Phoenix band Malakai takes a cerebral approach to death metal
My musical tastes are an audio gumbo. On any given day at the office, I bump old and new soul, mainstream hip-hop, experimental, infectious pop, yacht rock, and funk that bleeds through the walls and seeps out of the air vents. Come to think of it, I'm surprised my coworkers haven't strangled me. Lucky for me, there's a lock on my door.
But I rarely play rock and metal. I'm picky when it comes to those genres because, frankly, I find the formula of today's mass-produced mainstream rock to be a fantastic bore.
Before you label me a boor, there is some rock and metal I love, especially those bands that take a less streamlined approach — Dillinger Escape Plan with their whiplash time signatures, Beck's kaleidoscopic approach to modern rock, Radiohead's Thom Yorke and his tortured timbre, augmented by progressive electronic dusting. Basically, I want to be bathed in an epic sonic atmosphere or punched in the gut by the sound.
That's why I love the Phoenix-based band Malakai, which creates a sonic stew unlike any other hardcore band in town. Their sound is a cerebral take on death metal that mainstream outfits like Mastodon and Isis have mastered. Live shows feature the four-piece — which includes guitarist Randy Denton, bassist Ben Gallaty, drummer Deacon Blue Bachelor, and vocalist John Martin — creating one long, orchestrated piece full of unabated energy and melodic rock.
I caught up with the group at the new Willow House on Van Buren Street, where three-fourths of the band works. (Gallaty, on a winter tour with his other band, Andrew Jackson Jihad, was unavailable.) I know Martin, Denton, and Gallaty because I get my morning caffeine fix at this longtime Phoenix institution, known for its hippie vibe and artist-made tchotchkes.
Being a barista by day and a hardcore player by night really doesn't fit the metal mold. But after talking to these guys and hearing some of the madness they've created, I certainly won't be making fun of them for wearing aprons.
Malakai is definitely Denton's baby because the others are wrapped up in various side projects. (Martin fronts a solo endeavor called Empire of the Bear; Gallaty rounds out the Jihad duo with Sean Bonnette; Blue Bachelor drums for johnwaynejefferson and Pogs! and spins drum-and-bass under the moniker Judo Chop.)
Denton tells me that he calls upon a wide range of influences — such as Dungeons & Dragons and classical music — when penning tunes for the group. "When I first started Malakai, I was listening to a shit ton of Godspeed," Denton says, in between breaks of tending to the espresso machine. "I thought it would be really awesome to mix Converge with Godspeed to create really long, orchestrated metal."
The two-year-old band, named after the Children of the Corn character, is about to drop a new album called By All His Engines on Rebuild Records. It's their second album overall and first on the Phoenix rock/punk/metal label, which represents locals such as Red Son and Run with the Hunted. Because the studio effort was recorded in live takes rather than patchworks, the album successfully represents the raw oomph found in their onstage performances.
However, there are certain elements that just can't be re-created when seeing these dudes in person. Like when, during their first-ever gig, Martin broke his hand after repeatedly punching the floor. Or when Denton and Martin ran around the stage in circles while a gore flick played in the background.
The antics go back to high school for Denton and Martin. During a battle of the bands competition at the downtown Hard Rock Café, they nearly destroyed the place. The set ended when Martin, a rather large man who could wreck a joint just by breathing on it, fell into the dining area and kicked speakers onto an audience member.
Martin says, "If you're playing rock, metal, punk, or whatever, it shouldn't be so watered down and lame that a family of five can sit down and eat and be, like, 'Well, isn't this interesting, dear?'"
This no-holds-barred approach has landed the band — and most extreme metal outfits in town — on many venues' blacklists. Recently, Modified Arts and the PHiX instituted a moratorium on hardcore dancing after walls were destroyed and fans were knocked unconscious during brawls.
I can see where venue owners are coming from. I wouldn't want to break up fights or sink money into replacing punched-out dry wall on a regular basis. But I also side with metal's free expression. Tame down the potential rowdiness, and you're killing the experience of a live show. I've witnessed this firsthand at extreme metal and punk shows in the Valley. When people aren't allowed to mosh, it creates a subdued atmosphere where people aren't moving their feet.
The members of Malakai agree. They feel that, compared with those in other cities, Valley metal fans are afraid to show their love for the music. One reason is that most abodes in town don't have basements to hold house shows. Another reason, according to Blue Bachelor, is that security guards at some local venues are thirsty for blood.
"Fans have to deal with this group of meathead bouncers who take 14-year-old kids outside and beat them up for no reason," he says. "I saw a show recently at the Clubhouse, and nobody would move after the second band because I saw eight kids get dragged out just for moshing. There was no fighting or anything."
Martin adds, "When I go to shows, I just stand in my little spot. I don't usually move around unless I know everybody in the audience, or I know the band I am watching, because I don't want to get kicked in the nuts anymore by that backwards-nut-kick thing that [bouncers] do."
So if the good people of Phoenix aren't active participants in the music, what about metal freaks in other cities? I asked Malakai to give me an example, and they told me about Zook Fest in Bellingham, Washington, where they once performed. "It's where drunk punks and metal heads congregate in a circle and puke in unison," Martin says.
"It was crazy," Blue Bachelor says. "This one kid was so excited that he jumped in the puke pile. This other guy who was leaning over got splashed. The dude got pissed, so he grabbed a 40-ounce bottle off the ground and smashed this kid right on the head, who then fell out cold into the vomit. It was the most heinous thing I'd ever seen."
He adds, "Twenty minutes later, they re-created the entire thing so Ben [Gallaty] could take pictures."
A puke-a-thon and blasts in the package are extreme examples of what happens at metal shows. (Don't ask me to choose between the two; I ain't having either.) But, just in case, I think I'll pack a steel-plated crotch cup the next time I hit up a hardcore show in town.
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