Sound like a weblog excerpt from some sappy, introspective, cardigan-wearing, ultra-sensitive emo band's tour diary on myspace.com? Try extreme metal's answer to "Beth," by one of the genre's most fiercely revered acts. While the thoughts are touching, they're not exactly accompanied by music to make sweet love to your old lady by.
I must have listened to "Counting the Days," from Cephalic Carnage's forthcoming disc, Anomalies (due to hit stores on Tuesday, March 15), at least a dozen times before I finally deciphered what the hell Lenzig Leal was singing.
I have a theory about death metal and its many-splintered descendants: The only thing that matters to true aficionados is how fast and ferocious the music sounds. Cephalic could have recorded a song with a line like I love puppies and pretty flowers/watching The Wiggles and taking long showers, and as long as that sentiment was conveyed with the prototypical growl/scream, cats like me would be happy and none the wiser. Lyrics are an afterthought.
So mad props to our hometown heroes for digging deeper and delivering something of substance. But when I'm blasting Cephalic, I'm not expecting Dylan Thomas. I'm only interested in having my head ripped clean off my freaking torso by crystal-clear, stereophonic sound.
Mission accomplished with Anomalies, which sounds better than just about any metal album that's come out of Colorado. In fact, the only local disc I can think of on par with Anomalies is Corruption's Alone. Know what these albums have in common? Dave Otero, chief (and only) knob-turner at Flatline Audio. Last Thursday, I stopped by his place to see just how these masterpieces were captured.
Flatline looked nothing like I'd expected. Otero's work sounds so crisp and expansive, I'd anticipated walking into a posh, state-of-the-art production facility like those thousand-dollar-a-day hit factories on either coast. Instead, I found a small, weathered warehouse tucked away on an isolated industrial strip of Lipan. If not for a couple of computer workstations and the two tracking rooms, Flatline could pass for a rehearsal space. Although Otero's put a lot of labor into the place since taking over in November 2003, it still has that grimy, cigarette-burns-in-the-carpet vibe.
Still, those who walk through Flatline's door aren't expecting Coupe or FTM, the area's finest studios. And they're certainly not coming for Otero's impressive gear -- because he doesn't have much. "It's all in the box," Otero says of his unorthodox recording setup. "I use pre-amps built into the Motu 896 and an old Fostex board just for gain; that's all I use it for, no tones or anything. Everything else is done in a computer workstation. It's all digital -- everything. I have a small amount of outboard gear, a few compressors. I'm looking at getting some decent pre-amps pretty soon. But really, my gear list is not impressive. I've had a couple people contact me to ask me for a gear list, and I'm like, ŒWell, I can send you one, but I'd much rather you listen to some stuff I've done.' That's kind of how I feel every studio should represent itself.
"There's plenty of people who have lots of gear and don't know what to do with it," Otero adds. "I don't have much gear, but I think I've learned to use what I have pretty well."
The chance to work with Otero is what draws bands like Cephalic, Throcult and Summons, which drove all the way from Michigan to record at Flatline. Completely self-taught, the kid -- and I do mean kid -- is a wunderkind behind the sliders. Flatline is a one-stop metal shop; Otero does everything in-house, from recording and mixing to mastering.
Otero grew up in Houston and moved to Boulder when he was fourteen, shortly after his brother enrolled at the University of Colorado. While in the People's Republic, he did brief stints behind the drum kit with the Messy Hairs and Four, local punk outfits that were decidedly less metallic. If not for a pivotal road trip to the Milwaukee Metal Fest, he might still be punked out with Liberty spikes.
"Once I started hearing that stuff," Otero says of his early exposure to metal, "I was like, 'Wow.' And I've always been something for more musicianship than a lot of punk bands have. I think once I matured to that level as a musician, my taste for music kind of evolved to stuff that would maybe challenge me a little bit more.
"I'm not talking shit or anything about punk, though," he quickly clarifies. "I still love that music. But a lot of it doesn't require incredible musicianship."
Soon after, Otero moved to Denver and formed Serebus, with Ivan Alcala, who now fronts Throcult. About that same time, "by accident," he became an audio engineer. "I started doing my own bands with a four-track and a couple of cheesy mikes I got for twenty-five bucks," he recalls. "A few people heard it; I started doing their shit real cheap, like seven bucks an hour. At seven bucks an hour, they still got ripped off."
In 2002, at the ripe age of 21, Otero recorded Lucid Intervals, Cephalic's critically acclaimed third disc; the act tapped Otero to capture its groundbreaking sound after hearing his work with Serebus. Since then, he's mastered some pretty unorthodox strategies. "I don't really have too many fancy miking techniques or anything," he reveals. "I just set them on there good and help the drummers tune their kits."
That's definitely oversimplifying things. For Anomalies, Otero built up a sound library comprising twenty to thirty samples of John Merryman's kick drum, then separated the samples into different dynamic ranges that could be triggered through a sensor placed on the head. Although the process sounds cumbersome, by isolating the signals, Otero gained a fuller-sounding kick, because he had more control over the dynamics and tone.
"I really get into that whole European sound," Otero says. "And I think where I'm ending up is a mix between that and the more natural, heavy, thick American tone. Kind of what I'm going for is the pure-balls, in-your-face presence of brutal fucking guitar tones and heavy bass of the Swedish productions, with a little more natural tones and a little bit of that good old tube warmth of American productions."
For now, Otero's Flatline Audio is Mootown metal's best-kept secret. For roughly $35 an hour, you, too, can book a session with the guy who captured the originators of Rocky Mountain hydro-grind as they lamented life on the road.