Sticks And Strings. Part 1

We may look normal by society's stereotypical standards but you'll find out soon enough, this is no ordinary band...

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Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything. - Plato

Tonight's venue is packed full. Every seat in the house is occupied while thousands of enthusiastic people of all ages stand crammed shoulder to shoulder in the large space on the floor in front of the stage like sardines. Another sellout crowd waits in anticipation. High pitched screams and cheers fill the arena as the house lights fade and a curtain of dark blue light illuminates the stage while a backdrop depicting stained glass church windows marked with raised bloody fists wrapped in barbed wire rises behind the kit that bears the same symbols on both bass drums. Ominous dark ambiance echoes through the arena, hands are thrown up, lighters are held skyward, fists are pumped and horns are proudly held in the air. The stage comes to life with silhouettes emerging from the shadows, the crowd on the floor moves closer together creating a sea of bodies, swallowing up every free inch of space while security steady themselves in front of the barrier that divides crowd from band, fans from idols. A single note from a sharply tuned guitar howls in the dim, its echoes lost in the sea of adoring screams. All is dark again. A faint inhalation is heard, a single cymbal crashes and the curtain falls. Light is restored as the band leaps into the opening song, a grinding, thrashing anthem of alternate picking and thundering bass slapping, synchronized by the slam and crash of the behemoth drum set and a piercing shriek nearly drowned out by the screams from surrounding fans. An act of pure magic is now unfolding. The band has taken the stage.

I know what you must be thinking: tattooed muscles left and right, long hair snapping through the air with lightning speed as fans in the mosh pit below headbang in sync with the music, their hands throwing up the ubiquitous corna; a typical heavy metal concert, a typical heavy metal band. Judging by appearances, one would have a valid point. To outsiders, they all look the same, if you've seen one, you've seen them all. I however, don't see it so black and white. The reality is something quite different.

If you look beyond the music, what's hidden behind the mask, you'll quickly discover raw, primal humanity at its core. We live in a self-centered world where the mere difference of opinion has turned friends into enemies, a place where hearts have been broken one too many times that the idea of showing compassion seems impossible, a world where the only therapy anybody is interested in is music. The only stage this band has ever known is this dusty dais in the garage. There are no screaming fans here, only venomous screams of anger, frustration and disillusionment, and if they aren't aimed at the microphone in front of my mouth, then they're aimed at each other. We may look normal by society's stereotypical standards but you'll find out soon enough, this is no ordinary band.

***

It had been a slow day, the kind where it seems to take forever for a single minute to pass on the clock. Frustrating too, of course the fact that time moved as slow as a turtle bore down hard on everyone's nerves. For the first time in a long while all the equipment sat off to one side of the dark garage. The lip of a large crash cymbal peeked out from underneath the paint-stained tarp that hid the rest of Adam's monster setup. It was the same tarp that formerly covered his father's old bass boat which now sat outside by the wood pile; rusty, beat up and coming apart at the seams. Just like us. As for Adam, he sat on the concrete step in front of the door to the laundry room with the same look the rest of us sharedboredom. He chewed away at a toothpick delicately balanced between his lower teeth and lip, rocking up and down like a see-saw.

"What you reckon?" he asked, addressing no one in particular which was fine, it wasn't one of those questions you really expected an answer to, just one of those attempts at breaking an awkward silence while trying to avoid the elephant in the room.

"I dunno," I said, not really thinking before speaking. "I mean we could always carry on like we've been doing all week." Deep down, I knew I was fooling myself, of course we couldn't or else we would be actually playing instead of just sitting on our asses like a pack of lazy dopes we were starting to become. "No answers I take it eh, Jase?"

Jason thumped a heavy hand against his bass strings and gave me a look as though I should've known better. Of course there weren't, and don't call me Jase. He was right, I should have known better. He hated that nickname. Chalk up another bit of distance between us, as if things weren't strained enough already.

"I still think this was a mistake," Jason said, peering at Adam and me from underneath the brim of his favorite cowboy hat. There was no taking the Southwest out from this Arizonian, the only man with more experience on a bass than me, the only one of us not born in Canada. "I mean this is time that could be spent writing or practicing for God sakes. A lot of good this has done us." For over two weeks now, the local paper had been running our ad in the help wanted section of the classifieds.

Local band seeking determined guitarist. Experience with metal genres preferred, but not required. Applicant should possess knowledge of scales, alternate picking and hammer-on/pull offs. Passion a must, along with own instrument, willing to provide amp to right person. Call for audition today! 604-877-6019. Ask for Adam or Richard.

We paid to run it every other day for a whole month. It still cost us a fortune despite splitting it three ways, we'd be lucky if there was any money left at the rate it was haemorrhaging from our wallets. Jason was the reluctant one. He felt that what precious little green we had left could be put to better use. Still it was not a complete loss, depending on your point of view. The first week, we had six guys come by and jam, which in turn was followed promptly by four rejections, and two "we'll be in touch," which might as well be called rejections, since neither of those wannabes got a call-back. Half of them barely knew how to hold the goddamn instrument, let alone play it. It seemed we'd reached the point where anyone in our age gap with slick gelled hair and a f--k you attitude clutching an axe was a musician at heart. An irony, considering that label could be just as easily attached to me. The difference was that I knew how to play; I actually knew the difference between alternate and tremolo picking. I didn't consider myself a music snob by any standard, none of us did. Quite the contrary, none of us took so much as a single lesson growing up; we were a trio of self-taught individuals. I guess you could say it was that common trait that we shared that people noticed most, considering that at first glance; a passerby wouldn't think we were in a band, let alone friends. How little they know.

***

In the beginning it was just my best friend Adam Merritt and I. Our meeting was somewhat of a coincidence, he stuck his neck out for me my first day of high school, saving me from the receiving end of an ass-kicking by a bunch of jocks. In all likelihood, Adam could have had his ass kicked as badly as mine, if not worse for daring to take the jocks on, but for the fact that he was a senior, that whole ladder of seniority can work wonders if you're on top. I knew I would like him at once; the fact that he had on a denim jacket emblazoned with Metallica and Slayer patches was just a bonus once we got to talking. It was a short time after that we first jammed together in his makeshift garage studio. Neither of us knew it at the time just how significant that first session would come to be.

"You can use that amp over there," he said, pointing to a small Peavey cube amp sitting on a workbench by his well-worn looking kit. "You got your own patch cord?"

"Yeah right here." I patted the pocket on my case. "Didn't expect you'd have an amp, what with you saying you're a drummer."

"Started out a wannabe shredder," Adam said with a smirk before turning his attention to his kit. "Guy I sold the guitar to didn't want it, never had the heart to just throw it out. You can have it if you want."

"Serious?"

"Very." He spoke with such nonchalance, tightening a nut on the hi-hat and giving it a tap with his knuckle. "It's of no use to me." I was speechless. I hadn't known him a week and here he was giving me an amplifier, a decent one at that, just because he could. "Well uh, sure, thanks! Wow, that's awesome." Awkwardly, I fumbled with my case as it slid off my shoulders, pulling my prized Ibanez GIO from it and sliding one end of my worn patch cord into the guitar, the other into the amp. "Let's give her a try," I said, flicking the main switch. The little box burst to life with a sharp crack of static followed by a low humming buzz. The noise attracted Adam's attention.

"Nice one." I assumed he meant my guitar.

"Thanks."

"That an RG model?"

"Nah, GIO. Couldn't afford an RG even if I wanted one; I'd be stunned to see one in a pawn shop anyway." My finger traced one of the scratches along the solid mahogany body. "It's an ugly little bitch but give me an amp and a cord, that's all it needs."

"Long as it plays, who cares what it looks like?" Adam said, now sat behind the kit, hunched over like an adult seated at a kid's school desk clutching a beaten pair of drumsticks. It was hard not to laugh at the ridiculous sight, even though it was easy to assume he was in the same position as me, second-rate equipment for one with first-rate dreams. The kit itself was not that bad, really. A few marks and scratches in the cobalt paint, one slightly dented crash, nothing serious. The sight of the two large bass drums impressed me, not many people I knew had double bass setups. This was going to be good. Adam didn't look the least troubled by the obvious discomfort, giving a few brief taps on the dual toms in front of him.

"Do you wanna just jam?" he asked. "Or we could perhaps try our hand at a song?"

"I'm good for anything," I replied. "What do you play, thrash? Death? Speed?"

"I just play; don't let genres define any boundaries on me. Been listening to a lot of Sepultura lately"

"Sepultura? Get out of here! Do you have Arise yet?"

"Nah, haven't been to Cage lately, though I do have Beneath the Remains." Cage was the local hole-in-the-wall record store that sold everything heavy metal, short of instruments, they had it all. In this city, if you knew anything about metal, you knew of Cage's existence.

I was getting more and more excited by the minute. "I've been trying my hand at that all week; wanna give that one a try?" He looked at me with an expression that said you have to ask?' He gripped the sticks, perched by the snare. "I'll count you in for four," he said. A few tweaks with the treble knob on my new amp and I was ready. I gave him a quick nod and took a seat on a rickety stool adjacent to the workbench. He brought his sticks up.

One-two-three-four...

We skipped the ambient acoustic intro to the song and jumped right into the opening verse.

Adam attacked the snares and crash cymbal with cheetah-like reflexes while kicking away at the bass pedals in front of him while I strummed along, my fingers bouncing across the frets just as fast in a desperate attempt to keep up with him. Of all the drummers I'd jammed with in the past, he was easily the quickest and most adept yet. It didn't sound complete; we were only a guitar and drums tandem right now, with no bass to add backbone or a second guitarist for amplification but damn, it was good. I got so swept up in the process that I started shouting out lyrics without a microphone.

IN THE MIDDLE OF A WAR THAT WAS NOT STARTED BY ME DEEP DEPRESSION OF THE NUCLEAR REMAINS I'VE NEVER THOUGHT OF, I'VE NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT THIS HAPPENING TO ME PROLIFERATIONS OF IGNORANCE ORDERS THAT STAND TO DESTROY...

I would have kept belting lyrics if it hadn't been for the sudden realization that I was playing, and shouting all by myself. Adam's flight of the bumblebee drumming had come to a screeching end, leaving me thrashing away, more than a few measures behind. I stopped just as quick when I realized this and, although I could not see it to confirm, I'm sure my face must have gone as red as a sunburn, because I felt very hot and very uncomfortable. Adam didn't say anything when I looked over at him. He didn't need to; the expression on his face spoke volumes. What the f--k was that?, it seemed to say. Finally I spoke up, my face getting hotter. "Sorry. Guess I fell behind, huh?"

"S'all good, I got too ahead of myself," he said. It was obvious he was lying as if to try and spare my feelings, not necessary, I knew I'd f--ked up but appreciated the thought just the same.

"Let's take it from the top again," I suggested. "I'll try to keep up this time."

"Good idea," Adam said, and he counted us in with another four clacks of the sticks. Focused, determined to keep the pace going, we skipped the opening bars and jumped right into the electric cues. Again I spat out lyrics when we reached the first verse, and again I found myself missing the backing drum line before reaching the end. The hot face returned as Adam stared at me once more.

"What?"

"That voice," Adam said with great staring eyes like two white marbles with little black specks. "That's"

"Painful? I know," I said, sounding unintentionally defensive. "You're not the first one to say that, no need to sugar-coat it." My singing wasn't popular at home, or anywhere else by the sound of it.

"I didn't say that. Let's do that again, only this time, just play, right through to the end of the verse. Leave the vocals aside, for now." Ouch Adam, why not just slap me in the face, I thought. By now my face was felt like it was on fire. I silently wished it away, desperate to avoid showing any emotion and twisted the tuning keys. "Let's go," I said.

Once more, we jumped into Beneath the Remains, this time I kept my mouth shut. To my surprise, we made it all the way through without a problem, cutting off right near the end of where I would've shouted "BENEATH THE REMAINS" if Adam hadn't suggested I not. "Guess I really do suck," I mumbled, feeling pretty low.

Adam didn't commiserate or deny, instead pushing his stool away from the kit and standing up, going through the side door into his house. He returned a moment later, holding a cassette case; the cover of which faced his leg so I couldn't see what it was, and a long, rectangular ghetto blaster in the other, rocking it back and forth like a cradle in his hand. I watched him set it on the workbench and stick the plug into a dusty looking socket in the wall, the same one my new amp was plugged into. He must have sensed the puzzled look on my face because he said with his back to me, "Don't worry, this'll all make sense in a minute." He took the cassette from its case and slid it into the tape deck. It looked just like a gaping plastic mouth, happily swallowing the tape whole as its plastic lid closed.

All I could say was, "Okay," setting my guitar down on the cold concrete and standing up to stretch. Meanwhile, Adam pressed the play button and fiddled with a large knob on the side facing me, the volume I guessed. A familiar acoustic tune rang from the speakers; right away I knew it was a Sepultura tape. "There," Adam said, looking at me with a satisfied smile. "Sing."

"Beg pardon?"

He repeated himself. "Try and sing along. I wanna check something out."

"By making me humiliate myself?"

"Go, go!" He waved his hand at me as the first electric grinds jumped out from the blaster. "Don't think about it, just go with it!"

I didn't understand why Adam was so eager on watching me goof up again. I would have refused, yet just like the last two times, the words came pouring out of my mouth before I knew it, only to be drowned out by Max Cavalera's on the tape. "Louder!" Adam cried over the music. "Don't fall back, stand out!" I did my best to comply. It felt like eternity passed before Adam seemed content and pressed stop. "I knew it."

"Knew what? I suck? Shit man, I already told you that, why'd you have to make me embarrass myself like that?"

Adam looked at me like I was speaking utter blasphemy. "Are you kidding? That's one of the best screams I've ever heard, and I've heard guys try and sound nowhere near as close."

It took a few seconds to register that. When I found my tongue again, all I could say was "What?"

"Yeah man, that was sick. Heavy yet intelligible, with just the right amount of oomph behind it for someone with your tone, really nice; makes you think of the vocals you hear on Morbid Visions." It was difficult to say whether Adam was just saying that, he sounded sincere enough, but to compare me to Max Cavalera seemed quite a leap. He assured me he was dead serious. "Now I see what the problem was. Your playing didn't suck, neither did your voice. Yet put the two of them together and, I don't know, you lose tempo. No offense."

"None taken," I said, and meant it. Adam's words seemed to open the doors on an epiphany. The same thing always happened, alone in my room with my own stereo going. I may not have had any juice but I could always feel my playing slowing whenever I jammed along to my stereo, it didn't matter whether it was Sepultura or Slayer or Black Sabbath.

"What does it mean?" I asked Adam. "I can sing and play, just not together. How's that ever going to work?"

"Work for what?"

"If I ever get a band of my own going, how am I going to choose between vocals and guitar? I love them both."

"Who says you have to choose?"

"Well. Nobody I guess, but still"

"Strike a balance, compromise with yourself and the rest of your bandmates," Adam said. "You want to do vocals, do em. Wanna shred on some songs? Shred till it f--kin' hurts and love every minute of it!"

"Wouldn't that be weird though?" I mused, "Scream one song then pick up my guitar the next? I've never seen a band do that before."

"So? Doesn't mean it can't work anyways, eh? Or figure out which one you'd rather do when performing and find someone to back you up." It sounded simple enough advice and I suppose it was, though at that moment it seemed light was finally shining through the dark clouds of confusion, sort of like having a light bulb appear over your head in a "Eureka!" moment. That simple idea would pay big dividends later on down the road, I could feel it. Adam looked like he felt it too, his face lit up with excitement.

"Now comes the tricky part of finding other members," I said with a cheeky smirk. "Guess I can start asking around school and see what that digs up."

Adam nodded in agreement. "Well, you're already ahead of the game, so you've got that working for you."

"Say what?"

"You've already got one member on board."

I laughed a little. "It's a little narcissistic to be counting just myself."

"Oh, I didn't mean you," he replied. When I asked what he meant he just looked at me. I didn't have to ask again. I understood. He stuck his hand out and we shook on the spot.

"Rock on, Adam," I said.

"Rock on, Richard."

And almost overnight I became one of those dressed in black with clich spiked bracelets screaming into the microphone, a suitable position for me, considering I'm constantly screaming on the inside. How cruel an irony for an anti-authoritarian who despises conformity, to be just like every other backstreet musician, sharing the same dream late at night alone in our rooms, spending our days jamming away and trying to do what it takes to survive, hoping someday to make it big. For a while now that's what it felt likea dream. Stuck in an endless rut, my head fills with nagging whispers of doubt and pessimism. Not too long ago I had a real zest for life, a get up and go attitude that many jaded youth of today scoff and roll their eyes at, and secretly long for deep inside. Nowadays it's a miracle if I'm half as enthusiastic about my day.

Why bother I often ask myself. It's like I'm arguing with myself over and over, little things that normally wouldn't annoy me now piss me off without even trying. I may be used to it but I'm far from liking it. The damned voice whispers to me everywhere I go. My whole head's a bluruntil the music starts playing. Then it all becomes clear again, for a little while at least. So why do I bother? For once, the answer is a simple one: The music.

Music is my life. It's the one constant companion that's always been there for me throughout this walk along the road of life. As soon as that first beat hits, the adrenaline kicks in and all I want to do is let loose, to give it my all, when the music playsI'm alive. Music, like life, is a ride. There are parts you love, parts you hate, times you'll laugh and cheer, and other times you just want to scream and cry your eyes out. Come along, you're in for a wild one.

My name is Richard Demin. And we are Systex.

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