Subtle's Rebuilding Year 

Keyboardist Dax Pierson is partially paralyzed but fully determined to keep his avant-garde pop sextet both technologically and emotionally adept.

Def Leppard: Majestic English hair-metal titans offering robustly shrieked odes to woe and libido. Subtle: Panoramic Oaklandish avant-pop weirdos offering cryptically rapped odes to (just guessing here) woe and libido."

And never the twain should've met. But a pair of horrific car accidents has linked the two in terrible tragedy and (just hoping here) glorious, improbable, and technologically aided recovery and rebirth.

Rick Allen: Def Leppard drummer who lost an arm in a hideous New Year's Eve 1984 Corvette wreck, but, aided by a Tron-caliber space-age drum kit, has fully recovered and kept (robotically precise) time on five Def Lep albums since, including 1987's mighty Hysteria.

Dax Pierson: Subtle keyboardist paralyzed from the chest down in a February '05 tour van wreck, but, aided by a Matrix-caliber fleet of computer equipment, appears well on the (dauntingly long) road to recovery and will valiantly appear on every Subtle album to come, including this summer's quite possibly mighty for hero: for fool.

Rick, of course, has gradually lapsed into a mire of corny balladry and domestic violence; Dax is on a tougher but purer path. Journeying to Slim's in SF on a recent Friday night for Subtle's first show in a great while, it's a bummer that the crowd's dreams of a Triumphant Dax Sighting — would he descend from the ceiling in a pink wheelchair, or wheelie gleefully down the length of the bar? — go unfulfilled, but the band's reinvigorated intensity suggests its ailing comrade has much of the same.

"Dax is back," crows Subtle frontman Adam "Doseone" Drucker — the most prominent name/voice in the East Bay experimental hip-hop Anticon crew — from the back of the house as the night begins with a solo set from his bandmate, Jel. "Motherfuckin' machines," the rapper and drum programming maestro laments with a laugh as his gear momentarily craps out, while Doseone raves about the way those same machines have turned Dax into a high-tech force on wheels. Though limited to shoulder and biceps movement, he's making the most of it with a cadre of braces, computer mouses, and production software like GarageBand. He also has taken up beatboxing.

"He's really lucky," Doseone admits. "You frown on technology, but when you see Dax, you're like, 'Holy shit.'"

A full recovery is not guaranteed but not completely improbable — the Official Subtle Anecdote for 2006 recounts a recent night in the studio when, listening to playback of for hero: for fool material, Dax announced that, for the first time since the accident, he'd moved his finger. Just then. "He started to move his thumb," Doseone reiterates. "There's always hope, man."

In the interim, though, there's years of arduous therapy and, despite a continual outpouring of public support (especially flowing from Dax's day job at Berkeley's Amoeba Music), plenty of financial strife to contend with. "One million dollars will get spent," Dose says, between the tech and constantly necessary 'round-the-clock attendants. His triumphant recovery and rebirth has begun, but don't expect to see Dax onstage anytime soon.

His five Subtle bandmates, however, are back on tour and in unsubtle, tremendous form. First, after Jel's set, comes Fog, aka Minnesota weirdo Andrew Broder, best known for warped bedroom hip-hop laments. Andrew is frequently amazing and invariably bizarre — he dedicates a tune to Dax and then delicately croons the opening line: You know what they say/About doing laundry on your birthday. Profound.

Subtle itself is even more harsh, bizarre, and menacingly delicate, even without a partially paralyzed beatboxer in the mix. All five dudes — mostly manning live drums, a drum machine, cello, flute/sax, and Dose's vox and keyboard action, respectively — are clad in blood-red outfits, with Dose additionally wearing some sort of black-and-white-striped mink stole/bath towel he dramatically flings off within two minutes.

The sound itself is dense, apocalyptic, and occasionally quite beautiful, when a cello or flute line can rise above and sharply contrast with the snare- and keyboard-banging cacophony. Dose, meanwhile, unleashes a torrent of nasal, rapid-fire, well-nigh-inscrutable verbiage — he's the only guy who earnestly describes the progress on his next album by saying "I'm a thousand words into it." As the collective inches deeper into its first full decade of existence, Anticon remains notorious for this avant-garde, robo-Beefheart surrealist sound, but Subtle seems to be sheparding its evolution, still intimidating but slightly warmer. Most of Dose's flailing stage antics and loopy banter doesn't exactly project sincerity, but he pauses once to note "We've been through some heavy shit, and we've made some beautiful things with it. I want to dedicate every last scrap of what I have left to Dax Pierson."

for hero: for fool comes out later this year, and though you can expect plenty of Anticon/Subtle's gleeful abnormality, don't be surprised it's a bit more reflective and emotive as well. "No matter how aligned you are, you can always be realigned," Doseone explains. And no matter how broken you are, there's always the possibility that a combination of love, science, and willpower can fix you. —

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