Settling in for a dinner of cigarettes and the occasional carbohydrate in a meager dressing room at the Great American Music Hall last month, Oakland's Heart of Snow hardly seemed fazed to be playing such a large venue so early in their incarnation. For a group only active this past year, one might've expected a little more awe at playing a show of that size, opening up for the Gossip. But Heart of Snow has no delusions of grandeur. Plying a sound somewhere between old-school goth and post-rock, the band takes its notoriety in stride, having toured the West Coast numerous times and even reaching the number-one position at Southern California's KXLU radio.
Heart of Snow's impressive debut EP, Endure or More (recorded with Dan Rathburn of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), revels in moody drama less introverted than goth, but more mysterious than the meat-and-potatoes of hardcore punk. The sound has its precedents, but the cohesion in the group strikes a nerve as raw as its influences. The guitar-and-bass interaction conjures up the dark, dubby dynamics of PiL's "Metal Box," with delay pedals creating an inhuman metallic sheen as a rhythmic simplicity anchors the bass melody.
As the singer, Cynthia Mansourian has the job of cultivating a mystique, helped along by physical and vocal comparisons to Siouxie Sioux and PJ Harvey. "I grew up overseas," she says. "[In] the Middle East and France, then I moved here -- [I'm an] International Woman of Mystery," she jokes. Mansourian's day job as an Albany high school teacher may be surprising, but it doesn't seem to interfere with touring or the proverbial "rock 'n' roll lifestyle." "When I first started teaching, I was a freak," she says. "Seriously, there was nobody like me teaching. Now there's a whole generation of punks and people like that moving into [the field]." Mansourian is definitely the band's frontman in many ways, but you don't get the sense that she needs to be directing the action -- perhaps this is a result of the teacher in her; she's a generous leader and that carries over into her extracurriculars.
The band, composed of guitarist Aaron Coyes, bassist Andy Zevallos, Scott Batiste on drums, and Mansourian on vocals, debuted at 924 Gilman in April 2000. Their second show was on the anniversary of Ian Curtis' death, with friends in Dead and Gone performing a set of Joy Division covers to mark the occasion, outing the band's semi-closeted love of Brit-goth glamour to the East Bay's notoriously crusty clan. The HOS set resonated with GSL founder Sonny Kay, who signed them to his San Diego-based label, alongside Chik Chik Chik and Le Shok. Says Kay, "I enjoy hearing the post-punk influences, which are filtered through players who are clearly emerging from hardcore as opposed to punk. It's a new take on an old formula, and they pull it off well."
Lately, however, the band has been rocked by an internal split. Batiste recently parted company and took up drumming duties with the Pattern. The departure appears to be a sensitive subject for the remaining three, who collectively made the following e-mail statement: "We all feel it was a pretty fucked-up, very uncool situation, but we're moving on." Yipes. The current spate of shows features replacement drummer Cary LaScala, formerly of Murder Takes No Holiday. HOS is also proceeding with plans to record a new full-length, as scheduled.
The real question is, what's with the name? Allusions to Stevie Nicks and drugs are suggested, but Mansourian balks at this. "God I never thought of that," she says. "How horrible ... no, no drug references in the name." Though the band bears little resemblance to the bloat of Fleetwood Mac, Heart of Snow ought to know that its rising profile will inevitably lead to all sorts of speculation. It's the trade-off for having mystique.
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