On stage, Cephalic Carnage's Zac spends most of his time swinging his head and guitar, sweating, screaming and abusing listeners with the brutal bombast that issues from his instrument. But today, sitting in his publicist's office almost 2,000 miles from his home in Denver, there is little evidence of that raving persona. Zac is friendly, giddy almost, and not at all demonic-sounding, even when he mentions nonchalantly that he's "the only real Satanist" in the band.
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.
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"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.
"The Slipknot guys are extremely cool. We've met them several times, and I've always been a little bit infatuated with them, in the sense that I like to talk to them and just see what it could be like to operate at that level of fame," Zac says. "But when it comes to the music, if somebody feels, like, really blown away or shocked or freaked out by what they're playing, I'm not hearing it that way. It doesn't affect me.
"I'll see some kid with a Slipknot shirt on, and I'll maybe walk up and give him a disc or a Relapse sticker or tell him about our Web site," he adds. "I always tell them, Hey, if you like this stuff, I've got something for you to check out. There is a whole other world out there. Come meet those of us who like to hang out in the sewers.'"
A glance through Lucid Interval's liner notes gives a taste of just what kind of world the members of Cephalic Carnage inhabit. Most of the acts in the album's "thank you" list sport unwieldy and weird names, such as Anal Blast, Cattle Decapitation, Circle of Dead Children, Corpse Vomit, Insidious Discrepancy, Maggot Twat, Severed Head, and Yeast Feast. A gather-round-for-vespers bunch this ain't. Cephalic has made its home in a loose but mobilized nationwide army of metal heads that gravitate to the genre's furthest possible fringe. Fans prefer their metal to be predicated by a few ominous adjectives -- death, black, hate and speed among them.
Elements of all of those metal subgenres show up in Lucid Interval's 14 songs. So do stream-of-consciousness-style lyrics, which blurt forth from the fleshy depths of Leonard's well-worn larynx as a series of low-end barks, beastlike intonations and just plain ol' screams befitting the subject matter -- which ranges from the lechery and disease of medieval Rome to the brain wasting and corruption of modern America. "Anthro-Emesis" is set inside an ancient vomitorium and coliseum where "The slaves that clean the theater/Find corpses rotting, fecal decay/Slipping into pools of sperm." Yum! And though it contains one of the album's most confounding arrangements, "Pseudo" also carries its most straightforward verses: "We're putting guns into the hands of little boys/Suicidal bombers killing for a cause/Nationally exposed internal flaws/Officials above the law."
Harsh, disgusting, vile and violent as they may seem, Cephalic's blast beats, rupturing basslines and purposely punishing time signatures aren't without their own kind of grace. Angular, mathematical, with a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the usually dominant hold of 4/4 time, the songs contain all the controlled energy of the Oppenheimer era. Yes, the music draws comparisons to death metal and grindcore touchstone artists like Napalm Death and Morbid Angel, but it is also occasionally likened to John Zorn's experimental Naked City project -- which paired him with lead Boredoms screamer Yamatsuke Eye and drummer Joey Baron -- and even John Coltrane's hard-bop years. The jazz elements are less obvious on Lucid Interval than on Exploiting Dysfunction, though the patterning beneath the surface suggests a wildly avant-garde aesthetic, blistering and bold as it may be. Lucid Interval does not actually attain anything resembling clarity. But that, according to Zac, is all by design.
"The last album, we had, like, nine days in the studio to record it," he says. "This time, we got to really work on it and do it right. I really think that this album shows who we are. If you don't like it, you just don't like the band. And if you set it against a $10 million-produced album, you might not think it stands up. But personally, I know that we poured our hearts into it. Pouring your heart into a death metal record doesn't sound like something you should do, but that's what we did."
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Cephalic fans are advised to approach the band with some sort of psyche-altering device affixed to their peepers. And should they brave a live show, they'd be wise to be even further prepared, with defensive apparatus.
"There's definitely a theater aspect to what we do on stage," he says. "It's entertainment. We don't want people to be bored and say, Well, it's good, but it could have been 50 other bands.' We want to be a three-dimensional band, want to see people trip out on us.
"Some nights, if we're just kind of low on energy and the kids are just not there yet, we'll look at each other and kind of communicate: We're just gonna have to damage 'em."
And damage they sometimes do, to themselves and the occasional audience member who might make the mistake of standing a little too close to the stage. Zac mentions offhandedly that Leonard sometimes will accidentally conk someone in the head with his microphone or his own body, and that his wife has come to regard his return home with bloody hands and a sore back as surefire signs of a good show.
That was the case in March of this year, when Cephalic Carnage attended the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas; the band performed as part of a Relapse showcase, stunning a house full of industry mongers at the infamous club Emo's.
"We were told there was a lot of pop and poppy punk rock stuff happening down there," Zac says. "I'm not sure the crowd knew what to make of us at first. But the room was packed for the whole show."
And while Zac swears that all of the nearly primordial aggression and energy is authentic, he says it's more a sign of the players' recreational catharsis than some deep-seated dementia.
"I feel like I'm becoming almost a completely reasonable and adjusted adult," says Zac, a new father who, like several of his bandmates, works in the service industry. "But there is so much frustration involved in even playing this music, because parts of it are so complicated. I feel like, if I didn't have this outlet on stage, I'd just carry that stuff around with me. You don't want to be jumping up and screaming at people and waving things in their faces when you walk down the street."
And why not?
"You can get beat up that way. Forget that -- I'd rather be violent in my music than in my life."
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