If you’ve lived in the Berkeley area anytime between 2002 and now, you’ve likely heard Judgement Day, although you may not know it. Truthfully, the prospect of any mainstream audience “knowing” a group that prides itself on virtuosic violin- and cello-based metal seems a bit ludicrous. But picture yourself walking down Telegraph Avenue on any given weekend. You’ve definitely seen three twentysomethings playing string instruments and a drum kit made out of a Home Depot bucket. Consider this your formal introduction to those three twentysomethings, who started out playing street music and just happened to define a genre along the way.
In 2002, brothers Anton and Lewis Patzner had the same idea as countless Berkeley musicians before them. They would take their violin and cello to the streets in hopes of collecting some additional income. At first they stuck with classical music. No dice.
“Playing fast and hard gets you more tips,” said Anton with a laugh. Thus, string metal was born.
The idea behind the genre is more than just a simple combination of metal riffs and classical instruments, though. If anything, Judgement Day is as heavily influenced by metal as it is by progressive rock, post-rock, and ambient instrumental groups. The band’s driving hooks are distinctly metal, but there is a sprinkled layer of melodic classicism that may remind listeners more of Mozart than Megadeth.
With their band identity and concept in place, the brothers recorded an acoustic EP that they hawked to curious pedestrians. They recruited drummer Jon Bush, began playing fully electric shows, and cut their first electric record, 2004’s Dark Opus. By offering live string sessions to bands that would bring them along on their tours, Judgement Day managed to play with indie staples such as Mates of State, Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s, and Dredg. These connections landed them spots at some of the nation’s biggest festivals, including Lollapalooza, Sasquatch, and All Points West.
Now, with the release of its second LP, Peacocks/Pink Monsters, Judgement Day wants to take string metal in a new direction. It combines classical recording techniques, classical instruments, and modern metal sensibilities. While the brothers likened the creation of the beautifully produced, elaborately packaged, and self-released Peacocks/Pink Monsters to putting out a film, they plan on their new record to take on a different vibe. The band plans to go to a cabin at Sea Ranch in January and record an album live through centralized microphones, which will monitor the music’s focal sound, rather than its specific instruments. It’s the same technique used for choir recordings, and the goal is to capture the fullness and delicacy of the strings in a way that standard recording techniques cannot.
“We’re going for a chamber-music approach to a rock record, but with classical instruments,” Anton said.
The album will be entirely acoustic, but will include the bucket-drum kit of which the band has grown so fond.
“You can get a lot of colors from your instruments, but when you use distortion that spectrum narrows,” said Lewis. “The new record is like a play; we practice hard and then have a sound we can reproduce live.”
The movement back towards acoustic roots is only fitting for the Bay Area trio, which started out live and unplugged, and defined its career mostly on street corners. That’s an essential part of Judgement Day lore. In 2004, the trio busked outside of a Cursive show at the Great American Music Hall. It was a form of ruthless guerilla marketing that actually worked. Members of Cursive were impressed, and later encouraged their label-mates, Bright Eyes, to hire Anton as a mercenary violinist for its upcoming record. Meanwhile, Cursive’s Tim Kasher snagged Lewis for a solo tour which just recently concluded. That’s not to mention the numerous string sessions the group has since provided for groups as diverse as Pete Yorn and Slash.
As a genre, string metal is still evolving. Partly thanks to Judgement Day’s influence, the Bay Area has become a hotbed, with groups like Tornado Rider and The Definite Articles applying their stringed instruments to other styles of rock. The concept of a rock band without guitars may soon cease to sound like a gimmick.
Bush is optimistic. “I think we’ve graduated from being a local band and are now a national band,” he said.
This graduation doesn’t come without remembrance of the unforgettable street performances that have graced Telegraph Avenue. With the untitled acoustic record due in May, Bay Area listeners will soon get classical street metal anytime they want.