Kronow's new van is an eyesore. There's a sheet of plywood bolted to the passenger-side sliding door where a window used to be. The vehicle has oxidized so badly that its paint job, presumably once a deep shade of maroon, is now faded like a month-old bruise. If this van were a house, it would be condemned.
But compared to how this metal act is accustomed to traveling -- with all five members crammed into the cab of James Brennan's 2003 GMC Sierra truck -- the dilapidated, twelve-passenger van feels like a posh tour bus. Yesterday, it took the band from Denver to Casper, where Kronow performed before a packed house of rabid, mostly teenage fans. Now, at 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, the van is on its way from Wyoming to Loveland for another show. Guitarist Randy Brodzik is taking his turn behind the wheel; on the passenger side, Brennan stares intently out the window at a hilly landscape that hasn't changed for the past hour. Drummer Rick Gilmore is in the middle seat, thumbing through a recent issue of Game Informer. The two remaining band members -- guitarist Nathan Salas and Forest, the act's uni-monikered bassist -- are sprawled out on a couple of mattresses in the back, sleeping off the remnants of a night that ended at 6 a.m. with all five musicians piling into a postage-stamp-sized hotel room. Comfort be damned, Brennan and his crew are hell-bent on making this their life.
"That's the dream for all of us," Brennan declares. "And we all know what kind of sacrifice and what kind of commitment it takes. I think we've all accepted that. We also know that we're not in the right business or the right genre of music to become superstars and super-rich. I mean, the superstars in our genre -- there's only a handful that have made it, like Slipknot, Lamb of God and guys like that. But all the other, smaller bands like Sworn Enemy and Six Feet Under -- they live day to day, you know? And we all recognize that might be our fate."
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Strange talk coming from a man who holds a master's degree in strategic management from the University of Southern California. Stranger still to watch the tall, slender New York native transform from a clean-cut fashionista clad in Diesel jeans and designer shirt (imagine Vince Vaughn auditioning for the role of Derek Zoolander) into Kronow's bulging-veined, demonic-grimacing frontman.
"In my business, in my day-to-day life, people would have no clue that I do this," he admits. "I mean, they know it, but they don't know what it is or to what extent it is. If they look at just that side of my life, they'd be like, 'Well, what the fuck is he doing? Why is he still hanging out with those guys? Why is he going out and getting in mosh pits and getting a black eye? What the hell?' But the people who know me, they know that if I wasn't doing this, I'd be going freaking insane; they know I'd be going crazy. It's just part of who each of us are. And if we weren't doing this, we'd be miserable."
Many people have trouble understanding the allure of heavy metal, a genre that's noisy, chaotic and testosterone-fueled. For the members of Kronow, though, metal is their salvation. "It's always been a part of my life," says Brodzik. "It's the way that it makes your heart feel, the way it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you hear the riffs." That power and intensity is the musical life force that has sustained these musicians since they were teenagers. But Gilmore had to keep his love of metal under wraps.
"Every CD I ever had had to be screened by my parents," he recalls. "If it had a cuss word or a bad message, it was thrown away. But then, I had 300 CDs hidden under my bed. I would just go buy them and stash them in a book of CDs that I hid under my mattress. I'd throw all the cases away so I wouldn't have any evidence. Basically, though, they found it. They did the whole parents-search-your-room thing. They found this huge book of Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer -- oh, they did not like the Slayer. My dad said, 'Since you spent so much money on this, I won't throw them away. But you can't have them.' So he gave me permission to sell them to my friends. I'd have a friend come over, and I'd give him forty bucks of my own money and be like, 'I'm going to go downstairs, and I want you to buy Pantera, Far Beyond Driven, Megadeth and this and that.' So we'd exchange the money in front of my dad and my dad would give him the CDs. Then we'd go upstairs and he'd give 'em back to me. I got every last one of them back that way. And I kept 'em in my locker at school after that."
Now united by their shared passion for music and vision for the band, this ragtag cast of characters have come together bit by bit. Brodzik, the only original member, joined up when guitarist Ted Beer started Kronow in Denver six years ago. Brennan replaced the act's singer in 2002 and soon assumed manager duties, too. That same year, Kronow released its debut disc, Tenfold, a tuneful but mostly unremarkable disc that plumbed the shallow depths of nu-metal. "Tenfold was an extremely simple album," allows Brennan. "I mean, there's some good songs on it, but it's extremely simple. We've gotten better in terms of playing our instruments and how we write."
The addition of Salas kick-started the evolution of the act's sound in time for 2004's four-song followup, Deserve Damnation. "Nate was probably the first catalyst for change," declares Brennan, "saying, 'Hey, let's do something different. Let's start doing heavier stuff.' And me and Randy were totally on board and like, 'Yeah, let's push the envelope. Let's go that direction.'"
After Damnation's release, bassist Phil Martinez and drummer Kenny Garza opted to leave Kronow, which was becoming too great a commitment for them. With the move toward a heavier sound, modifications to the lineup were a "necessary sacrifice," Salas says.
"When we had the opportunity to hire a new drummer, we specifically hired Rick because he had that heavy, driving, technical, intense drumming," Brennan explains. "And that, I think, honestly, was the huge change, where we were able to make that shift. Our previous drummer was sort of a jazzy kind of drummer. And when Rick joined, it opened up Nate and Randy being able to do all sorts of different stuff."
Forest was the final piece of the puzzle, although the four male musicians were initially dubious about adding a woman to their ranks. "Honestly, just the fact that she was a female was a very unpopular ideal," Salas confesses, "because this is mainly a male-dominated circus. But after everything was said and done, she was the only one who brought anything to the table, both in a physical playing sense, a mental sense and a spiritual sense."
Years earlier, she might have taken such sexist skepticism to heart, but by the time she joined Kronow, Forest -- a former Rainbow Family devotee who was once homeless -- had already developed alligator skin. "I was playing in one of my first bands," she remembers, "and I had this guy come up to me and say, 'Why are you on stage? You should be holding my jacket, and I should be up there.' He actually fucking said that to me! And it really sparked some angry energy. It was like, you know what, I'm not just going to be just another pretty girl on stage. I'm going to be a musician that people can look up to and respect as a musician."
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No worries there: Forest's playing definitely brings an added texture and depth to the band. And the chemistry that she and her bandmates have forged is readily apparent on their latest effort -- a seven-song demo fittingly dubbed Forever Altered. "We wanted to take Forever Altered in a direction that Kronow has never been before," Salas stresses. "We wanted to alter the sound so much that we would be unrecognizable as Kronow and then resurface sporadically throughout the album in the songs. So it's still us, but with that edge."
While not the best-sounding disc (the bandmembers produced and recorded the demo themselves and have plans to re-record it with a half-dozen new songs later this year), Altered finds Kronow exploring heavier terrain charted by European metal acts like In Flames and Soilwork, with more complex rhythm structures favored by groups like Meshuggah. Brennan has grown from a once-pitch-friendly singer into a multi-dimensional vocalist who can easily move from guttural death-metal growls to piercing metalcore screams to expressive, engaging croons. (For more proof, listen to his guest vocals on "Juarez," by GasHead, at myspace.com/gashead.)
With Altered, Kronow has emerged as one of Denver's hottest metal acts. With their ambition and tenacity, these musicians just might make it to Ozzfest status. But first there's this show in Loveland, and then another hour or so in their raggedy van.
"We all want to do this for a living, even if we're living cheaply," Gilmore concludes. "If we can do this and nothing else, we'll all be happy."