Reinventing the Steel

Could Early Man, a quartet from hip NYC signed to Matador Records, be the savior of real-deal metal?

As singer/guitarist for the New York quartet Early Man, Mike Conte has been fortunate enough to witness firsthand the power metal possesses to bring people together. But one such moment, which came toward the tail end of the band's last U.S. tour, stands out in his mind above all the others.

"I looked down and there was this guy in the front row with a plunger in his hand that he'd taken out of the bathroom, and he was smashing the rubber part against the top of somebody's head. Everyone's in the pit going crazy, and this guy's totally beating the shit out of this other dude with a plunger to one of our songs. I don't think they even knew each other, but it was a total connection they were making, and that's what it's all about, you know?

"What's fucked up is that I met that guy later on at some bar," Conte -- speaking over his cell phone as the Early Man tour van approaches the outskirts of Philadelphia, where in a few hours the foursome will launch its latest (and lengthiest) national excursion -- continues, laughing. "I did shots with him, and he was absolutely as genius as his earlier plunging led us to believe. He was bald, he had a goatee, he was pushing 300 pounds ... the quintessential dude you wanna hang out with at a metal show. I'm not even sure he had any idea who I was or anything, but I had an Obituary shirt on and he came over and was like, 'I'm getting my picture taken next to the guy in the Obituary shirt, I don't give a fuck,' and then he yanks his shirt off right there at the bar and grabs me and we got our picture taken together. I mean, I don't know how much more real it gets than that."

The same can be said of Early Man's full-length debut album. Closing In worships at the altar of the Almighty Riff: riffs that gallop and wallop like Kill 'Em All-era Metallica; riffs that crunch low and sinister in a manner usually associated with Tony Iommi's prosthetic fingertips; riffs that really do make you want to thrash your head around, unleash your inner air-guitarist, or spray-paint the band's logo on all your furniture. (Guess what? Closing In even comes with a cardboard Early Man stencil!) The 42-minute disc is like one of those bootleg hockey-fights tapes you can get off of eBay -- on those compilations there's none of that pesky puck handling or nimble skating, just bloodied, toothless goons pummeling the holy hell out of each other. Likewise, there's no masturbatory guitar shredding, experimental noise, or nine-minute journeys through 17 weird time signatures on Closing In, just 180-proof whiplash riffage, pithy solos, and clobbering drums jammed into memorable three- and four-minute songs.

Conte's voice, meanwhile, has two basic settings: Ozzy howl and Hetfield growl (although he occasionally punctuates either with Halford-worthy shrieks). Lyrically, he's just as doom-obsessed as his forebears -- suicide, death, disease, and madness are the primary themes here -- and sometimes he's completely over-the-top, in classic metal fashion. Take "War Eagle," for instance: "I am an eagle made of steel/ Silver bullets cannot pierce my skin/ I am not afraid of mortal men/ Bring them on, bring them on/ I'm cruising at the speed of light/ I'm hunting for your soul tonight/ You're in the cross hairs of my eyes/ Turning mankind's masses into clay/ Crushing all opponents in my way."

But if Early Man's throwback style isn't as grave or artsy as that of some of the underground "thinking man's metal" acts that've been getting loads of press the past couple of years, nor is it the jokey metal of, say, the Darkness. Still, the fact that the group is the first metal band signed to Matador Records -- the renowned indie label that brought us Pavement, Belle & Sebastian, and Interpol -- has led some to question whether Early Man is, indeed, the real deal.

"The thing is, you can do something completely sincerely these days and some people still aren't gonna get it," Conte says. "I think that some people who know we're on Matador or are into the music the label usually puts out are extremely confused by us, and maybe wanna read a bunch of things into it that aren't there. So initially I heard, 'Oh, this is like a wink-wink fuckin' hipster thing, right?' But I think as we go along we're getting beyond that and most people are getting it. But now I still get stuff from interviewers like, 'Don't you think it's so weird that you and Cat Power are on the same label?' Like, OK dude, you think I didn't hear that, like, every day for the first three months that we signed?!"

Yet, he adds, nothing can tarnish the fact that he's getting his music out to the masses after the strange journey that's brought him to this point. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Conte grew up in an extremely religious household that shielded him from virtually all music until he was nearly out of high school. But when he was 17, his 14-year-old uncle (Conte's now-departed grandmother had a child later in life) started a band with some junior high pals, and Conte would sit in the basement watching while they covered Pantera and Megadeth songs.

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