Last year we played this show at the Roxy," remembers Taylor Kirgan, singer/guitarist of Ascaris. "We played with three hip-hop groups that night. We were the only band with amps; everyone else was up there with turntables and laptops. We opened up that show with full stacks. At the end of the show, people were coming up to us and saying how refreshing it was to see that kind of musicianship, and also to see a metal band have the balls to play a hip-hop show. They said they liked that we had so much faith in our music."
Faith can come from a lot of different places, but for the guys in Ascaris, that belief comes from deep inside. Over the past three years of playing live, the Denver band has slowly, steadily built a following, one that had little chance of being handed to them on a platter. While drawing inspiration from plenty of identifiable sources — including death metal, progressive rock, post-hardcore and punk — Kirgan and his bandmates, Mike Rich on guitar, Rick Ramirez on bass and Spy Soto on drums, have come together to craft a debut full-length, Pneumatic Explanation of Nature, that's as assured and ambitious as its name implies.
Granted, the members of Ascaris had a bit of ready-made attention focused on them when they joined forces in 2006. Kirgan and Ramirez had played together in the experimental hardcore outfit Yuriko, which morphed into Adai after the death of drummer Tyler Long in 2004. When the two left Adai — which has continued as a duo mining a more atmospheric strain of sonic gravity — Ascaris came together with its own agenda in mind. But the deepest root of the Ascaris family tree is the screamy, provocative idiedinwisconsin, an oufit Rich and Kirgan formed with Adai drummer Justin Trujillo while still in high school.
"Me and Mike grew up together," Kirgan explains. "We've known each other since we were seven. We grew up together in southwest Denver and went to elementary school together. We started playing guitar together when we were fifteen or sixteen."
"They're hetero lifemates," says Soto with a laugh.
That partnership, or "heavy-metal bromance," as Kirgan confirms, led he and Rich to form idiedinwisconsin. "Once the teen years hit," Kirgan elaborates, "a lot of marijuana, punk rock and death metal cemented our friendship. After years of listening to all that stuff, we said, 'Hey, why don't we pick up guitars and try doing it ourselves?' Once we parted the post-smoke haze, we came up with some pretty cool songs."
Music, though, wasn't just an artistic endeavor for Kirgan and Rich. "We were some rebellious little teenagers," Kirgan admits. "We identified with punk rock and death metal that way. Me and Mike had kind of a crazy high-school experience. I could tell you stories for days. Idiedinwisconsin was kind of known for satanic and/or sexual graffiti around school premises at Dakota Ridge High. Just fun shit. We never got in trouble for anything too big — pot possession, minor vandalism, things like that.
"To be perfectly honest," Kirgan goes on, "even now, we like to think we're a punk band at heart — a punk band that plays metal. We don't really subscribe to breakdowns and super-shredder-ific guitar solos. We write the music more out of what we feel and the desire to get the point across — the point that we're pissed off. We've got bigger ideas than can be contained in death metal. We like to blend those influences. One's not bigger than the other in our picture."
On Pneumatic Explanation of Nature, Ascaris more than lives up to its manifesto. Layered with jackhammer riffs, ominously echoing samples and even a technically deft yet soulful solo-guitar break straight out of the Mars Volta playbook, the disc combines tonsil-scouring vocals and complex structures with a deep rhythmic pulse that flies in the face of the current math-metal tendency to build beats like a scientist building a mainframe.
"I think there's a lot of ground to be explored with odd time signatures and jerky rhythms," says Kirgan. "But we like to find a groove. It's not about, 'Look how fast my left hand is moving. Look at how many revolving time signatures we just went through.' It's more about finding that groove than making a song with a section for me to jack off in, a section for Mike to jack off in. It's about the song. It's not about technical virtuosity."
"It all comes down to punk rock," Soto interjects. "That rawness. I love metal, but sometimes metal can get caught up in the whole 'I am more technical than you' kind of thing. Punk rock is more organic, going all the way back to the Sex Pistols. We want to kind of take it back to that. We want there to be feeling instead of just ego."
Part of that downsizing of ego came at the expense of song length. Most of Pneumatic's eight tracks clock in at under four minutes, with some as brief as two and a half. And yet, the band manages to cram a wealth of melody and ideas into each song without making things feels rushed or cluttered. That's quite an accomplishment, considering that many alternative metal bands — for instance, Kirgan's heroes in the Mars Volta — haven't quite grasped the concept of an internal editor.
"We had this one song," Soto recalls, "that was seriously eight minutes long. It was a good song, but I think we all realized we were bored playing it. Why not go the opposite route? I'm all about trying to not do what everyone else is doing. Around the country you just see the same carbon copies. All these bands are trying to be the most brutal. It's like, 'I gotta have a hernia by the time I'm thirty.' I don't think we look at brutality as something that comes with speed or growling vocals all the time. Brutality is what you feel inside of you. You can be a brutal librarian, you know? If you love what you're doing, you're just brutal at it. It's all a state of mind. Brutality is in the eye of the beholder."
Beauty is another thing that resides in that eye — and the guys in Ascaris, rather than resigning themselves to a small niche in the scene, draw strength from the idea that their music, at first listen, might not be for everyone. "We're kind of over it," remarks Kirgan. "We're over metal cliches; we're over status symbols. We've got four guys here who are completely different, into all different things, but we're coming together to strike the same chord. We're trying to get that idea across in our music: It's okay to do something different."
And nothing illustrates Ascaris's guiding principle better than the band's triumphant show at the Roxy last year. "We've played numerous shows like that since then," Kirgan offers. "That's what this band is all about. Put us in a setting where we're the odd band out. We'll show everybody. We'll win them over."
"After that night," adds Soto, "I was like, 'I'll play anywhere, anytime, for anybody. If we survived this thing, we can do it all.'"