More than Just a Name:
Trends come and go, rising and falling like the tides. Nowhere is that more evident than among the youth of today. One day, everybody's talking about "the hottest new band to hit the airwaves since The Beatles" (an idea as fundamentally stupid as it is cliché). For weeks, you can't so much as go to your locker between classes without hearing some congregation huddled off in the corner talking about who's the coolest member, what's the best track off the album, and so on and so forth until your head is spinning with so much information that you're ready to vomit.
Time goes by, and just when you think you're finally up to date with who's who and can finally hold a cogent conversation about said band without looking or feeling like an idiot, one of the many hallway lurkers looks at you with some degree of pitying contempt and says something like "Dude, those guys are crap. Now these guys," (the lurker is apt to produce a CD or magazine article of some kind at this point), "THESE guys are awesome; you gotta check 'em out! Get with the times!"
Thus, another flock of fledgling talent is banished to the foreboding land of the Flavor of the Month with but a roll of the eyes, another fallen soldier in the popularity wars. Sound farfetched? Spend enough time wandering the halls of any local conformist factory and you'll see for yourself. Today's generation seem to have lost the capacity for sound judgment of and appreciation for the art of metal. "If it's not on MTV, it can't be any good!" their unfortunate war-cry.
Still, I recognize not everyone shares this mindset, nor is it true of all legendary bands. You'd have to be an idiot not to have at least heard of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, or Deep Purple. Yet, while not regarded as a legend in the eyes of the mainstream, one name graces the pages of history and local folklore, and even catches the curious ear of the youth on occasion: Systex.
Systex have helped put Canadian metal on the map, defining and re-defining the often blurred boundaries between the many sub-genres. The band's early music reflects the intricate tapestry of blues-driven bass lines and borrowing a thread from the Bay Area thrash scene of the early '80s (a nod back to a simpler time), creating their own unique style that to this day eludes official definition among the many genres of music. Notorious for their self-promotion and clinging to the "rock purist" persona, Systex have never made a music video or appeared on any MTV/VH1 or similar channels, choosing to self-produce all their albums; albums which never find favor with critics or the mainstream yet still command great respect and devotion to the local underground metal scene.
Systex concerts are among the most popular item on the underground ticket market, T-shirts and albums snapped up quick at local shows. A feat rivaling those of other giant names in the metal world, (Metallica's last show in town sold out in three hours as an example), remarkable by many standards, considering the Vancouver-based quintet hasn't put out any new original material in almost five years, or held many shows for that matter.
The last Systex album came out in the early 2000s, a live recording of the band's one night only appearance at the renowned Richards on Richards (now The Red Room). Nobody has seen or heard much from the band, or its (in) famous frontman Richard Demin outside of a handful of shows. Some of the original members have moved on; some are still in the industry today with different bands, others have stepped out of the spotlight entirely. One wonders how the corporatized metal scene of today would look if Richard Demin and Systex decide not to stick around for one last encore...
My hands hang over the keyboard, unsure how to continue, if I should even bother. Judging by the little ticker at the corner of the webpage reading TIMES VIEWED, barely anybody is reading my blogs and the rare ones who do are prone to leaving troll bait out in the open. I feel like giving up and scrapping the post when a flurry of beeps drew my attention back to the screen: 1 NEW COMMENT.
I pull up the web browser and click on the link to my site, something that I might not do if given the choice to go back and do it all over. Some unknown in the ever-evolving ephemeral realm that is the internet has decided to make my day a little worse by offering less than constructive criticism about my taste and writing style, where my head is at and advice on consulting appropriate medical personnel to remedy said problem. I roll my eyes and close the laptop.
These days, all I seem to attract are trolls and most of them can't even spell worth a damn. I don't know what it is about people who feel the need to sh-t on everything. What is it that fuels this need to paint the world a little darker? The only things more ridiculous are the people who waste time starting and fueling flame wars. Is there some sub-reptilian part of the brain that compels us to be drawn to trouble the ways moths will draw close to light? How many people do you know who see these people fishing for suckers with bait detectable from a mile away; throwing out juicy little tidbits like "So and so sucks, only fags listen to (insert name of band in question) so you must be a f-g," and can just keep on walking? Not very many, from what I've seen. Maybe it's something else. Fate perhaps, or one hell of a lucky streak (or unlucky depending on your point of view, I guess). Sometimes it feels like it's almost not worth trying anymore, the voice that encourages quitting whispers a little louder, just stick to playing the music instead of writing about it. The problem is that one ought to be part of a band that's actually intact before attempting the former.
I check my watch and decide to start heading to work, even though I'm not due to start for another hour. I head to my room to start changing when my phone begins buzzing deep within my pocket. I pull it out and read the new message. "Funky's tonight, you down?" It's from Stephen, the only guy I've bothered to keep in touch with since leaving school, the only one whom I'd actually call "friend."
I snort, partly out of amusement, and text back, saying I'm working the closing shift, but can make it out later if others plan to stick around. This is confirmed, and I'm once more encouraged to attend. Scoping the joint before the gig, eh? I think, my thumbs attacking the buttons.
"Everyone's gonna B there!"
"Cool. See you around 10?"
"C U there!"
I grab my keys from the fruit bowl on the counter with my free hand, rolling my eyes again. I don't care how easier it is, I'll be damned if I'll ever resort to using shorthand in my texts. English wasn't my best subject (behind music) by coincidence.
Friday afternoon. The most anticipated day of the week where come five o'clock, thousands if not millions are liberated from the shackles of another work week and for sixty-two short hours, life as we know it belongs to us. Families reunite. Cruel nags from the alarm clock are ignored in favor of sleeping in. Soon, bars all across the city will begin to fill up as the masses seek solace from various stresses in a frothing lake of beer while others will take their libations to go and head straight for home to begin the party there. If you're young and into loud music, off-key singing and shredding shrieking solos on air guitars are apt to follow long into the night, even after the neighbors call to complain about "that goddamned racket." Then there are those who watch the clock strike five and instead of happily heading out the door, depart with dread, knowing that their day is far from over. If anything, it's just beginning. Friday is the new Monday for many of today's generation. I should know. I'm one of them.
As the SkyTrain pulls into Waterfront Station, I stand far back from the doors as possible. Instead of making a beeline towards the exit soon as they slide open, I stay behind, waiting for the clot of people bottlenecking towards the escalator to pass through, knowing I've spent enough time playing canned sardines for one day. I can drive but I don't own a car. In this city, driving can be a bigger stressor on your ticker than cramming up against some sweaty stranger for a few minutes. Remember to breathe through your mouth and you'll survive. Leaning against the tiled column, I watch another large group coming down the opposite escalator, many of them around my age, early to mid twenties, tangled curtains of hair, each wearing variations on the same band shirt; indecipherable font, crossed swords in the background. The tallest among the group has headphones dangling around his pencil thin neck, muddy riffs and tinny blasts from a double bass set assaulting the airwaves, drawing a variety of confused and annoyed glances from other passengers which are returned with condescending "f--k you too" glares. Must be heading to tonight's show at the Rickshaw, I think, feeling a sudden mixture of both relief and regret.
Pencil Neck looks over at me. I watch the glare deepen, beady eyes crawling down to my shirt, back up to me. "That's not f--kin metal!" he spits. Others in the concert-bound posse join in with self-righteous sneers but say nothing. They hop aboard the outbound train just as the familiar tri-tone jingle sounds, doors sliding shut behind them. Something tugs in my gut as the train pulls away from the platform, disappearing into the dim tunnel ahead.
The heavy metal subculture both fascinates and frightens me. When I'm not on stage, I'm the guy most likely to make a beeline for the front of the stage or jump into the middle of a raging circle pit. More recently however, I feel the desire to take a step back and reject the pack mentality. Reassert my independence; force myself to choose to stay outside. Is this the epitomic struggle of all young adults? I often ask myself: Walking a balance on the fine line between yearning to belong, to connect with those around us, versus shaking off the shackles of group conformity and declaring to the world, "This is me! This is who I am, and to hell with your preconceptions of unity and the common ideal! I will exist alone in this world as both king and keeper of my own existence, admission by invitation only."
It's a wonder sometimes that I didn't go to college like the rest of my family and pursue philosophy. Ironically, I don't have much of a family to begin with. Where there was once a close knit bond of love and loyalty now lie deep fissures which no one was about to dare venture across, clutching olive branches. Gone are the opportunities for late-night reminiscence over happy family dinners, which is fine. I left home as soon as I could and have never looked back. I've no doubt that we all still think about the past, only in a very different light now; darker, more foreboding, the camera lens of memory smeared with the grease of anger and grudges from yesteryear. The way I see it, the phrase "Hey, remember back when..." is best left right there - behind.
The up escalator having ushered the mass crowd through, I climb the moving steps two at a time, walking through the neoclassical station, past the little news kiosk, the different restaurants and out into the damp evening. It's still raining, of course. Falling from the grey skies above with great force, individual drops blending into a single liquid curtain. Cars speed down the street one after the other, myriad colored bullets too busy playing Beat the Traffic to get home and begin their temporary vacations to slow down for a solo pedestrian trying his luck with a flashing Don't Walk sign. A red roadster with an engine loud enough to rival a 747 misses me by inches, forcing me to sprint for the sidewalk, a string of urgent profanities flying over my shoulder. Apparently Fridays are also the day traffic laws cease to hold all sense of meaning to those crazy enough to try and drive downtown. I reach for my jacket and flip the hood up, shielding my already tangled mess of black curls from further drenching while I walk down the street towards neighboring Gastown.
A bus rolls by, another collective of dark-clothed headbangers congregating in the back seats. I can imagine the lineup already forming outside, even though doors aren't likely to open for another hour or two. If you've ever taken in the local metal scene in Vancouver, odds are you've been to the Rickshaw Theatre at some point. A small venue bordering the sketchiest street corner in the entire city, the Rickshaw sits a stone's throw from the Chinatown district. It used to be a movie theatre back in the 1970s, famous for screening many a Kung-Fu flick until lack of interest forced its closure in the 80s. It had recently reopened as a hopeful step forward in revitalizing Vancouver's infamous Downtown Eastside. Currently, it was gaining reputation among the metal world (or underworld, depending on which side of the fence you stood) for its intimate moshpits, reasonably priced alcohol and ticket prices, and for frequent local and small-name headliners, not all of them being metal. Occasionally, bigger names will play the Rickshaw, but you can expect ticket prices to lose the "reasonable" tag right off the bat. I've been there before, never as an attendee or performer. The record shop where I work often hosts and/or sponsors many of the local shows, and I often get contracted to help with merch, set time coordination... basically everything a manager's supposed to do without the title or influence. The last time I went, I remember looking down from the upstairs sound booth where I'd been taking a break and shooting the sh-t with one of the technicians and being stunned at how six hundred people crowding onto the floor could look so large for such a small number, in comparison to the other venues. I also remember being grateful for not getting caught in a massive fight that broke out in the pit before the headliners took the stage.
Tonight would be different though, role reversal. It's my turn to mind and close up shop, give the other guys a chance to check out the action. Fine by me, I almost look forward to a quiet albeit likely boring night. Until I head over to Funky's to join the others. I'm not one of those guys who worry about running the risk of growing complacent or burning out. You'd be as apt to find me leading the charge in the wall of death or pumping out my own tunes for hours on end with my own band, or whatever is left of it. Props to those who pick up their instrument and chase the dream, it makes for an exciting life no doubt, but like anything worthwhile in life, you only get out of it what you put into it.
I often think about the number of bands out there, taking the stage at God knows how many dives across the city, reaching for the shooting star that is fame, hoping to grab it by the tail and hold on - or at least grab a good piece of it to ride off into the sunset or wherever their destination is. Yet others are out there just having a good time, "f--k fame and all its poisonous tentacles, I'm staying true to the music!" Those are the ones I relate to the most. Sure, I play, and I've made money doing it, getting a simple taste from the cup of fame's potential, but that's not the point. I'll probably never sell out Madison Square Garden in my lifetime and I can live with that. The music is still there. It's always there. When I don't work, I play. Even when I play, I'm still working in some sense.
My name has appeared on a small number of demos but you're not likely to see them in many stores. The drive fizzled out like bottle rockets soon after the tapes were released, just "Fffft!" and that's it, the bands broke up. A pity, some might say. Others don't seem too interested in mourning the loss of yet more fledgling talent. I've not given up though. Sometimes it's a load of fun, other times it feels like the worst job in the world. But it's life, and it's how I've always lived. Off in the corner, dwarfed by the shadow of the spotlight.
A small bell above the record store doorway tinkles softly. The place is quiet and empty save for a guy flipping through some Iron Maiden vinyls, and Art, cousin to the store's owner and acting manager whenever the big boss isn't around, seated behind the row of glass cases on his rickety wooden stool beside the cash register, flipping through a magazine, brow furled in concentration. He looks up at the sound of the bell, faint wrinkles tugging at the corners of his eyes as he smiles, small crooked teeth peeking out from behind his chapped lips.
"How's it going, shredder?" He checked the wall clock behind him. "You're early."
"Hi Art," I say, rolling my eyes at the nickname. "Yeah, I grew tired of the monsoon," gesturing to the rains outside, the drops peeling off my jacket, soaking into the aged carpet underfoot.
"Don't blame you," Art says, beginning to chuckle. "Feel bad for the poor sods braving the lineup as we speak, though. Still, gotta admire their dedication."
"Who's playing tonight, again?"
"Wolfbann," said Art, "Power metal sextet from Bavaria, kind of a hybrid between folk and death metal."
"Wolfbann," I repeated.
"Yes sir. Openers are a couple of Scandinavian unknowns," Art checked a listing taped to the glass countertop, "Kollektiv and... Heathen's Gate, that's the name. It could be interesting. Too bad you got stuck doing desk duty. Business has been slow since we moved to the downtown location."
"Bigger space means more records, which means more money... or however D put it." I look down at one of the posters for tonight's show taped to the glass case. "What? No locals? I thought Paganfest was back in May."
Art shrugs. "Hey, I don't make the bookings. I just go where the boss man tells me to."
"Fair enough. You can take off now if you want. I can manage. It's probably going to be a slow night anyways."
"You sure? You still got fifteen minutes, I can-"
I insist, waving a hand. "Just tell me what I need to take care of tonight."
Art looks at me a little funny then shrugs again and stands up from the stool, attempting to fit his shirt over a stomach that fought to be contained within the tight fabric. "Delivery came this afternoon. It's mostly put away, save for a few boxes in back. Oh, and got some posters for the LocalFest show from the dudes over at promo, which means we'll also have to hit up the usual spots, but other than that, it's business as usual. Check 'em out if you want but you don't gotta start putting 'em out till tomorrow."
I frown. Usually it's up to the promoters to plaster every wall and lamppost in town with whatever upcoming shows needed announcing. "Why do they keep expecting us to do their job?"
Art walks past me into the small room in the back that serves as both office and coat closet. "You know D. He's got connections running deep with all the 'zines and the like." He emerged, zipping up his baggy windbreaker. "It's just the way it goes, one of those 'you scratch my back...' deals."
"Fair enough," I say again. "See you tomorrow then?"
"Bright and early," Art says with his usual good-natured wink, slapping his big hand on my shoulder. "Peace out."
I wave as he takes off through the back door, thinking about how strange it is to hear such youthful colloquialisms from a man almost old enough to be my crazy uncle. A few silent moments pass before I head into the back, pulling one of the small boxes hidden from prying eyes on a far shelf and take a peek. Inside is a small stack of CDs and a folded handwritten sign: $10. I take them out front, setting them on top of the display case, the sign put out in front. I can't help feeling a minor twinge as I imagine Art lecturing me again. It soon passes and I turn attention to the guy flipping through the rows of vinyls, holding up a copy of Diamond Head's "Borrowed Time," moving it closer to his face until the cover is almost touching his nose, squinting as though he were hunting for fossils.
"Can I help you out there with anything, boss?" I ask.
Without looking back, the guy shakes his head, puts the album back where he found it, flipping the stack back and almost speed walking towards the cash register, the faint but unmistakable whiff of pot drifting from his flapping jacket as he moves. Not even on shift five minutes and already my night's off to a flying start. He walks up to the counter and peers through the glass, brow furrowing at the few rare items with their offensive price tags before looking at my stack of demos. Taking the top disc, he looks over the simple artwork and reads the track listing before snorting and dropping it back on the pile, flattening the $10 sign.
"Dichotomy of Mind," he mutters and snorts again. "I don't know why you guys are selling that crap," he says, blinking his reddened eyes.
"Have you ever seen these guys live?" I ask, feeling a hot prickle behind my ears. "The demo doesn't do them justice. In fact, I think they're playing over at the Crow's Nest out in Kerrisdale tomorrow night, then just down the street at Funky's in a couple weeks. You should check them out."
The stoner guy blows a raspberry. A tiny flick of spit hits me below the right eye. "I'd rather stab needles in my ears. I saw them last summer, opening for some frog band from back east. I'd have laughed if they weren't so awful. I'd save my money if I were you, bud. Those two bits are going nowhere, and nobody's going to care."
You'd be surprised, I think, putting the sign back in front of the stack while the guy exits the store with a distracted "Have a good one." I don't return the farewell. Looking down at the discs, large block letters in messy scratch font jump off the cover, overpowering the rest of the album art. "I told them the logo was too primitive," I mumble to myself, feeling memories beginning to pelt my mind like raindrops on the outside pavement. The sudden ring of the store telephone brings my unscheduled trip down Memory Lane to a screeching halt. I grab the receiver midway through the third ring.
"Cage Records," I answer. "No, sorry, Art's left for the night. My name is Josh Mallory. What can I do for you?"
About the Author:
By Graham Nichol