Much like skinning cats, there's more than one memorable way to scream in a song. There's the artfully abrasive method -- a full-throated screech with enough primal intensity to make Edvard Munch stop and stare. There's the discordant and painfully deranged animal cry: Think of a confused Jim Morrison wailing at his most repulsively graphic demons in purple microdot-enhanced widescreen. There's the chilling but oddly erotic caterwauling of icy Diamanda Galas, who, while climaxing hysterically atop Lucifer's battering ram, issues unearthly sounds that could peel paint off the walls. And there's the deadly bait-and-switch bellow of unblinking Johnny Rotten, who favored smiling, then lunging like a Doberman for the Queen Mother's windpipe.
Seattle's Blood Brothers are screaming themselves hoarse in a bid to enter the pantheon of shredded rock 'n' roll larynxes. Like all great shriekers before them, they understand melodrama and rage. They revel in shock and disgust. They thrive on nightmares and decay. They have fully committed to making an ugly world uglier. Best of all, they are good at what they do.
The British press apparently agrees. In fact, such magazines as Kerrang! and the NME have designated the Blood Brothers as part of a new musical genre called -- get this -- screamo. As yet undefined by Merriam-Webster, screamo allegedly combines the characteristic deafening feedback of emo with maximum-threshold screaming. Voilà!
But in the eyes of Blood Brother co-frontman Jordan Blilie, this new, honorary distinction elicits the kind of disgust normally reserved for life's unpleasantries -- say, catheters or John Ashcroft. "I absolutely hate it," he says of the label. "More than anything. No one likes being labeled or tagged. And it puts us into a category of bands that I'm not too fond of, either. I would rather people just take it for what it is, and not try to fit it into a neat little package.
"When I think of extreme music, I don't think of testosterone-fueled macho bullshit," Blilie continues. "To me, the most extreme stuff challenges any sort of prototype of what a band can or can't do. It's a style of music and a way of thinking that's been going on for years now. And calling it 'screamo' is just an attempt to commodify what we're doing."
Marketing matters aside, the band has been adjusting to a few other changes since hooking up with ARTISTdirect Records last year. In addition to extensive touring throughout America and Europe, this youthfully snotty quintet of tag-team vocalists Blilie and Johnny Whitney, guitarist Cody Votolato, bassist Morgan Henderson, and drummer Mark Gajadhar is at least enjoying cleaner studio projects with bigger budgets.
For instance, nü-metal knob-twiddler Ross Robinson (Limp Bizkit, Korn, Slipknot, At the Drive-In) recently helmed the spastic chemistry of the Brothers' big-label debut, Burn, Piano Island, Burn. A polished, concise, and highly abrasive effort that eschews toilet rhymes in favor of merciless, red-level overload, Piano Island blends counterpointed screaming and guitar onslaught with an occasional mellotron, acoustic guitar, or xylophone. The scorching single "Ambulance vs. Ambulance" has even become a minor (and highly unlikely) college radio hit. But stylistically, the new release isn't too big a departure from the kind of art-punk massacre that earned the Brothers a rabid fanbase in the first place.
"On a surface level, we wanted to reference something that people who had followed and supported us from the beginning would feel a part of, going all the way back to our very first record that had a song called 'Marooned on Piano Island,'" Blilie says. "When we wrote it, we were just out of high school, and I think that our worldview was a bit empty and superficial. So Burn, Piano Island, Burn is just a metaphor for severing the past for something with a little bit greater meaning. It's just the idea of completely decimating something that you're ashamed of and starting new. We had a very escapist view of the world back then."
Blilie first met Votolato during an energetic late-'90s hardcore scene in the Pacific Northwest that included the Death Wish Kids and Behead the Prophet No Lord Shall Live. Inspired by such artists as Angel Hair, Area 51, the Misfits, and VSS, the pair formed the Blood Brothers and soon established a pimply local following with a loud brand of spaz-rock that mated scowling vocals and thundering rhythms with hairpin turns at reckless speed. Lyrically, the band opted for cryptic poetry and unwieldy metaphors, painting startling pictures peppered with lisping roses, pregnant sirens, laughing guillotines, swollen vaginas in the sky, or deviants having sex with shaved horses.
"It's hilarious that we finally got a parental advisory sticker," Blilie says, laughing at the warning that adorns Piano Island. "So many of the lyrics are hard to even make out. I'm just glad they didn't put it on the actual artwork. That would've really pissed me off. But I think anything on a major label has to clear some sort of standards-and-practices bullshit."
Before mollifying the Tipper Gores of the world, the Blood Brothers managed to put out a handful of equally impressive albums: In particular, March On Electric Children (Three One G. Records) offered more than mere self-destruction to the punch-and-cookie set. Demonstrating sophisticated humor and artiness beyond its makers' tender ages, Children surpassed 1999's monochromatic, self-titled debut on Hopscotch, as well as the twisted eroticism of the 2000 speed-metal fest This Adultery Is Ripe on Second Nature.
Telling a conceptual narrative with themes, characters, and plotlines, Children follows the adventures of Mr. Electric Ocean ("Birth Skin/Death Leather") through a close call with the phony world of fame and fortune ("Meet Me at the Water Front After the Social"). On the title cut, another protagonist screams his way into the ranks of an odd military faction as its chief recruitment officer cries, "So join up juggernaut child!/Join up ye hungry barbed-wire holes!/March on Skin Army soldiers!/March on to hills of ripe mold!/March on across the Xeroxed horizon!/March on murderous little world!"
In other words, Blilie doesn't exactly see eye to eye with General Tommy Franks -- or what he referred to last month as "catastrophic success." Big fat surprise. "I thought the war was a fucking nightmare," he says. "Absolutely uncalled for. The motives were so transparent and clear to anyone that takes even the slightest critical eye at our administration or what the media is reporting. It's not over yet by any means. The Red Cross issued not one but two warnings about the lack of humanitarian aid. And when you label something Operation Iraqi Freedom and do nothing to actually help the people that you're destroying, the contradiction is so clear.
"When we were on tour with AFI, we'd take a little time between songs and voice our opinions -- sometimes through a lot of heckling and booing," Blilie continues. "It was pretty eye-opening. Here are these kids at a fucking punk show, and they're coming with pro-war beliefs? But I think that when you're out there with a chance to speak to a thousand kids who are young and very impressionable, I think it's important to stand for what you believe in. What we would mostly do is challenge people, either for or against the war, to seek out independent, alternative forms of gathering their information. There's so much that wasn't being reported."
Blending art and politics is actually nothing new for the Blood Brothers. Aside from adding some hometown cheer with the WTO rowdies last year or playing the occasional benefit for a women's self-defense organization called Home Alive, the Seattle natives keep a busy sociopolitical calendar from season to season. But it might be time for a vacation.
"Right now we're gonna take most of June off and write some stuff," Blilie says. "We've got a lot of ideas for our next record, and want to get into the studio sometime in the winter. We've got another European tour lined up in August too.
"My stepdad gave me a medical mask for when we go over to Japan," Blilie adds, laughing.
But no matter where the SARS virus might spread in upcoming months (China, Japan -- what's the dif', stepdad?), perhaps the biggest health risk to any screamo-style frontman is the daily wear-and-tear to his tonsils.
"Four minutes is a long song," Blilie allows. "I don't think we're gonna have any four-minute songs on our next record. They're fucking impossible to play live."
So how does Blilie take care of his golden throat? "I try to pace my smoking and drinking as much as I can," he says. "It's an uphill battle."
With the entire band finally nearing legal drinking age, it would seem the Blood Brothers plan on riding this freak wagon until the wheels fall off. They're committed to each other, like Tom and Huck, America's original Blood Brothers, who pricked their fingers and swore on their souls -- come hell or Injun Joe -- that dreams, goddamit, are worth chasing. These Brothers just scream a lot more.
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