Band of Brothers

Presenting the 27-year career of Stone Vengeance, the most ass-kickin' metal band ever to come out of Bayview-Hunters Point

So yeah, Stone Vengeance has been around the block, as evidenced by an upcoming gig on April 21, when the group will appear at Rampage Radio's 24th anniversary show. Rampage Radio, a KUSF institution, championed most of those acts I just mentioned when they were still hawking underground cassette demos to their fans. SV's highly coveted four-song rehearsal tape from 1985 is one such cassette, a reissue of which I recently ordered. Here Lies Stone Vengeance 1987, a gorgeous limited-edition, emerald green 12-inch containing the music on said cassette as well as four additional tracks from 1987, was put together by Doomed Planet Records (based in Fremont), a label specializing in classic if absurdly abstruse Bay Area metal from the '80s.

Anyway, despite the fact that Stone Vengeance's live act continues to kick some serious ass (and is a fixture on the metal festival circuit), it's this LP as well as the aforementioned self-titled cassette from 1990 that comprise the group's zenith as a recording unit (whereas 2004's The Angel CD misses the mark). The trio's rapid-fire jackhammer aesthetic is wholly unlike any heavy metal that I've ever heard before, lending credence to Coffey's admission that he, regardless of whom the group has played with or what scene dug its jams, "didn't hang with rockers. We didn't even know about that scene when we first started." I find this intriguing because the white-hot skull-fucking speed metal captured on Here Lies Stone Vengeance 1987 does feel like it was created in relative isolation, by individuals who were forging their own path through the great cultural forest. Loose, elastic, and explorative like the fiercest jazz, as well as gut-level visceral like hardcore punk and sweaty old-school funk, these jammers are a novel fusion of certain styles, sounds, and ideas that wouldn't have been married if Coffey, Starks, and Tompkins hadn't been self-taught musicians living outside the narrowly circumscribed definitions of what's hip and unhip endemic to any and all music scenes, black or white, metal or funk or whatever.

On such epics as "Stone Vengeance," "The Persecution," "Malice," and "To Kill Evil," Coffey transforms his axe into a screaming, helter-skelter power drill; his licks are vicious, atonal spikes that -- believe it or not -- explode with that old-school Wild Style swing. No metal guitarist was attempting anything like this then or now, just as no shrieking, leather-clad frontman has ever matched Coffey's vocal versatility. Echo-laden doom-speak explodes into operatic soprano wails that then die down, making way for clipped, jive-talking monologues narrating the never-ending battle between heaven and hell, good and evil, etc. In fact, according to Coffey, "We believe in God, but we are not a religious band. We are not goody-two-shoes. If I'm in the mood, I may sing about something I read in the Bible, but the next minute, I might be singing about Minka." Indeed, Coffey and Starks have both written several tunes chronicling the dark times each one has had to experience. Coffey's "Pain," for example, is about what he felt when, "My woman got all fucked-up on crack, and I was home dealing with my children."

Stone Vengeance: Michael Coffey, Darren Tompkins, and Anthony Starks, standing with only a portion of Coffey's collection of Marshall amps.
Paul Trapani
Stone Vengeance: Michael Coffey, Darren Tompkins, and Anthony Starks, standing with only a portion of Coffey's collection of Marshall amps.

As for Starks and Tompkins, they not only maintain tense, breakneck tempos, but they are also both Coffey's equals as forceful, dynamic soloists. Starks' fingers dance across those four thick strings as intricately as his hero's, Steve Harris of Iron Maiden. Interestingly, funk does inform his frantic fretwork, but he never employs that god-awful slap-pop technique. Fuck that Fishbone stuff. It's about Starks smoothly incorporating syncopation and some fierce string-bending into these propulsive bass lines that flow like a raging stream.

A similar mixture can also be discerned in Tompkins' beats, which are often long, precariously constructed sequences of these stuttering, chaotic fills. Tompkins even served time in an R&B cover band before falling in with Coffey and Starks, the three of them having attended the now-defunct Woodrow Wilson High School over on Mansell Street. That's where they initially met while shootin' hoops, where the upperclassman Coffey would come down on anybody picking on "my brother" Starks, and where an early incarnation of Stone Vengeance even performed at the school talent show.

Now, that was a long time ago. And yet, even though Stone Vengeance only put out one real classic record, and even though its days of opening for Slayer are long gone, the band continues to kick asses and blow minds -- such as my wife's! Hell, she's the one who turned me on to the Vengeance in the first place, after catching the band at the 2003 Tidal Wave Festival at the John McLaren Park Amphitheater. There, before an amped-up audience consisting of both white and black metalheads, Tompkins and Starks were, as the bassist likes to say, "going off," while Coffey, sporting skintight black and metallic-gold pants, a black leather vest, and no shirt, danced about the stage, firing off an endless succession of solos and suggestively flicking his tongue at several females in the audience, my wife included. On top of their being "awesome musicians," she dug these dudes because they seemed like true individuals who didn't give a rat's ass about what anybody thought of them. And I need to agree. Coffey, Starks, and Tompkins are total anomalies on so many levels: cultural, musical, racial, and on and on. And they don't give a fuck. These freaks are never running with the herd. God bless 'em.

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