes" and the "Throat Culture Dudes," receiving a good callback from the former.
Throat Culture, per headbanging tradition, sees its relationship with the fans as a reciprocal experience. "Seeing a pit at your show is so incredible," says Brown. The band also sees the energy of the under-21 crowd as a key audience ingredient.
While the summer 2000 Throat Culture magazine was a no-show at Heimmie's, the printer got the shipment out later in July. Kicked off by Brown two years ago as an eight-page, fold-and-staple fanzine with a circulation of fifty, the mag has taken on a life of its own since Jackson, a graphic designer by day, came into the fold. The summer issue -- which had a run of 5,000 copies -- is 68 pages full of interviews with local and national metal bands, reviews, ads, letters to the editor and cartoons, packed inside a slick, glossy cover. Despite its growth, the magazine remains a break-even (at best) proposition for Throat Culture in terms of dollars and cents, but the quintet sees it as both a self-promotional tool and a local forum.
After early-'90s grunge nearly wiped metal clean off the pop-culture map, the local scene was in dire need of exposure to survive, Jackson notes. "The magazine has helped a lot," he says. "It helped inform a lot of people about local bands and just got everyone aware of what was going on."
Adds Begay: "When Rod started the magazine, it was amazing how many bands started appearing. The magazine did a whole lot of good, because it united a lot of them, too. We're part of something here. We actually have something here."
Throat Culture attributes the recent local revival to a less segmented fan and band base, as well as to several local venues that have welcomed metal with open arms. Brown credits the now-defunct Blitz Room, an edgy venue open from 1998-1999 at the Comfort Inn on I-70 and Chambers Road, with giving the scene a shot of adrenaline; he says the spot was a much-needed outlet at the time. The band also cites the acceptance of metal at Heimmie's and the Bluebird Theater (via a love of metal in the offices of nobody in particular presents, the local promotional company) as catalysts for local interest. While Heimmie's run as a metal-oriented club looks to be at its end because of a falling out between the bar and its shows' producers, Erebus Music (Backwash, July 20), Throat Culture thinks Denver's metal scene has already outgrown it.
Recruiting Throat Culture babes and dudes outside of metro Denver is next on the band's agenda. The players plan to venture out on a regional tour in the fall that will probably encompass Albuquerque, Phoenix, Tucson and Salt Lake City. Also this fall, the band will release its second CD (the first recorded with Fisher), titled La Fin De Monde.
Jackson sees a world of potential beyond the friendly confines of Denver, explaining, "I think we have a broad sound that a lot of different people can get into," whether they're metalheads or not.
"That's why I think metal won't die, because people are more open-minded these days," says Brown. Maybe metal is immortal: Kids are always going to want to get crazy and bang their heads.
Some things never change.
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