Just outside Denver's city limits, before the parched, sparsely populated plains swallow the last of the suburbs, there is a basement that regularly reverberates with a certain primeval intensity. Remarkably, the water heater still functions, even after its cumulative absorption of innumerable decibels. This small, underground room -- nicknamed Helm's Deep after the darkest, dankest corner of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth -- is the practice space for Phantom Trigger, a similarly dark two-piece rock band.
"Most bands are basement-dwellers," says drummer Todd Discher, the resident of the house above Helm's Deep. "It's really difficult to climb out of the dungeon." Beyond the subterranean atmosphere and absence of light, there's a sonic comfort level to the den. As Discher explains of his band's music, "It never sounds any better than it does in the basement."
Not that Phantom Trigger doesn't sound good on the stages of local rock clubs. Guitarist/vocalist Brian Fausett delivers more pyrotechnic riffs and feral wails on his own than do most two-ax outfits, and Discher, a veteran of several jazz and blues bands, pounds the skins with precise abandon. The product is base and simple on one hand, challenging and intricate on the other. At its best, Phantom Trigger's musical formula of aggressive riffs and furious accuracy is rock concentrate, a force of nature consisting of geometric explosions of sound.
"We're pretty much a mutt band," Discher says, acknowledging influences that range from rock and punk to surf and jazz. (He also currently mans the drums for the Magma Trio, an experimental jazz act.) Energy is a key component, he adds. "It's the only exercise I get, so I try to tear it up as much as possible."
"If I'm not sweaty, I'm questioning how much I put into it," Fausett says. "Our mission is to channel the spirit of rock and roll. Volume and sweat. It ain't rocket science."
Maybe not, but it takes something of an evil genius to craft a soundtrack this hot-blooded and cathartic. On stage, Fausett is a compelling and intense figure, branding his audience's eardrums with escalating patterns of reverb and feedback. Full of disquieting whispers and hellbound shrieks, his vocals probe themes such as vampires, UFO sightings and the pleasures of driving a gas guzzler. Discher's melodic rhythms are full of twisting and turning guitar riffs that race toward the unknown.
It's apt that Phantom Trigger is a duo, as a third person would have trouble finding a space to stand in the aforementioned cramped basement, let alone finding room to play in the dense mix.
"Our main influence has been being a two-piece," Discher says. "You really have to fill out the sound. That, fortunately, makes you play really hard and loud and, for me, fast and syncopated."
"Being a two-piece band was never our intention, but we just had so much fun playing together," Fausett adds. "It initially, to me, was absurd." A positive response from the crowd at an early open-stage gig in Nederland changed his mind, and the band retreated from the idea of recruiting a bass player. Five years later, the move looks prescient, with successful rock duos such as the White Stripes and Jucifer popping up everywhere.
"I feel very satisfied in the sonic space we're filling," Fausett says. "We certainly have to leave space for each other, but the payoff is that when duty calls, we can play very big parts -- loud and proud. It's also intimidating. You can't screw up; it's going to be heard."
Mistakes don't seem to be much of a problem in the preternaturally tight project.
"Brian and I have had this unspoken musical evolution," Discher says. "Over the years, we always seem to end up on the same page."
"It's funny -- we've both walked the same paths musically," Fausett says. "I think it's true for a lot of musicians: You try to better yourself beyond where you've been."
Fausett and Discher both grew up in Michigan and met at college a decade ago. After Discher moved to Asheville, North Carolina, with his blues-rock band, Cuttin' Heads, Fausett paid a visit on a road trip in 1994, and the pair began jamming on a semi-regular basis. After seven months in Asheville, Fausett headed west, meeting up with Discher again in Colorado in 1996. The two called Fausett's van home for three weeks while they found jobs in Boulder and a mountain rental to share. Then they resumed jamming.
"Every morning, we'd get up, start chugging coffee and play as much as we possibly could before we had to go to work," says Discher. The bent was initially toward eclectic jazz and blues, but the caffeine -- and an ensuing three-month stint living in Louisville -- started shaping a darker sound.
"We were living in the mountains, and at the time, I was pretty pacified with mountain living," Fausett says. "Todd had more urban ambitions." When the cold mountain winter approached, a move to Louisville seemed like it would provide a happy medium. The cookie-cutter suburban environment proved anything but.
"I fucking hated Louisville, and this angry, harder-edged sound emerged," Fausett recalls. "That's where I started running two amps together and blending distortions and effects." The new sound cemented the pair's belief that their two-piece band was more than feasible for live shows, and Phantom Trigger was officially born in 1997.
The tracks on Phantom Trigger's eponymous debut album (recorded at Schoolhouse Studios in Rollinsville and self-released in 2000) are longer and more intricate than the band's newer songs. At certain points on the disc, Fausett pulls a violin bow across his guitar and injects spoken-word poetry into the mix.
"It was more of an art-rock thing that we had going, and pulling that off live was very troublesome," he says. "[The audience] didn't know how to respond. Now we really want people not only to enjoy it, but to get it. We want to see some foot-tapping, some dancing, some shaking -- whatever they're willing to give back to us."
Consequently, Phantom Trigger has striven to "skim the fat" and write shorter, more accessible rock songs; they've scaled back the number of instrumentals on the set list and set aside the violin bow. Several of the songs from the album remain live staples, however, and for good reason. "Triangles," for one, is a scorcher, a whirling dervish of a tune about a close encounter of the third kind in Nederland. "I saw triangles in the sky," Fausett wails atop rapid-fire blasts of drums and riffs. "Tsunami" is another tune on the regular set list. With a surf sound murky enough to scare Link Wray, the song is a product of Fausett's quest for a California that "probably disappeared twenty or thirty years ago." His wrathful response? A call for a killer wave to decimate the Golden State. "LTD," a searing ode to Fausett's since-junked 1976 Ford, is also a live highlight. With simple but evocative lyrics ("I wanna drive my car/I wanna drive all day/I wanna drive all night/L...T...D!"), this is the road-song equivalent of fifty cups of coffee.
As has been the case for nearly ten years, the band's songwriting revolves around Fausett and Discher jamming away in the basement. The seed for new songs can be either a guitar riff or a drum part. "I count each cool riff as a blessing," says Fausett of his composition philosophy, "and try not to go much beyond that."
The band's current agenda suggests it has at least thought beyond the present when it comes to recording and playing music. The two plan to write a slew of new material, record a follow-up album and then hit the road once the logistics of vacation time, a van and money all fall into place. They already have one Midwest tour under their belt, a 1999 jaunt with stops in Michigan and Iowa. Both members are itching to take the Phantom Trigger sound out for another spin. "Brian and I are van-dwellers," says Discher. "We're good at it."
For now, both Fausett and Discher are rooted in permanent structures and working in Denver, a city they see as a somewhat unreliable springboard for a musical career. "Denver is a boom-or-bust town on so many levels," says Discher. "If you're not touring, this town will bust the best of them."
Back in Helm's Deep, though, the boom is sonic and the bust is nowhere in sight. As a wall of sound echoes off of the tapestry-clad concrete, it's apparent that this basement isn't so much a place as a state of mind.