By Erin Sherbert
By Howard Cole
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
Over the Labor Day weekend,while a healthy segment of the local nightlife population was busy at Burning Man, practicing hedonism and learning how to keep desert sand out of orifices, a festival of a different stripe slouched into San Francisco. An epic extravaganza of underground metal sounds from here and abroad, "Three Days of Darkness" presented some 20 bands and delivered more doom than a psychotic Pentecostal preacher on a weeklong crack bender.
Though the festival definitely lived up to its own billing (a "vomitorium of rock from the dark side"), "Three Days of Darkness" managed to include one small concession to more mainstream hard rock tastes. Tucked away in the second slot of the opening Friday night show at the Elbo Room, the San Francisco-based quartet Dirty Power didn't come armed with the massive amplification or punishing, Sabbath-at-16-rpms drone that most of the bands dealt out that evening. Instead, the group unleashed a ferocious set that unabashedly spotlighted the dueling lead guitars, anthemic choruses, and cowbell-banging backbeats of a bygone era.
Legs splayed apart in a rock power stance, frontman Patrick (aka Patrock) Goodwin sang in a gruff growl punctuated by wails that would have done Deep Purple's resident air-raid siren, Ian Gillan, proud. Goodwin and fellow guitarist Steve Perrone tag-teamed riffs and shared intricate, harmonized licks, all while bassist Nick Ulman and drummer Jeff Potts pushed the tracks forward with relentless rhythmic fury.
It wouldn't have been unusual for the underground metal audience to have turned up its collective nose at a band so rooted in traditional hard rock. But the gargantuan hooks and balls-out power of the band drew the crowd in, inducing the involuntary head-bobbing and fist-pumping that classic AC/DC and Judas Priest songs can inspire, if jacked to the proper volume. After Dirty Power wrapped its set, the subsequent down-tuned doom acts couldn't help but come off as a bit monochromatic.
John Cobbett, the founder of the long-running metal club Lucifer's Hammer and a principal member of ambitious conceptual headbangers Hammers of Misfortune and the black metal band Ludicra, affirmed the strength of Dirty Power: "A lot of the hard rock bands that are drawing at clubs these days are these really fucking pathetic tribute bands, which I think is a totally sad comment not only on the state of music but our entire fucking culture these days ...
"Dirty Power isn't reinventing the wheel; what they're doing is really straight-ahead hard rock. But it works because they're totally unaffected and they write great songs. They do it right and draw from all the best influences, without ripping off any one band too much.
"Punk pretty much killed the idea of using dynamics and melody beyond what you can do with a barre chord. Making the kind of hard rock that was made in the '70s is really a dying art, and Dirty Power is doing its part to keep that alive."
Winning over the attendees at "Three Days of Darkness" might not have been such a stretch for Dirty Power. There are, after all, only a few degrees of heaviness separating the dynamic, '70s-style songwriting of the band and the sludgy, riff-mongering appropriations of your average doom metallers.
Still, the positive reception raised the question: What could Dirty Power do, opening for the hard rock warhorses who periodically pass through the Bay Area? If given a chance to preach to the truly converted graybeard Hessians who make the trek from the suburban reaches of Concord and Pittsburg to see Blue Oyster Cult or Dio, could the group come across as giants who had stepped through a portal from an alternative universe where their songs were played twice an hour on AOR radio stations across the country?
In an era when recycled no-wave, new wave, and dance-punk have emerged as dominant forces in the musical landscape, discussion of classic metal and a hard rock resurrection might seem pointless. Why talk about a style of music built on defunct or aging bands, an aging fan base, and a radio format that seems to be going the way of the dinosaur?
Well, if our ears and airwaves can be subjected to a whole new generation of moping, whining rockers who sport asymmetrical haircuts and skinny ties, there is no particular reason that the goat-horn-rocking sound of balls-out, riff-heavy mayhem shouldn't rise again.
Entering into a conversation about classic metal/hard rock with a fan of the style will likely produce a very subjective and highly personal take on what defines a great band or what the best albums are. But most headbangers would probably agree that the true beginnings of metal are planted in the release of Black Sabbath's self-titled debut album in 1970.
One could, of course, point to the heavy blues workouts of Cream or Led Zeppelin, the guitar pyrotechnics of Jimi Hendrix, or even the acid-damaged power-trio squall of San Francisco's Blue Cheer as Sabbath predecessors. No one, however, can deny that the ominous vibe and oppressive atmosphere achieved on songs like "Black Sabbath" and "Wicked World" was new to the world of rock music.
To quote writer Ian Christie's authoritative and immensely entertaining history of metal, Sound of the Beast, "Emerging like the monolith in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey ... Black Sabbath was as irreducible as the bottomless sea, the everlasting sky, and the mortal soul." Leaving sunny optimism to those who clung to the wilting remnants of '60s flower-power rock, Sabbath set the bar of heaviness high for countless bands that would follow suit and help provide a new soundtrack for the disaffected (and, yes, often wasted) youth of the Western world.
As the 1970s progressed, different outfits twisted the metallic template laid down by Sabbath, expanding the genre into a diverse and many-headed beast. Fellow Birmingham blokes Judas Priest added speed, a twin-guitar attack, and the unearthly screams of singer Rob Halford to the equation; Motörhead and AC/DC applied volume and aggression, injecting new life into tired Chuck Berry riffs; and Thin Lizzy mixed in complex harmonized guitar leads and the soulful Irish poetry of Phil Lynott.
Though routinely lambasted by critics as macho and puerile, the fist-pumping songs of the '70s became the foundation for classic hard rock radio and are still devoured by audiences. It's as if these bands were conducting experiments: They would take pop hooks that pleased the ear and try to increase the production of endorphins in the brain through sheer volume.
Judging by their continuing impact, these scientists of hard rock succeeded.
In channeling two-fisted power rock with such conviction, Dirty Power is effective at least in part because the band arrived at its sound organically. The guitar-centric tunes of the '70s definitely played a role in forming their musical tastes -- Goodwin's older brothers took him, at the age of four, to see KISS in concert -- but the members brought a diverse range of decidedly unmetallic experiences to the table.
The two guitarists arrived at my house for an interview dressed in the same camouflage shorts, jeans, and T-shirts they might wear while playing onstage. Goodwin looked the part of the seasoned rocker with his close-cropped hair and longish goatee; skin art paid homage to the Beatles and KISS with a tattoo of a Sgt. Pepper's logo on his left arm and images from the Unmasked album cover on his right. The sharp-featured Perrone, on the other hand, couldn't have looked more like an unassuming regular guy (until, of course, he has a screaming Gibson SG in his hands). The pair laughed easily at and with each other as they discussed their influences and the history of the band.
Having served as lead guitarist in the pioneering queer core act Pansy Division, Goodwin boasts the highest-profile resume in the band. Onetime skater Ulman cut his teeth on punk, metal, and industrial sounds, but somehow ended up playing bass with Marin roots-rockers ING. Perrone and Potts anchored Planet Seven, a surf combo that intertwined elements of punk and space rock into their wave-riding soundtracks.
Surprisingly, Planet Seven acted as a catalyst for Dirty Power's formation in late 2000. "For the last three or four gigs that Planet Seven played, we had Patrick filling in on bass," Perrone explained. "He and Jeff had known each other for about 10 years prior to that. When Planet Seven broke up, we still had the same rehearsal space, so we all started fooling around with stuff."
That stuff included one completed song Goodwin brought to the table along with a few germinating ideas. Bass player Ulman, another friend of Goodwin's, was soon brought into the fold. The jam sessions quickly headed in a harder direction. "Patrick would show us something that could have been written by the Posies, and we'd all go, 'Uh ... lets play that thing that sounds like it's from Sabbath Volume 4 again!'" remembered Perrone with a grin.
A series of benefits highlighting the plight of local musicians during the rampant rehearsal-space closings of the dot-com era, the "One Night Stand" concerts at Slim's gave ad hoc groups a chance to play covers of their favorite songs. Though one of the ideas behind the evenings was to bring together people who weren't already in working bands, the foursome's indeterminate status helped them sneak past that restriction. The first song the quartet played in public was the Thin Lizzy anthem "Jailbreak." Then "C'mon C'mon" by Cheap Trick, "Unchained" by Van Halen, and AC/DC's "For Those About to Rock" rounded out their "One Night Stand" repertoire. According to the guitarist, "That's kind of when we figured out we were a band," Goodwin said.
Settling on the moniker Dirty Power (an electrical term for an energy source that has irregular voltage), the crew continued to develop original material, genuflecting at the altar of rock gods such as Sabbath, Lizzy, AC/DC, and Motörhead but never resorting to the wholesale appropriation. After the band's first real gig, at the Eagle, Bottom of the Hill owner Ramona Downey extended an open invitation for the band to play at her club.
Another early supporter was local punk impresario Sluggo, aka Douglas F. Cawley. A musician in his own right, the Boston expatriate befriended Goodwin during the early '90s. As he recalled in an e-mail, "At first, I was reasonably impressed, though not any more than I had expected, knowing Patrick. Then I saw them at the Bottom of the Hill and noticed a lot more good songs.
"After a while, they seemed to get exponentially better with every show."
Sluggo had recently formed Dead Teenager Records with ex-Zeke drummer Donny Paycheck and Ben Rew, the singer from Paycheck's new outfit Camarosmith. He started hatching plans to get Dirty Power signed to the label and, more important, to have the band record with his go-to producer, Seattle studio wizard Jack Endino.
Thanks to his work with seminal Northwesterners Nirvana, Mudhoney, and Soundgarden, Endino had a reputation for engineering huge guitar sounds and seemed a perfect choice to capture Dirty Power in the studio. Arriving with material honed to a razor edge, the band laid down the tracks in the space of a week. Though the producer had never met the band, according to an e-mail from Ulman, "He really knew what we were going for, sound-wise. He's like the Tim Burton of the music business: part mad scientist, part accomplished artist." Drummer Potts had equally high praise: "Recording can be pretty boring, but Jack kept us excited through the whole process. I remember the first time we sat and listened to the whole CD, I totally blew my package!"
The final product was, indeed, impressive. Blasting out of the speakers like some long-lost hard-rock gem from 1976, the dueling-guitar crunch and razorwire hooks of Dirty Power's songs, enhanced by the old-school, analog warmth of Endino's production, dealt out a sonic thump to the sternum. Though moments of nitro-burning aggression -- particularly on "Drag You Down" and "Lady Danzig" -- flirted with punk, the album stuck mostly to the formula that had gotten the band recognized: great songs and all-out delivery.
Endino called Sluggo at his home and told him in a low, serious voice that the album was the best thing he'd done since Nirvana's Bleach.
In a perfect world, the release of Dirty Power's self-titled debut would have been quickly followed with a tour, the band opening for -- and likely destroying -- headlining rock veterans. Instead, the band got caught in a power struggle between the label's owners. Sluggo was enthusiastic about getting the album into stores; his partners had a Camarosmith record to promote and wanted to push the Dirty Power release back. Sluggo did what he felt he had to do: He sold his interest in Dead Teenager to Paycheck and Rew and walked away with the rights to the Dirty Power album.
The label fiasco put something of a damper on the CD, even though it received excellent reviews. Nevertheless, Dirty Power managed to put together its first large-scale tour away from the West Coast. Some of the shows had less than stellar attendance, but the band got a solid response in certain areas, particularly the South. More important, the band withstood a month on the road with a minimum of friction. In Ulman's words, "We were all scrambling to get Prozac prescriptions before the tour, just in case. But we managed fine without. It was cool."
In the year since, Dirty Power has mostly stayed local, working on new material. Though the band struggled with the decision of whether to put out a full album or an EP, finances have dictated the latter. Everyone involved would just as soon have headed up to Seattle for another collaboration with Endino. (For his part, the producer states flat-out: "I'd kill to work with 'em again.") But the new EP, A Muscle the Size of a Heart,made with local producer/musician Doug Hilsinger for Sluggo's new Wondertaker Records, shows they have lost nothing in the way of songwriting firepower.
The burly riffs of "This Wasp" and "My Amphetamine" and the Deep Purple intensity of the comically titled "What Would Mountain Do?" all sound as if they could stand comfortably in the playlist for classic rock station 107.7 FM (aka The Bone). And if ever a part of the radio industry were in dire need of new blood, it's the stations that continue to rely on the canon of 1970s hard rock. Outside of Guns N' Roses' sleazy punk redux of Aerosmith and the blatant Faces/Stones pastiche of The Black Crowes, there's long been a dearth of new material for classic hard rock stations.
As it turns out, The Bone DJ Billy Steel not only likes the band, he's actually played Dirty Power on air a number of times. "The catch-22 of being a hard rock band in the U.S. today, especially a straightforward hard rock band like Dirty Power -- and they're damn good -- is that they fall through the cracks because they're not playing 'flavor of the day' hard rock ... I'm in a fortunate position because I have the freedom to be able to play the local bands I like. But me playing Dirty Power here and there, in the grand scheme of things -- I don't know if that's going to give them the lift they really need. With all hard rock and metal bands, the way that they carve a niche is to get out there and tour. The only way to really do it is to get out there in front of the people; the people will decide."
Perhaps what needs to happen for Dirty Power to achieve the widespread attention that its songs merit is some sort of full-blown hard rock and metal revival that would completely take over the airwaves and force MTV to introduce true headbanging back into its daytime rotation. But what are the chances of that?
According to Live 105 music director Aaron Axelsen, the idea isn't half-baked: "There's a cyclical pattern to how a style of music rises to popularity. Younger listeners are much more prone to latching onto something unfamiliar. In fact, sometimes the distance is necessary; kids often won't go for something an older sibling listens to out of that desire of discovery.
"Music that has a second wave of popularity usually skips a generation [and] every new movement in the modern rock era has had a flagship band like Nirvana or The White Stripes. Look at The Darkness. They ended up being more of a novelty band, but the potential was there. If a band came along and somehow combined the hooks of The Darkness with the edge of, say, Queens of the Stone Age, it could happen."
Mention of The Darkness and that band's histrionic, bodystocking-clad invasion of MTV this past summer elicits varying reactions from the members of Dirty Power. When I brought up the subject to Goodwin and Perrone, they looked at each other, let out sighs, and started laughing. Perrone deferred to his bandmate in giving the response, waving him on: "You get more passionate about it ..."
Goodwin shook his head and gave a bemused chuckle. "I don't hate them, but I don't see why people got so freaked out about them," he said. "I thought it was silly and cute and fun, but then I started seeing all these articles about how they were the saviors of rock 'n' roll. It was the cheese factor that definitely turned me off."
Ulman unloaded more serious vitriol in an e-mail: "It's all the label's way of making a 'pseudo-metal boy band,' and I ain't havin' any of it ... I'm sure when their tour bus crashes and kills them, Phil Lynott will be there with a rusty nail in a 2x4 waiting to kick some ass, poltergeist-style."
In truth, if Lynott were still around today, the hard-living Irishman would probably give Dirty Power's gritty anthems the nod over the affected unitard gimmickry of The Darkness. And even if we're at a point in history when the masses enjoy their iron-fisted riffs with a side order of irony, there will always be a sizable audience for the primal fury of testosterone-fueled guitars. And when MTV tries to pass off some group of young, perfectly coiffed, rail-thin poseurs in leather pants and vintage metal T-shirts as the next objects of retro-rock idolatry, the metal men of Dirty Power will emerge from the shadows, knock the skinny kids from their perch, and triumphantly assume their rightful place as heirs to the throne of hard rock.