No Gehenna, but Starkweather was good enough.

Last night Brandon and I made the three-hour drive north to Baltimore. There was a show at The Ottobar that was billed as Gehenna's only East Coast appearance. For those of you who don't know about Gehenna, let me explain. First of all, I'm speaking of the American hardcore band Gehenna, not the Norwegian metal band Gehenna. Second of all, the American hardcore band Gehenna has a ridiculous reputation. They started out as part of the militant straight edge scene that existed on the west coast in the mid-90s, but very quickly disassociated themselves from the straight edge movement and became beer-drinking hellraisers of the kind that rarely come around in the hardcore scene. Rumors filtered through the grapevine of singer Mike Cheese stabbing kids who were fighting in the front row of a Gehenna show, of horrendous fights involving the entire band, of clubs destroyed, shows cancelled, and worse. Constant lineup instability made it impossible to know who besides Mike Cheese was even in Gehenna at any given time, and a combination of general unreliability and outright craziness made it impossible to know whether Gehenna would ever do anything they said they'd do. This obviously meant that shows might or might not happen, but sometimes it meant completely random other things. For example, Gehenna was rumored broken up in 1997, then released an LP in 1999. Again, in 2001, they were rumored to have broken up, only to release yet another LP in 2004. Finally, towards the end of 2007, they were rumored to be playing shows again, and even booked a tour, but ended up not playing half of the shows on the tour--this despite the fact that another band featuring many of the current Gehenna members was playing, and all of the members were present at all of the shows on this tour.

The most notorious incident that occurred during the leadup to all of this was in San Francisco in December, when Gehenna broke up acrimoniously the night before they were scheduled to play a two-day fest (entitled "This Is Not A Fest") with 108 and Pulling Teeth, among others. The idea had apparently been that the members would finish the tour they were on, but instead, the bassist and Mike Cheese were the only people who showed up. They played a "set" as Gehenna anyway, but said "set" consisted of the two of them sitting onstage for 15 minutes while a hip-hop beat played and one of them ate a burrito. When the burrito was finished, Cheese stood up, grabbed a mic, yelled "And I'm still onstage!" and that was the end of Gehenna's performance.

I told this story to a bunch of my friends in the weeks before the Baltimore show, billed as Gehenna's only east coast performance on this tour and possibly final show ever. They all found it hilarious and made jokes that I was going to drive three hours to watch some dudes eat burritos. I knew that this exact scenario was not only possible but likely. I held out hope that they'd actually play (as they'd apparently put together a new lineup in time for a show with Iron Lung only weeks after the burrito incident), but with the general flakiness and the further complication of the entire band having to travel across the country to play one show on the east coast, I figured it was an even chance that I wouldn't see them.

However, I was willing to go, because Starkweather was scheduled to play as well. Starkweather are another long-running and notorious American hardcore/metal group, but for very different reasons. In the early 90s, when such a thing was still largely unheard of, Starkweather released an album, "Crossbearer", that sounded way more like progressive death metal than anything that had ever come out of the hardcore scene before. They took a lot of shit for it, and probably didn't sell that many copies, but everyone who was willing to get past the xenophobia and check out something new and different found a complex, brilliant, and highly original work. In 1994, they followed this album up with "Into The Wire", which improved upon "Crossbearer" considerably. However, around the time "Into The Wire" was released, Starkweather's public profile dropped considerably. They began playing live only once or twice a year, never touring behind "Into The Wire", the sales of which were crippled as a result. Rumors of lineup instability and frontman Rennie Resmini's reclusive, perfectionist tendencies spread throughout the scene, and over the next few years, Starkweather released only two songs. The first, "Bitter Frost", was released on a split 7 inch with Season To Risk in 1996, while the second, "Hushabye and Goodnight", was the final track on a compilation CD called "Definitely Not The Majors". Both of these songs, especially the 10-minute "Hushabye and Goodnight", blew the minds of diehard Starkweather fans (of which there was a small, seriously dedicated core, despite the fact that the wider hardcore scene still seemed to have no idea what to make of them). "Hushabye And Goodnight" went beyond anything they'd ever done before, in terms of lyrical and musical complexity, epic reach, and instrumental prowess. Everyone longed to hear what would come next.

But nothing did. Rumor had it that Starkweather had become a studio-only band, and were working on a new album, but this rumor was all anyone heard for so long that eventually everyone assumed they'd broken up. When people with connections to the Holy Terror axis of bands (Integrity, Ringworm, etc.) started to talk about how they'd heard rough mixes of new tracks in 2004, I forced myself not to get excited, worried as I was that passed-around bootlegs is all they'd ever be. But thankfully, this turned out not to be the case, and in 2006, after a 9-year silence, Starkweather released their third album, "Croatoan". It featured rerecordings of both late-90s era tracks, as well as six new ones that fit well with the new direction indicated by "Hushabye and Goodnight". They played a few shows around that time, but they were rare and far between. As with Gehenna, the opportunity to see Starkweather was one I didn't expect to have again soon. So even if Gehenna didn't show up, I figured it would be OK, because I'd still get a rare opportunity to see a great band I'd loved for a long time.

Sure enough, as soon as Brandon and I walked in the door to the show, the bouncer informed us that Gehenna had cancelled. I couldn't feel but so upset, because I had known that this was a good possibility, but it still was kind of a bummer. However, Starkweather were still playing, so I was still glad we'd come to the show. And besides, Pulling Teeth were headlining, and they're certainly a great band, so I figured we'd still get to see at least two good bands. And thank god, too, because the first three bands that played were all pretty boring. Braindead were standard 80s hardcore retro revival, just exactly the kind of stuff that is getting beaten to death by all the trendy kids in the scene right now. Next was Steel Nation, and they had a bit more of that 86 Agnostic Front style of crossover hardcore. However, they seemed to think that every song needed a breakdown, and every breakdown needed a long lead-in so that all the kids would know to dance. This killed the flow of many of their songs, and made all of them sound the same after a while. Deathcycle played third, and seemed like they might have potential due to the metal-looking members and the fact that they have ex-members of Kill Your Idols and Disassociate. Unfortunately, what they were doing was straight-up crust-metal, combining Motorhead and Discharge for perhaps the millionth time. Their songwriting was boring and their riffs were generic. Like the two bands before them, they turned out to be a wash.

Thankfully, it was time for a good band to hit the stage. I moved to the front of the stage as soon as Deathcycle was done playing, just to make sure that I'd have a good spot for the entire set. I was impressed to see the enormous drum kit that Starkweather's drummer had--six pieces, including three rack toms, and 12 separate cymbal stands (though really it was 15 cymbals, as he had 2 cymbals each on his hi-hat and two other cymbal stands). The bassist and guitarist had simpler setups, but both of them had very nice equipment. I could see the set list from where I was standing, and was sorry to see that it only had 5 songs listed on it, none of which I even recognized. Once they started playing, though, I couldn't complain. I was immediately captivated. All four of the band members were obviously masters of their instruments. This was easiest to notice about the drummer, who more than justified his large kit by being all over it throughout the set. Some of his beats were more complicated than others, but what really impressed were his fills. None of Starkweather's songs are very fast, but sometimes the fills the drummer threw in were lightning-speed, nearly impossible to follow. It was harder to recognize the guitarist's talent a lot of the time; most of what he did didn't look all that complicated. Occasionally he played entire parts by doing two-handed fingertaps, or pick scrapes in different spots up and down the fretboard, but most of the time his parts consisted of intricate combinations of chords and arpeggios that didn't really look all that complex to play. It was only when you listened to the noises he was producing that you could really tell just how precise all of his riffs were and how talented he indeed must be in order to play them over and over without mistakes. The bassist's playing was much the same, though he did do more walking basslines that made their complexity obvious just to watch them. Neither the guitarist nor the bassist allowed their complicated parts to keep them from moving around while they played, though. Both of them moved a lot, the bassist jumping and punching his bass, the guitarist swinging his guitar around and looking menacing.

Rennie Resmini was still the focal point of the band, though. He's a small guy, not physically imposing at all, and inbetween songs he bantered easily with his bandmates, smiling and looking happy to be playing music. Once the music started playing, though, he seemed to retreat inside of himself, unaware of his surroundings or really anything besides the music he was hearing and adding his parts to. Even though he moved less than both the guitarist and bassist, he seemed fueled by much more energy, which he channeled very precisely into his incredible vocals. His voice is so extreme on record that it's hard to imagine that he can pull off the same sound live, without any effects. However, having now seen it, I can tell you that he does. He's able to switch from his ominously operatic clean tone to a throat-shredding scream that has never sounded even remotely human to me on a dime, just like on record. He also throws in hardcore yells on occasion without missing a beat. And as he does all of this, he moves dramatically to the music, often gesturing along with complex dramatic moments in the music, as if he's conducting the band. He reminds me of Henry Rollins in this way, but where Rennie's stage presence may be easily placed within a greater tradition of hardcore singers, his vocals put him in a class by himself.

Starkweather's music as a whole does that with the entire band, in fact--as I said to Brandon after the set, it's hard to think of a single band Starkweather actually sounds like. As it turned out, only one of the songs they played ("Machine Rhythm Confessional") had been previously released, on "Croatoan", while the rest were new songs that had been written for an album Starkweather plans to release this year. This left me with no familiar landmarks during their set, not even during the one released song. I do own "Croatoan", but having bought it during the CD-buying orgy that characterized my behavior during Tower Records' going out of business sale in late 2006, it hadn't gotten much play on my stereo. Therefore, I didn't really even recognize "Machine Rhythm Confessional", and certainly didn't recognize anything else. Nonetheless, I was swept away by their music, finding myself powerless to avoid getting into it and dancing in whatever goofy way struck my mood at that moment. Their riffs have a sinuous power to them; no matter how complex they are, no matter what intricate time signature they're written in, they all base themselves in a groove, which is generally so solid that nothing could possibly disturb it. This is what made me dance, and on the few occasions when I looked around at the rest of the crowd, I saw that I wasn't the only one being swept up by it.

The five songs they played were over all too soon, and left me feeling completely unable to endure another set, no matter how good the band playing it might be. Brandon felt the same way, and we decided to skip Pulling Teeth's set and start back for Richmond--which ended up being a good idea, because even without watching the last band, we still didn't get home until 3 AM. For the first half hour of the drive back, we could talk of nothing else. We agreed that neither of us could really pinpoint any overt influences or forerunners for Starkweather's sound, and both of us admitted that we felt like we didn't listen to their records enough. In the spirit of making up for lost time, I've been playing "Croatoan" all day, and am now listening to "Into The Wire". All of this stuff is legitimately great, and I'm kicking myself for not having paid more attention to it before now. As it is, I'm going to be keeping an eye out for future sets by Starkweather, and if I have to drive 3 hours to see them again, I'll do it without complaint. They are worth it, completely.

Starkweather - Machine Rhythm Confessional