Monthly Archives: August 2010

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New Music Threads – Murder Ranks and St. Elias add new life to Denver music

At the end of the day, it’s the tunes that never stop looping in and around your head and become an inextricable part of you that shape your world, often for the better. These two bands have left some permanent grooves in my head in the past few weeks.

Murder Ranks is creating a huge, flammable mixture of punk and dancehall, right down your street. Prick up your ears and catch on! (Logo: Murder Ranks/Bird)

Murder Ranks is creating a huge, flammable mixture of punk and dancehall, right down your street. Prick up your ears and catch on! (Logo: Murder Ranks/Bird)

Murder Ranks – Murder Ranks

You may have been among the lucky bunch that caught the Warlock Pinchers reunion dates earlier this August, or maybe you were an old fan from their heyday – or both – which means you got to see a resurgence of some of the early genius of the Dan Wanush (King Scratchie)/Andrew Novick (K.C. K-Sum) phenomena – a musical/social juggernaut from our own backyard that’s lasted more than two decades, and that still carries weight.

As far ahead of the crossover rap game as those two were in the ‘80s and ’90s, that was only the beginning. While Novick has many exciting projects going on – mostly around pop art – Wanush continues to revel in his musical prescience with his latest project, a distorted, punk rock dancehall outfit Murder Ranks.

Taking the infectious sounds and ideas behind old school dancehall and reworking them with a decidedly punk rock sensibility and D.I.Y. attitude, Murder Ranks is poised to spark a musical movement, one that will hopefully be magnified by the turgid Denver scene. Fueled by humor, sex, provocation and a smattering of social commentary, their latest record (now already about a year old) is as exciting as it is unique. But to be true to their energy, this band is best seen live, in the wild. Murder shows are aggressively fun – even addictive – and with a little luck, this genre-bending group could also end up bending musical tastes and trends as much as just ears.

King Scratchie (Dan Wanush) uses his mastery at toasting - old school style - and his deep-rooted punk rock sense to drive Murder Ranks. (Photo: Murder Ranks/MySpace)

King Scratchie (Dan Wanush) uses his mastery at toasting - old school style - and his deep-rooted punk rock sense to drive Murder Ranks. (Photo: Murder Ranks/MySpace)

After the demise of the Pinchers and a few years of bouncing around with other musical projects, in 2008 King Scratchie pulled together a talented trio – drummer Nate Weaver, bassist Ben Williams and guitarist Mike Buckley – to back up his well developed toasting abilities and create something to expand on his love for the dancehall style. For the uninitiated, “toasting” is the pre-hip hop style of ranting over repeated rhythms and progressions that originated in Jamaican music in the early 20th century. For the years they were active, Scratchie and K-Sum traded “toasts” with wild and aggressive abandon onstage and in studio and branded the Pinchers with their characteristic style.

Murder Ranks released an eponymous record recently – exclusively for download originally, and now only available on vinyl (a beautiful, clear blood red vinyl, in fact) – that showcases their reworking of dancehall, and since I got it, it’s been nearly impossible to both pull it off the turntable, and to replace the catchy tunes constantly running inside my head. To be fair (as I said above), the record is not as exciting as the live product (which is a sight anyone and everyone needs to see, as soon and as often as possible, to restore your faith in the explosively of punk, or any, rock), but I highly recommend getting a copy and taking a lesson from the masters.

Reaching back to the tradition of dancehall, the updated, stripped down and visceral outgrowth of reggae that revitalized that already tired genre, Murder Ranks uses its basic musical tenets to distill a sweet, strong and minimalist – but sickeningly catchy – punk/dub concoction, and layers it upon modified (sometimes completely transfigured) dancehall riddims. But, where dancehall deejays may use horn sections, other instruments and/or background singers to enhance riddims that they chant and toast over, Murder Ranks reworks these parts with their instruments, and with Scratchie’s vocals, to fit their own aggressive and fun style.

Parts played traditionally by entire bands are reduced and transformed by Buckley into brilliant guitar riffs – positively ensconced in reverb as deep and sonorous as mine shafts. Meanwhile Weaver and Williams use the riddims to inspire and build a wickedly potent rhythm section powered by characteristically complex and addictive bass lines. And in front of all of this, Scratchie’s guttural howls and gravelly snarls spit, shout, scrape and explode across your ears, and dig directly into your brain. Rhythmic, infectious, often highly erotic – this seems to be the language he was born to speak. Theirs is a mix that enters your bloodstream and, like a powerful virus, alters it genetically, and then never leaves.

Unlike the rough, fast and inciteful ravings from his  Pinchers persona, Scratchie’s delivery in Murder Ranks is measured, fully intentional – though it remains antagonistic and over the top, and no less egomaniacal. He often mimics the gravelly, low pitched growl  that superstar Shabba Ranks made popular worldwide. Scratchie, however, brings a desperate and knowing punk rock urgency to it. During “Killed A Girl” Scratchie growls about the repeated demise of what must be a one night stand, because, of course, he “. . . don’t need no girlfriend!” You can almost hear a mad grimace peeling across his face as he kills her again and again and again. In “Saturday Night,” his self-assured lyrics are enthusiastically crooned – followed by a giddy and puckish “Whoa-oh-oh!!” – that will invariably inspire a garish swagger full of the cocksure nature of true toasting. And then the almost brutally exuberant delivery of “Broadway” – which is based on a riddim laid down by Barrington Levy (“Here I Come”) – and wherein Scratchie exalts his own godlike largess, claiming to be ” . . . broader than Broadway, Godder than Jah! Way-eh-eh!” Still another personality takes over the band during “Surgeon Technique,” as Scratchie focuses on his sexual prowess, telling a lady friend to ” . . . lay down and let the doctor operate!”

As high energy and raucous as the record is, it’s nothing compared to Murder Ranks’ live show. If you did see the Warlock Pinchers shows recently, you know all the wild antics that stage show represented, and you’re undoubtedly familiar with Scratchie’s live energy. Murder Ranks’ stage show creates the same energy, with more emphasis on the music, and less on hilarity and in-your-face social commentary. Until you’ve seen Scratchie’s stage swagger, backed up by the impossibly reverb-drenched bass and guitar combination and crashing drums, you’ll be seriously shy a soild experience. You’ve got to see the new, stripped-down-until-it’s-amped-up mixture of distorted dancehall and hard dub they’ve created to believe it.

Lucky you – they’re playing THIS FRIDAY, AUGUST 27TH, at Herman’s Hideaway, headlining an all local, all innovative lineup. Don’t miss your chance to catch Murder Ranks while they’re still local!

St. Elias' "Altered Beast" offers up a strong, dreampunk-prog mix that's hard to wash off. (Photo: St. Elias/MySpace)

St. Elias' "Altered Beast" offers up a strong, dreampunk-prog mix that's hard to wash off. (Photo: St. Elias/MySpace)

St. Elias – Altered Beast

St. Elias plays an often heavy, but always beautiful style of noisy psychedelia that rubs right up to the edge of prog in the style of early Rush (think “Hemispheres”), heavily inundated with the sound of L.A.’s Failure.  But they shy just away fro Failure’s harder sound in favor of a softer, metal-tinged dreampunk with a prevalent shoegaze influence. Within this mixed genre, they continue to grow in their ability to both maintain the listener’s musical and emotional anticipation, and to deliver multiple satisfying and well-timed gushing, cathartic releases.

On their latest release, the sweeping and often sublime “Altered Beast,” the trio lay down tracks for six compositions that start with simple, catching rhythms based on cool guitar and bass riffs. The band then adds layer upon layer of unusual harmonies separated by waves of chord progressions drenched in distortion, which are then followed by another cleanly arpeggiated set. Throughout, the songs retain enough levity to actually lift you as you listen, and then bathe you in solid and resonating sonic wonder. Slightly recalling some other local bands like Dualistics in their melodic tendencies, St. Elias come across as much less pop-centric, but maintain an easy accessibility amidst their loud and distorted, low-treble mix and solid-yet-safe rhythms.

If this trio misses anything in their sound, it would be an  occasional gut-busting, skull-splitting and desperate howl, strategically placed to finally push the impending catharsis into an overwhelmingly catatonic reverie. There are times that I find myself gearing up for that scream, and feeling a tad disappointed, and perplexed, when it doesn’t come after all. In their defense, that very scream has become almost staid at times, and might push these songs into a more formulaic space.

Highlights from Altered Beast include the long, prosaic “Six Is Good,” which clocks in at just under six and a half minutes but never loses you, and “I Didn’t Ask,” which may only need a few relentless howls to balance out its almost too-quiet-at-times beauty.

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King Scratchie receives a comforting - and absorbent - hand from Jerk-O the Clown. (Photo: Joe McCabe, Reverb)

REVERB: Warlock Pinchers’ reunion show – There was blood, and so much more . . .

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King Scratchie receives a comforting - and absorbent - hand from Jerk-O the Clown. (Photo: Joe McCabe, Reverb)

King Scratchie receives a comforting - and absorbent - hand from Jerk-O the Clown. (Photo: Joe McCabe, Reverb)

Cheerleaders, men in diapers (one of them covered in blood) and a clown with a mohawk making balloon animals. That was the scene on the Gothic Theatre’s stage last Friday night.

All of that, and there was also a rock band — Warlock Pinchers, one of Denver’s legendary locals from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s — tangled up in there somewhere, celebrating a reunion after nearly two decades of separation, in front of a packed and ecstatic house. Nothing strange about that lineup, at least not if you’re familiar with the Pinchers’ history.

Read the entire review on Denver Post Reverb, and see more of Joe McCabe’s fantastic photography from the night!

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Warlock Pinchers together again, shown here at an L.A. practice. (Photo: Beth Herzhaft)

If you catch one show this year, make it this weekend: Warlock Pinchers are back!

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Warlock Pinchers together again, shown here at an L.A. practice. (Photo: Beth Herzhaft)

Warlock Pinchers together again, shown here at an L.A. practice. (Photo: Beth Herzhaft)

Band reunions can be troubled, harried and awkward events, often at best. They can also be disastrous, embarrassing and spiteful – hopefully at their worst – that lead to a ruination, or at least a re-imagination, of the band in question’s legacy. This weekend’s Warlock Pinchers’ reunion, taking place over Friday August 6th and Saturday August 7th at the Gothic Theatre,  holds all the potential to break that overwhelming stigma of typical band reunions, and promises to be more than simply a regurgitation of old tunes sung by aging hipsters.

In fact, these shows will likely go down in Denver history as two must-see, truly history-making shows – if only because of the almost Rimbaudian way in which the seminal Denver/Boulder punk band wrapped up it’s existence in 1992.

If you were anywhere around the scene in Boulder and Denver in the late ’80s, chances are you were not only familiar with the Pinchers, but you probably carried some of their merchandise with you daily – clipped to your backpack or in your pocket – or you wore out your shield t-shirt as you attended other local shows, PETA rallies, and the occasional CIA hiring protests. These boys – King Scratchie (AKA Daniel Wanush), and K.C. K-Sum (AKA Andrew Novick), EE-Rok (AKA Eric Erickson), DD-Rok (AKA Derek van Westrum), 3KSK (AKA Mark Brooks) and a drum machine – were tearing up backyards, basements, punk venues like Boulder’s Ground Zero and warehouses with a fusion of Faith No More and Beastie Boys‘ funk/punk/hip-hop, industrial and hardcore thrash, all wrapped up in intelligent and hilarious, tongue-in-cheek punk rock rage directed towards a spineless, shallow and directionless society.

Needless to say, their antics, which included 20 minute opening sets that often overshadowed touring bands, caught on over a few years. They played unforgettable shows that grew to include raw meat (usually in the form of hot dogs) being fired from cannons into the audience, frenetically sexy gyrating routines performed by their own dancers, deemed “Satan’s Cheerleaders,” and all manner of extreme performance art, until the band called it quits in 1992.

And, this year’s model features all original members, with a significant replacement: For the (now erased) drum machine the band used to use, The Melvins’ longtime drummer Dale Crover will be filling in, based on a promise he made the band years ago, when both were on Boner Records.

Since their prime, the Pinchers have passed, pretty succinctly, into legend – arguably as much for their sudden dissolution as for their legendary shows. To be clear, a few of the Pinchers’ members – Scratchie (Wanush) and K-Sum (Novick) – never left Denver, and are currently enjoying lucrative artistic pursuits. Novick is a successful artist and Peeps expert, while Wanush fronts Murder Ranks – currently one of Denver’s most exciting and promising local bands.

“This is really intended as our last hurrah, but of course, money is the bottom line.  We had a great time together practicing, reminiscing and just hanging out this past weekend and all old grudges are out the window.” – King Scratchie (Daniel Wanush)

More importantly, the merchandise never seemed to disappear. It’s a relatively rare local Denver show that you don’t find at least one Pinchers’ shirt in the audience, and rumor has it that there are still more than a few frisbees and commemorative plates still in circulation. And the band couldn’t be happier about it.

One of the aspects of Pinchers’ mystique – or conquest – that gets lost behind all the hype, hop and hilarity happens to be one of the cornerstones of their entire being: Warlock Pinchers isn’t now, and never was, merely another innovative punk band. This group of artists came together under a thought balloon shared by thinkers and artists such as Guy Debord, Alexander Trocchi and Situationist International, Andy Warhol and David Hockney, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg, to create and perpetrate a Pop Art Spectacle – and they’re back at it.

Every aspect of the band – from the music and stage show, to touring, marketing and publicizing themselves, to the scads of merchandise – is all part of the piece. Using the language of popular culture, and capitalizing on crowd psychology and the mechanics of group mentality, these artists used their considerable, prescient talent to point out the ridiculous and pervasive reach of the “pop machine.” They not only produced the usual t-shirts, hats, posters, stickers and cards, but added such things to the Pinchers’ market as golf tees, lighters, keychains, yo-yos, water bottles and the aforementioned commemorative plates and frisbees. All of these items sold pretty well – even before the advent of e-commerce. Add to that their constant, tongue-in-cheek social commentary and you have a group of artists offering a not-so-unique, but oh-so-valid, perspective on the beautiful, often overwhelming and silly nature of our mercantile, material world – for those interested in looking for it.

Following in the footsteps of so many artists, the Pinchers created a virtual mercantile entity, and have fitted it with the ability to self-sustain for as long as they see fit, as long as their public will play along. I asked Wanush and Novick if there were any plans to carry on the band after this weekend’s festivities:

DenverThread: “Despite the success of the two dates at the Gothic, the high level of excitement at the UMS “treat” show and (from what I hear) solid sales of “Bomb the Franklin Mint,” is it still Warlock Pinchers’ intention to hang up the gloves for good after August 7th? Or will merch sales go on after the show? No consideration to do a new record?”

Wanush: “This is really intended as our last hurrah, but of course, money is the bottom line.  We had a great time together practicing, reminiscing and just hanging out this past weekend and all old grudges are out the window.  At this point, I don’t think anyone in the band would be opposed to working together once again.

However, the fact that we are based in two different cities and have our own different things (and some of them very profitable) going on, makes it nearly impossible to write new songs together unless we had some major label backing behind us with a bag full of money.

The conditions of the music scene in Denver make things great for a reunion show weekend, but not so viable for a full scale reunion.

Merch sales will go on regardless.”

Novick: “As Dan said, the merchandise will still go on.  I would like to re-release some of our old shirt designs, and maybe even do some from some of the amazing flyer art we have.  I also have a ton of live recordings that I would like to something with.  As long as people are interested in supporting it, those sorts of things will keep going.”

The "Bieber" t-shirt promises to be a hit. (Photo: Tammy Shine)

The "Bieber" t-shirt promises to be a hit. (Photo: Tammy Shine)

So the grand spectacle continues, and the promise for even more shenanigans continues with it. In case you haven’t seen or heard of it yet, Novick has produced another small ingot of brilliance with the “Bieber” logo – the Pinchers’ traditional logo with the face of Satan supplanted by an image of Justin Bieber. In the few times he and Wanush have worn their t-shirts adorned with the logo it’s proven tremendously popular (according to Facebook comments). The Bieber is a perfect permutation of the nature of the Pinchers’ social commentary, also. By taking advantage of the dubiously (at best) justifiable fame of the diminutive, super popular performer, the spectacle is asking fans to compare, and, perhaps, to maybe rethink their definitions of what makes stardom.

Or it may just be saying “Fuck it! We can all laugh at this, right?”

In any case, this weekend promises to be legendary, and won’t soon be forgotten. The shows are at The Gothic Theatre, tonight, Friday, August 6th (already sold out), and tomorrow, Saturday, August 7th – doors are at 7PM, and each show has special guests for the opening bands. Friday features longtime local stars Dressy Bessy, and Wanush’s current project, Murder Ranks, while Saturday’s show features local no-wave emulators Hot White, and a special version of Seattle’s Melvins, featuring King Buzzo and drummer Dale Crover.

Not only is this a chance to see history in the making, and become a participant in the spectacle (willing or not), these shows present a chance to see a few of the most innovative and exciting bands now playing out around Denver. Murder Ranks offers up a brilliant and refreshing mix of hard dub and dancehall – straight out of Jamaica – swirling through a heavy street core influence. Nobody is currently matching this sound, and Wanush is the perfect front man for it. His antics – perhaps just a tad more staid than those of King Scratchie – are both extreme and unavoidably infectious. The band’s heavy bass and drums, along with the reverb-saturated guitar, forms a resilient, solid backing for the riddims and shouted lyrics.

In a similar arena – though nowhere in the same sonic country – is Hot White. This Denver trio may be the closest thing Denver now has to a true, New York No-Wave emulation (apologies to Night of Joy, its strongest competition). When the trio plays as a whole, their sound and personality is coarse and full of loud, brilliant noise, white hot screams that recall a young Lydia Lunch (from her Beirut Slump/Teenage Jesus tenure) and atonal rhythms (unlike their recent and extremely disappointing UMS gig) . Much of the band’s personality rests on lead singer and bassist Tiana Bernard, who supplies much more than enough charisma to overshadow her two bandmates shortcomings. Definitely worth getting to Saturday’s show early!


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