The Death Machinists

And you will know Oakland thrashers the Mass by the trail of dead elves.

Most heavy bands content themselves with stomping on your head; a scant few possess the guile and acumen to truly blow your mind. On this December night we gather at SF’s Bottom of the Hill to pay homage to one of the latter: the Fucking Champs, a moderately pretentious but majestically pulverizing trio specializing in a bassless guitar sorcery the band calls “Total Music.” After a significant absence, the Champs have triumphantly returned, the club is sold out beyond all comprehension, and there’s just one more opening band to slog through, so it shouldn’t be long now before … oh, shit.

Suddenly our blown minds are bouncing up Potrero Hill like flaming spare tires.

Nothing on earth is more delightful than the Sneak-Attack Awesome Opening Band, replacing your jaded weariness with wonder, your apathy with awe. It’s a near-religious experience, appropriate in this instance, as wanton Oakland metalheads the Mass represent the S-AAOB in question.

The live Mass experience is akin to speed-reading a Brothers Karamazov-sized history of metal in 45 minutes: from time-honored badass shredding to involuntary stoner head-bobbing, from epileptic shrieking to Cookie Monster grunting, from unchained melodies to unhinged mayhem. Most of it subscribes to the Hardcore Feng Shui principle, in which every object in the room — the speed, the time signature, the volume, the tone, the lyrics, the point — is violently rearranged every twenty seconds.

Secret weapon: Frontman Matt Waters’ saxophone. In lesser hands this could devolve into an atonal, literally one-note gimmick — grunt, bleat, screech, arrggh. But Matt has seventeen years of sax expertise, influences from Mingus to Meshuggah to Creedle, and actual ideas, flipping his horn’s phasers from “Shrieking Tempest” to “Slow and Mournful” to “I Own No New York,” lingering finally on “Holy $%^&@!!,” wherein he and guitarist Tom O’Donnell embark on synchronized single-note solo runs like some sort of demon-spawn Thin Lizzy monstrosity. Unbelievable.

“I’m just tryin’ to play punk,” Matt says a few days later, lounging at Oakland’s Golden Bull. This is not immediately evident upon perusing the Mass’ latest, City of Dis, out for a year now in Europe, but only enjoying widespread American release, uh, this week, via Virginia label Crucial Blast. Though the live Mass experience reigns supreme, you will still vastly enjoy this record, although the more skittish and close-minded among you will not. Say, for example, Napalm Death frontman Mark “Barney” Greenway, who dissed Dis in Kerrang!, England’s heavy-music Koran.

“He’s, like, not havin’ the sax at all,” Matt says. “It’s pretty funny.”

“Crikey, do the Mass like blowing their reeds,” Greenway wrote. “Said sax careens over crunching riffage and song titles rise to levels of sheer f**kwittery without apology. However many time changes the Mass can incorporate into their jagged arrangements, they do little that other wacksters haven’t driven you to distraction with recently. Nevertheless, Mike Patton would pinch a loaf in appreciation.”

Nice image, Barney.

“I thought he would be a little more open-minded,” drummer Tyler Cox adds. “All of his criticisms he threw at us, I could throw right back at him. He said that what we were doing is not original, but all he does is get onstage and grunt. How hard is that?”

Not that he doesn’t indulge in a bit of grunting himself now and then. Unlike bassist Matt Solberg’s other band, the equally exhilarating and politically immersed From Monument to Masses, the Mass don’t necessarily have a ideological gospel to preach. The most poignant lyrical message on Dis is grunted a cappella — HOO-DEE HOO-DEE HA! HOO-DEE HOO-DEE HA HA!

Instead, the boys busy themselves making sense of the nonsensical. The Hardcore Feng Shui approach to metal is high fashion at the moment, refined by California’s legendary Mr. Bungle and currently embodied by the lavishly praised Dillinger Escape Plan. But going apeshit every twenty seconds is tougher than it looks — in the wrong hands it’s contrived, rhythmless, inelegant, pointless. Avoiding that mire is a constant battle, one the Mass continues now on its in-progress new record, produced, as Dis was, by Fucking Champ Tim Green.

“I think we spent, in general, a little more time on the songs, tryin’ to make them stick together somehow, rather than just be, like, collages of nonsense,” notes Tyler, who also pounds drums maniacally for Oaktown heavy rock purveyors Totimoshi. He contends the Mass’ schizophrenia is unintentional — “We actually never really are going for that. It just happens. But I can always hear the thread running through it. I don’t know if other people can or not. Sometimes it’s a thin thread, but I can always hear it, to some degree.”

So look for a further refined dose of Mass hysteria in early fall 2005 (Europe) and mid-2009 (everywhere else, evidently). But in the interim, Dis will delight and demolish you, particularly the Tolkienian epic “We Enslaved Elves to Build Our Death Machine,” perhaps the only song for which the band has contrived an actual narrative arc, such as it is.

“It’s like, elves, workin’ in a factory, just toiling day after day, to build this outrageous monstrous machine,” Matt explains. “And then there’s a kind of a coup, like a revolt, and they all get together, and there’s a quiet part in the middle of the song where they’re all plotting it out. They’re planning this takeover, but they don’t realize that the death machine that they made is so amazing, that, like, immediately after the quiet part, they just all get killed, instantly. There’s the revolt, there’s the planning, and then there’s a part that’s, like, a call to action, this visual of the elves yelling to each other from across the factory, signaling. And then it’s useless. They all just get steamrolled.”

Matt pauses only once during this story to note, “It’s so stupid.” Perhaps, but all the same, the resultant steamrolling is not optional.

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