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Zac and his mates (none of whom appear to have last names) are happy these days -- content, even -- and it isn't just because of all the weed they smoke. Three years ago, the five-piece band -- widely regarded as the original arbiter of pro-pot "Rocky Mountain hydro grind" music -- signed with Relapse Records, one of the country's most reliable sources of underground and extreme heavy metal music. In late August, the band released Lucid Interval, its second album for the label. Sales, so far, have been relatively brisk: The disc has already outsold 2000's Exploiting Dysfunction by several hundred copies. Reviews from the College Music Journal, which said the band "has a few mind-fucking elements on its side," and Alternative Press, which described the players as "gifted grindcore nutjobs" and "methed-up jazz virtuosos," have been added to a press kit that's already stuffed with stunned accolades from the indie metal press.
This kind of thing tends to lighten the mood of an ambitious musician, even one who would like to one day make a full-time living of obliterating live audiences, tearing down metal conventions and just generally freaking the shit out of listeners everywhere.
"Really, I'm amazed that any of this is happening," Zac says on the phone from the Relapse office in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. "We've never wanted to be a part of what's selling, because what's selling is usually at its peak and on its way out. But we have been just busting our ass for so long, and it seems like, finally, there's this little revival of interest in metal that might, eventually, lead somebody over to what we do."
What Cephalic Carnage does has little in common with the nu-metallers, the rap fusionists or the Ozzfest clones that starting popping up like prairie dogs in the early and mid-'90s. Founded by Zac and vocalist Leonard (also known as Lenzig) in 1992, the band held on to its death metal approach while weathering personnel changes and the waning interest of fans who were moving away from the style. By 1996, the pair had enlisted guitarist Steve, filling out a lineup that included Jawsh on bass and John on drums. Unfortunately, Cephalic soon discovered that its hometown audience had diminished at the precise moment its foundation had solidified.
"When we started, death metal was way in decline, and black metal was selling just a little bit," Zac says. "When Korn came along, whoever was left sold their soul to sound just like them. Local bands that had been into Pantera and Metallica wanted to be [Korn] all of a sudden. Everybody sold out. They totally turned it around and turned it into this radio-friendly thing."
After releasing a debut album, Fortuitous Oddity, on its own label in 1997, Cephalic Carnage inked a deal with Italy's Headfucker Records; Conforming to Abnormality followed in 1998. (A reissue of that album is the first offering from Hyghbryd Records, the band's own imprint.) Appearances at festivals such as the March Metal Meltdown, Ohio Deathfest and Milwaukee Metalfest led to inquiries from Relapse, which signed the band in 1999 and released Exploiting Dysfunction in early 2000. For Cephalic, landing on Relapse was a dream come true. Since the early '90s, the company has served as a kind of pipeline between the harbingers of extreme hard-core heavy metal music and the somewhat fanatical web of devotees who worship it. The label is responsible for introducing acts such as Neurosis, Nile, Soilent Green and, perhaps most famously, the Dillinger Escape Plan -- the art-punk grindcore outfit that found a home on the Warped Tour, and then Epitaph Records, after releasing an EP with Relapse.
"Relapse has, like, everything. It's a very professional operation," Zac says. "They've got computers and desks and maps on the wall. I just want to go back to the warehouse where they keep all the CDs and salivate. It's just amazing to me to actually be working with this label, to be friends with these people, when they were responsible for the music I was listening to when I was just a young metalhead, you know, tuning in to Headbanger's Ball and just waiting for something good to come on."
By the time Exploiting Dysfunction hit the world of indie metal, people aboveground were buzzing about Slipknot -- a group of jumpsuited kids with masks for faces and digits for names -- who hailed from Des Moines, Iowa. To many, Slipknot's bone-gnashing mix of post-industrial music, thrash, speed and heavy metal, as well as rap and grindcore, indicated that someone had finally managed to push the envelope to the ultimate extreme.
Not surprisingly, the members of Cephalic Carnage did not share that view.