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Hero Worship

Try to explain the depraved ethos behind films like Eli Roth's new grindhouse pic Hostel to anyone other than a fan of the horror genre, and you'll most likely elicit a series of concerned looks. The same goes for explaining hardcore death metal. Some people just don't get it. And...
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Try to explain the depraved ethos behind films like Eli Roth's new grindhouse pic Hostel to anyone other than a fan of the horror genre, and you'll most likely elicit a series of concerned looks. The same goes for explaining hardcore death metal. Some people just don't get it. And like splatter films, stout beer or kinky sex, it's just not for them. But times are changing.

Entertainment previously considered only viable in an underground market is beginning to rear its wonderfully ugly head in the mainstream. And judging by the swelling number of hardcore metal acts in the Valley of the Sun -- and fans' surging demand for shows and CDs -- more and more people have the craving for the sickeningly savory taste of bone-crushing, hyper-concussive metal. Understandably, that's good news for Tempe's own king of grind, And the Hero Fails, which is unleashing its newest self-released slab, Empire Smile, on the world this week.

The down-to-earth guys from ATHF don't play love songs, they'll beat anyone at mercy, and they're all recently converted carnivores. Well, almost all of them.

"Rob's the last man standing," says guitarist Matt London as he chuckles through a mouthful of beef-loaded potatoes and Bud Light, speaking of ATHF vocalist Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez is the only non-flesh-eater left in ATHF, formerly an entirely vegetarian band. In fact, lead guitarist Ian Roe converts by mistake during the interview with New Times, after wolfing down half a plate of jumbo quesadillas he specifically ordered without chicken. Word to vegans everywhere -- don't trust Applebee's.

"Ah, hell, I guess I'm not a vegetarian no more," Roe lightheartedly quips, showing the chicken-sullied snack for the whole table to see.

You'd never peg the guys of ATHF as lighthearted listening to their crashing music, though. ATHF's bombastic sound implies something more along the lines of a battalion marching out to prepare for a ground napalm fire mission.

Formed two years ago with singer/squealer Rodriguez, guitarists Roe and London, drummer Dustin Vaughan and bassist Mike Villa, ATHF recorded Empire Smile last November with knobmeister Larry Elyea at Mind's Eye Digital in Mesa. Elyea has worked with everyone from Jimmy Eat World and Eminem to Authority Zero and the Beastie Boys.

"Larry rules -- he is God," Vaughan blurts out. The rest of the band members nod in approval. Considering what Elyea got out of the musicians and onto disc, you'd have to agree. Empire Smile deals out deadly doses of bomb-blast music so heavy you'll need a crane to put the seven-track CD in your player. Coming in at less than 30 minutes, the entire disc sounds like a hellish machine generating the power for another world. Guitars whir like gears, drums beat like pistons, and the whole ensemble rattles with an unearthly energy. For the dilettante listener, it would be easy to miss the nuance and technicality in the songwriting -- some songs have more than 15 time changes and log more than 2,800 kick drum hits. To explain the sound appropriately, you almost need new words. Musical terms that hardcore bands like ATHF have spawned will no doubt end up canonized as proper musical terminology hundreds of years from now.

"We have our own weird words to communicate what we mean, guitar and drum-wise," says Vaughan. Vaughan and the guys laugh while describing various terms -- "chuncha," "boyyeerrrrrryyyyy," and "dunka dunka chunch chunch chunch" -- that make perfect sense once you hear these visceral songs.

The band's musical chops are surpassed only by its sense of humor and its drummer's mad mercy skills.

"Dude, Dustin will destroy anyone at mercy," says a grinning London. He's right -- don't try it. This reporter tried and lost. You will, too. Even though the guys like to have a good time, don't get the idea that they aren't serious.

"We're all totally committed to doing this," Villa explains.

Roe chimes in, "We tell our significant others and our bosses that the band comes first -- that's just how it is."

So it's no wonder ATHF has developed such a strong following and played with so many national hardcore metal acts -- the band tours, practices, and parties together nonstop.

"We've played with Chimera, Bane, The Agony Scene, Evergreen Terrace -- the list goes on and on," says Rodriguez.

ATHF upholds its heavy reputation with allegorical song titles like "His Imperial Victory" or "Sun of Man," and Rodriguez pens lyrics that avoid the typical misogynistic heavy metal clichés in favor of stories of realistic class struggles and the war that will end the world.

"You can plug any pair of warring world powers into the lyrics of the songs, and they'll fit," says Rodriguez.

Songs like "A Massacre Prevents a War" examine symbolic concepts that parallel many current events -- from controversial miscues of the war in Iraq to the mistreatment of immigrants, illegal and otherwise. In it, Rodriguez howls, "One alive is worth five dead, a bullet right through the back of the head," with enough low-hertz energy to microwave a Circle K bean burrito.

"We like to keep it light," he jokes. When asked which tune is the love song, the whole band laughs. "We don't do love songs!" Fans don't seem to mind.

With the demand for hardcore acts at an all-time high, and judging by the recent success of other local hardcore metal bands like Job for a Cowboy and Abigail Williams, ATHF is hitting at the right time and in the right place. And if a film as fiendishly sadistic as Hostel can have a $20 million opening weekend and beat Narnia out of the number one box office position, it might not be long before ATHF and its hardcore cohorts are bumping off 50 Cent and Kelly Clarkson from the Billboard charts.

One could only hope.

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