C4AM95, known as the Champs before another group of winners hinted at legal entanglement, play a heavy metal that's refined and highbrow enough for even the most self-conscious of hipsters to enjoy. (The new name, or the new set of digits and letters, uses numbers that resemble the original text when inverted or mirrored.) On III, the mostly instrumental San Francisco three-piece have forged a thick and efficient attack without the excesses of speed metal's wanking guitar solos, acoustic breaks, or bong-shuddering screeching vocals. Perhaps the most outre thing about it is that vocals are rare here, appearing on only three of the 72-minute double album's 25 tunes. Tight, tight, tight rhythm shifts and intertwined guitar lines -- almost like a fistful of Slayer song intros spliced together -- solidify the group's sound.

This is not ironic music. The members of the Champs play lunging and loping thunder-thanatosis because they like it, because they know how to write complex guitar strata, and, perhaps most importantly, because they're adept musicians who can actually pull it off. Sure metal can be silly. As a rule, headbangers take themselves too seriously and often leap overboard into excess. But just because the genre can be cheesy doesn't make it easy to compose and skillfully perform epic and catchy tunes like these elaborate syntheses of British speed metal band Carcass' caffeinated riff shifts, Iron Maiden's triumphant harmonies and ascending melodies, the Melvins' clever intellisludge, and Gary Numan's rigid electro-rock.

At the same time, the band acknowledges, and uses to its advantage, all the cheesy trappings of the genre. There's a rock trilogy ("The Golden Pipes Trilogy"). There are harmonized guitars ("Valkyrie Is Dying," "Now Is the Winter of Our Discoteque"). There are chunky-chugging guitars and neo-classical structures ("Some Swords," "Guns in Our Schools"). The vinyl version comes in a double gatefold sleeve. There's even a thank-you list rivaling Slayer's notoriously extensive plaudits.

Members of the Champs have a pedigree tracing back to hardcore punk renascents. Guitarist Tim Green was with the Nation of Ulysses and Young Ginns; drummer Tim Soete used a guitar in Tail Dragger; and guitarist Josh Smith played with Hydrox. The punk connection makes you suspect that the band treats metal as a goof; that audiences automatically expect tongue-in-cheek histrionics. But instead, listeners are treated to a perfect distillation of every infectious harmonic bend, fifth note, suspended 11th chord, drum triplet, and otherwise orchestral-sounding flair of their favorite heavy metal albums, which have always sounded great until the noodly solos and melodramatic vocals kicked in. Nonetheless, as seamlessly as the Champs churn out multipart instrumental metal, they are equally likely to leap into the icy electronic keyboard whir, synth-guitar chirp, and taut drumming of Gary Numan & Tubeway Army ("Dale Bozzio," referencing the Missing Persons singer) -- perhaps to demonstrate the evolutionary connecting points between Numan's certified "hip" music and its lunky, deprecated mall-rock cousin.

Heavy metal is tradition-ally inclined toward delineations and categorizations -- there's speed metal, there's black metal, there's death metal, there's doom metal, there's art metal, et al. In keeping with that tradition, the Champs deserve their own niche market. Call it austere metal, celebrating their deft subtractions from the form, performed with the precision of true champions.

-- Dave Clifford

Pell Mell
Star City

Interstate, the 1995 major-label debut (and major-label swan song) by the instrumental, bicoastal quartet Pell Mell, was as appropriately titled as it was majestic. Using nothing more than guitars, drums, and organ -- a combination that's constantly threatened with irrelevance in less-able hands -- the band crafted a perfect sonic analogue to a cross-country road trip; everything from the exhilarating promise of endless open road to the bleary-eyed surrealism of a 3 a.m. piss break at an Ohio HoJo's found musical representation within its grooves. More impressive was the melodic economy with which the band accomplished such conjuring; Interstate's riffs boasted a sparsity that would be miserly if it weren't so effec-tively evocative.

Star City, Pell Mell's latest -- released by Matador but recorded for Geffen before the band and the major label parted ways -- boasts another fitting title: This time out, the group turns the momentum vertical and aims for outer space. The results are equally mesmerizing. The band hasn't shucked its sometimes buoyant, sometimes frail succinctness; Pell Mell's rocket ship isn't inherently any more complicated than the roadster they traded in for it. The difference lies in a reshuffling of the tonal palette, and the shift is apparent immediately; on the opening, nebulous "Sky Lobby," keyboardist Steve Fisk plucks lazy notes from the firmament and drops them Earthward. Elsewhere, Fisk takes his cue from Pere Ubu's Allen Ravenstine, slathering "Salvo" and "Lowlight" with otherworldly burbles and chirps. But Pell Mell are driven by the sound of rhyming guitars (in addition to main picker Dave Spalding, bassist Greg Freeman and drummer Bob Beerman also pull six-string duty), and that's where Star City's most dramatic departures occur -- if you hear a guitar, there's a good chance that it's been dragged backward through a sampler or stretched out of shape with warbly delay. The overall effect is decidedly less rockist than Interstate's Duane Eddy twang and stark spy lines, and it's tempting to suggest that the texture-conscious influence of latter-day ambient artists is at work. As a band that's half-composed of producers, though (Fisk has pushed faders for the likes of Nirvana and the Wedding Present; local resident Freeman has helmed a sizable portion of San Francisco's recorded output -- from Flophouse to Thinking Fellers), they're almost predisposed to such studio shenanigans; it's only remarkable that they didn't take it further.

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