Swapping Spit With Brutal Juice At Friday’s Album Release Show At Three Links.
It happened one late night in 1994-ish at the biggest rock nightclub in Wichita Falls. I can’t remember what it was called, something with a number in the address, like 913 or 910. But maybe I’m somehow conflating that name with DC’s 9:30 club, which is very different than any place you’ll find in Wichita Falls.
In this big dark room, near last call, at a big dark banquette along the sidewall, there was a couple making out. Of course there’s nothing odd about a couple making out at a nightclub, even in Wichita Falls. But I noticed it from my position behind the mixer at the back of the room because, honestly, there wasn’t much else going on. Not only had the club emptied out a little since the beginning of Brutal Juice’s set that night, but the band was playing “Drapey and Lovely,” the gigantic and slightly leering rocker that passes for a love song in their repertoire.
“Drapey” wasn’t one of those songs I sang on—yup, I used to pick up the mic and sing for Brutal Juice, usually doubling one of Ted Wood’s harmony parts, but sometimes adding a pedal-point or lower-octave harmony—though I’d still mouth my way through even these lyrics because I had a special little echo vocal-effect thing I used to do at the ends of key lines. But as I whispered the lyrics along with Brutal Juice’s bombast, and accented individual words with an old multi-tap echo, I also trained my photographer’s voyeur-eye on this distant couple making out in the purple dimness of the club and I had my epiphany: Brutal Juice is for lovers.
I was reminded of this on Friday night as the band celebrated the release of its latest record—the first one in about 20 years—to a very supportive crowd at Three Links in Deep Ellum. Over the course of the night I don’t think I saw any fewer than six couples making out with each other, and I confess I even stole more than one kiss from my own girlfriend. But it wasn’t just fans like me—and make no mistake, I am definitely a fan as well as a friend, supporter, ex-sound guy, and frequent photographer—who were showing the love. For all their noise, for all Gordon “Michael” Gibson’s scooped-out metal chord progressions wrapping with the perfect hint of cheesiness around Ted Wood’s Frippy-dippy soloing madness, for all Ben Burt’s conniptic drummer-faces, for all Craig Welch’s shouting and cookie-monster vocal stylings and entertaining on-stage self-abuse, these guys are lovers, too. There’s love all over the place. These five guys have managed to have nine or ten weddings and a few kids among themselves, including a prodigal daughter who recently left for Berklee in Boston.
And what says love more than marriage? Two wives and a fiancée would not have missed the gig, period, and the looks on their faces as the watched their men on stage were no different than they were 20 years ago or two years ago. And the love is unmistakable in the easy smiles and jokes among the band members as they made their way through the new songs and the old ones on Michael’s audibles. I loved how people in the audience were calling out song names from the new record <em>Welcome to the Panopticon</em>, too. Technically the record was released on Friday, but the band has been seeding recordings and videos for a few weeks now, and obviously some of these people have had it long enough to not only find favorite new songs, but memorize lyrics, too.
Of course some of this material has been around since the band started working in earnest on the record a couple of years ago. You might’ve heard them workshopping some of these tunes at any of several gigs at Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton. There has been no better place for them to do the hard labor of turning those notes into music. Actually, even though only Craig Welch lives in Denton these days, the band was able to converge from Oak Cliff, Austin and NYC in order to lay tracks at a recording facility provided through some very generous patronage. A lot of the basic tracks were recorded there, while overdubs and vocals have largely been done by Michael after-hours at his “dayjob” as a very successful commercial composer and voice-over artist. After some input by Grammy-winning producer John Congleton and the band’s own bassist Sam McCall, the mixing finally landed in Michael’s studio, too.
Those early live versions of the songs weren’t always easy to listen to. Michael has grown as a song-writer and instrumentalist, and his ability to imagine more complicated stuff out-paced the band’s ability to put together rock-solid arrangements. It was also hard for some people to hear-past some of the sludgier, metal-ier stuff to find the catchy hooks that we’ve all come to expect after having the old tunes on repeat for a couple of decades. But once you hear <em>Welcome to the Panopticon</em> it all becomes crystal clear, and you start to hear the band’s cleverness, humor and breadth of tastes just like the old days.
In the ‘90s, Brutal Juice toured with Neurosis. I wasn’t on those tours, but I’ve heard several people who know both bands make comparisons, and I’m in no position to argue. We all bring our own biases to the listening station. I hear plenty of mostly tongue-in-cheek metal references, some real Black Sabbath influences, maybe even some Jane’s Addiction and Soundgarden—we are all children of ‘90s glory days, after all. But mostly I hear the influence of Brutal Juice. If I knew what made for successful music I’d be on a tour bus with my band somewhere instead of writing this, but I haven’t gotten this far by letting ignorance get in the way of a strongly held opinion: “Children of The Python” is a hard-rock hit. “Southern Strategy” may be one of the most accessible rock songs these guys have ever made and recorded. “Bound For Glory,” “Dominic,” and “Numbskull” (more commonly known as “Pigs Get Fed, Hogs Get Slaughtered” are literally classic favorites from Brutal Juice live sets past that have finally achieved recorded justice.
The title track <em>Welcome To The Panopticon</em> is, for very good reasons, the musical sequel to “Drapey and Lovely,” and I fully expect many faces to be sucked with it in the background. I cannot speculate on conceptions, but one can hope.
Fort Worth’s Duell used a three-guitar (and one bass) onslaught to deliver ten tons of sound like a bulldozer with an engine chugging on a relentless stream of eighth notes. Some of us remember a time in the ‘90s when other bands, admittedly of a highly different style, used fairly low-tech chorus vocal effects, and it was surprising to hear someone with a voice as good as Belvedere’s leaning on it so heavily, but it all made a lot more sense when they got to the last song of their set, which they obviously know is a winner and which accommodates the Boss Super-Chorus effect ably.
Somehow it’s fitting that Friday’s opening band, the seriously hard-working trio It Hurts To Be Dead, is from Wichita Falls, the scene of my Brutal Juice epiphany. I think these guys are lovers, too, hiding in vaguely punk clothing. First impressions are misleading, and as much as these guys seem to be laying down well-crafted little post-punk nuggets, Sean Snyder’s voice has hints of some sweet ‘70s album rock that may end up being the twist that these guys need to distinguish themselves.
Anyway, leave it to Halloween in Deep Ellum to prove that Brutal Juice is indeed for lovers, as is Three Links and rock and roll.