I know a thing or two about riding mechanical bulls. Exactly two, in fact: the brutal dual blasts of pain in my testicles after I rode one a few years back at the state fair. I was instantly convinced that cowboys must wear protective cups to pull off this feat. See, your fist grasps a rope positioned between your legs, and when the bull bucks forward, it's like punching yourself in the balls. I was on the damn beast about 10 seconds before I jumped off. It's sheer masochism.
I explained this to my buddy Catfish John on our way to the Clubhouse Music Venue for the CD release party for the AK Corral, a country project composed of longtime metalheads, who were featuring "heavy metal bull riding" between the bands' sets that night. John was warned, but the party was sponsored by Jägermeister, and prior to the AK Corral's set, the hosts put up a Jäger skateboard as the first-place prize while Slayer blasted on the PA. The hook was in John's mouth. He lasted a good 45 seconds, not long enough to win the board, but long enough to put the hurting on him good.
Some things just don't blend easily, like heavy metal and bull riding, or oscillating carpeted metal machines and your balls. And after seeing the AK Corral play, I don't think metal and country music mix that well, either.
The AK Corral is fronted by Eric "A.K." Knutson, the vocalist for Flotsam & Jetsam, the Phoenix-based thrash/metal outfit that's been around for almost 25 years now. It's rounded out by guitarist Scott "Goody" Goodwine, a longtime sound engineer and guitar technician; guitarist Mark Simpson, who also riffs for Flotsam & Jetsam; bass player Scott "Skully" Lawrence, Flotsam's veteran guitar tech; drummer Tim Russell, who's recorded with Michael Schenker and Lynch Mob as well as studio sessions for Lita Ford; and electric Zeta violin and mandolin player Tory Edwards.
The Corral's album being feted that night is called A Different Brand of Country, and was released on a label called Stillwest, which is actually a euphemism -- Hatebreed front man (and Headbangers Ball host) Jamey Jasta runs a label called Stillborn Records, which sports a logo with a dead baby -- not exactly country material, so the name was altered to Stillwest for this one release.
A Different Brand of Country was actually released in late 2004, so the release party was considerably late. A.K. told me that the band wanted to get a marketing push in place by March of this year, but Jasta has been too incredibly busy to work the record, so the band was tired of waiting and decided it was past time to get the word out.
The record is a hit-and-miss affair, sometimes overwrought and contrived, and occasionally touching. Its high points are Tory Edwards' mandolin and electric violin. The guy's amazing, even if he looks a little Axl Rose-ish with a bandanna tied around his head. Several of the songs, like the opener, "Thunder Mountain," and "Arizona Girls," would be better stripped down; with two guitars, they can afford to be stingier with Edwards' violin appearances instead of saturating the record with them.
Since the album's nearly a year old, it's not surprising that the stage show didn't reflect the recording very accurately. Onstage, with their cowboy hats and leather illuminated by a high-powered light show, the band members' metal roots were reflected much more than on the album. It was far more of a rock show than I expected. "Our direction has changed since [the record was recorded]," A.K. tells me. "We were concentrating on doing country stuff; since then we've rocked it out some more. We're more western rock than country now. We don't want to be in a genre, basically, we want to do our own thing. We have reggae songs, country songs, rock songs, just whatever comes out of us."
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I didn't catch any reggae in the band's set, but it's good that the Corral isn't throwing its hat in the country arena (the song "Last Leg" on the record reminds me of Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive"). Though the posters announced that Waylon and Johnny were influences, A.K.'s vocal cadence and pitch were too exaggerated to be confused for authentic country. The only problem with that is that western rock isn't really that interesting.
This all begs the question: Why?
"Age, of course, is one of the factors," A.K. says. "I'm getting a little older. It's harder to bang my head and scream for hours at a time. After one of the Flotsam tours, I started doing some cabinetry work, and the guys I worked with listened to nothing but country all day -- it gets forced into your head. I started to enjoy the stuff."
Flotsam & Jetsam just released a new album, Dreams of Death, this summer, but A.K. has no plans to tour with the metal vets ("Every time I come back, I'm broke and have to start a new job some place," he says). But he's stoked on the AK Corral, and the band plans to record again in the near future, as well as touring. I'll go see them again, if just to watch dudes get their balls smashed on the bull, but I'm hoping for their sake that they can strip away some of the novelty elements and play music that makes us forget their metal pasts.