Mucky, inclement skies don't stop local rock aficionados from descending on Blake's in Berkeley a couple days before Christmas to catch a holiday hardcore showcase featuring Sheol, Forthmorning, Normal Like You, and, best of all, the East Bay multiculti screamo band Omissa. A life-size cutout of Rod Stewart decked out in gear from the band's Concord label, Teki-Pyro, greets revelers before the show. Next to Rod sits Omissa guitarist Lenny Heredia, looking fashionably mod and delightfully bored, peering at a glass of green nastiness he describes as a mixture of green olive juice "and some other stuff." It looks terrible -- Lenny announces that anyone who drinks it can have a free copy of the group's new album, Identity Shattered.
Judging by the loyalty of Omissa's fans -- who pack the club so tight you can almost feel the walls pressing in -- it's surprising nobody takes the dare.
It's an amazing show, all strident guitar chords and confessional emo vocals delivered in an overwrought, wrenching style. Imagine a series of ardent rock singers nearly strangling their microphones and a bunch of guitarists shredding so hard that the sound crackles straight through the three wads of toilet paper you've plugged in your ears. It might suck you in and never let you out. The mostly post-pubescent, Hot-Topic-prone crowd (studded belts, cowboy boots, skull bandannas, and too-tight jeans) reacts intensely with what seems like religious fervor.
It's an odd reaction to a band initially named Happy Ending. Slowly born out of the San Ramon garage band scene, Omissa rechristened itself in 2002 at the suggestion of producer Adam Ruppell, who thought the name sounded really cool, and even cooler when Moore found out it's the Latin word for "omit" or "disregard." Seems there were already several Happy Endings gigging around Los Angeles, but it's doubtful they sounded -- or looked -- anything like these guys. What sonically sets Omissa apart is its rich influence of jazz, soul, and R&B mingling with all that hardcore style, but for a MySpace-wooing rock band, the band's racial makeup is even rarer: two blacks, two Latinos, and a Filipino.
"We come from different cultures, you know, a bunch of ethnic guys -- instead of just one black guy or one Mexican guy or whatever, we're all minorities down in this shit," Moore explains. "So we got this stigma already -- R&B or whatever. The shade of our skin don't fit the style of music we play."
Just don't expect them to act like polite, diplomatic ambassadors. "We're basically unpolitically correct," Moore confesses. "We drop a lot of F-bombs, we drop a lotta N-words within our own little clique. No matter if you're white or not, we're gonna call you a nigga."
A wider cultural palette suits these guys well. Drummer Melvin August was trained as a jazz dude, so he can do all those fancy stick-flipping moves and dotted rhythms you'd normally associate with Elvin Jones. Meanwhile, Moore praises Alicia Keys and sings metal the way Nina Simone sang the blues. Most would say the band's proper analogue is Metallica, but Omissa also is a distant spiritual cousin to Led Zeppelin, but without the frightening '70s hairdos, boner-flaunting pants, and medieval iconography.
Also, these guys flaunt the emotional intensity of their hardcore/screamo brethren. "Here I Go" -- a tune Moore wrote for guitarist Rudy Ponce when the axeman was feeling disconnected from his family -- opens with a plaintive guy-angst chorus (Here I go/I'm wasted) and soon intensifies into a series of guttural, raggedy-voiced yowls. In the band's strident, guitar-driven ballad "In Your Eyes," Moore violently confronts the race stereotypes that still haunt him. The lyrics are plainspoken (I'm fallen/I'm broken/In your eyes I'm the kind that's nothing), and sung so earnestly you feel he's pulling back the curtain to his interior world. The violent guitar lines only deepen the catharsis. "It doesn't matter how rich I get," the singer explains. "I'm still gonna be something else in the eyes of some people."
So they can sell the drama. Can they sell records? The PR folks at Teki-Pyro boast that this band is made for radio stardom; that pressure to stop fucking around and get famous is manifest during a recent practice at Oakland's Soundwave studios. Like most bands, the guys spend a fair amount of time shooting the breeze between rehearsing songs, interludes that sometimes devolve into jam sessions wherein Lenny kicks down some funky guitar riffs so Moore can practice his James Brown wail. On the other hand, practices have tightened considerably since Teki-Pyro came on board. Omissa's A&R rep (and de facto manager) Jim Settle (aka "The Boss Man") hangs around the studio like an officious schoolmaster, offering suggestions and reminding the band members to come up with better stories for their next interview. There's a dry-erase board on one wall so they can organize their set lists, though someone snuck in and changed "In Your Eyes" to "In Your Thighs."
This push for better organization and more success makes sense; at the Blake's show, Omissa undoubtedly stands out. Yeah, the band reverts to some familiar screamo clichés -- shrill cries, primal growls, bruisingly edgy lyrics -- but unlike most fledgling rock acts, this hostile melodrama seems really convincing. These guys are grown-up versions of the metal geeks from your high school who played D&D and drew pentagrams on their backpacks. You get the sense they've all had a lot of experience with Not Fitting In and being the token whatever in the room, which might explain why they're now so preoccupied with omitting, disregarding, and subverting identity categories.
Granted, identity isn't always worth shattering: Omissa could probably gain a lot of mileage in the Bay Area screamo scene by flaunting the ethnic stuff. You just hope that once these guys enter the world of big-shed concerts and mainstream radio, they won't get shoehorned into some kind of race traitor or hip minority category, that they won't have to omit or disregard all the stuff that makes them freaky and cool. Ideally, a year from now, flush with modest mainstream success, Heredia might still offer you a free album on the condition that you drink something green and awful. Even if you still politely decline.
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