An idle thought crossed my mind as I watched Zebulon Pike rehearse in their tiny practice space. Standing in the middle of the room, I could touch both walls without moving. That is, if those speaker cabinets weren't in my way.
Meanwhile, guitarists Morgan Berkus and Erik Fratzke (best known as the bassist for Happy Apple) demonstrate the yoga position known as "the headbanger": Try to touch your head to the floor 200 times a minute while playing intertwining harmonies. By the door, bassist Steve Post and photographer Dan Corrigan, in a rock 'n' roll reinterpretation of the cabin scene from A Night at the Opera, try to find room for Corrigan to take a band shot. Even during this two-step, Post generates enough force to bitchslap a rhino. Erik Boland pummels his kit with channeled ferocity, a wall full of broken cymbals tacked up behind him, like enemy heads on pikes outside a warrior village. ("I play for therapy," he tells me later.) They stop and the room enjoys a bit of well-earned silence.
Fratzke notices something not quite right about the way one section flowed into another on the piece. (Couldn't tell by me.) Drummer Eric Boland allows that he might have played the fill a little too loudly. But bassist Post has a better explanation for the miniscule miscue.
"It's the humidity. The sound just slices out of those things in the thick air," says Post, pointing to his bass cabinet's speakers. "Propeller planes work better when it's humid outside. The blades grab better. It's like a boat motor going through the water. I'm an aviation buff. I know these things."
"I'll bet you had one of those posters with the different airplanes on your wall when you were a kid," pipes in Boland.
"Yeah. That and the periodic table."
Whatever the cause, the musical problem is quickly worked out and the band gleefully launches into another precisely executed, fabric-rippling opus. While some musicians get hives just hearing the word composition, the discipline liberates Zebulon Pike. Which is good, because there's a lot of hard slog that goes into the making of a Pike piece. In a phone conversation, Berkus calculates that the group puts "three, four, or five songs' worth of riffs in one ten- or twelve-minute song." Piecing those riffs together into one seamless instrumental is a painstaking process learned a minute at a time, over six weeks of rehearsals. At this pace, the band should have their second long-player ready, say, around 2008.
Wait for it, though. Their latest, And Blood Was Passion (Unfortunate Music) sounds like all the critical descriptors I've seen--Sabbath without vocals, Don Caballero with extra protein. And it sounds like their practice-space walls, too: a big banner of the Motörhead logo glaring across at Xeroxes of Czech composer Leos Janá cek, Frank Zappa and the Mothers, and vampire movie promo posters. But to reduce the band to a set of influences is like trying to stuff bread dough in a pill bottle--it's messy and misguided.
Zebulon Pike are urgent perfectionists, and the product of their painstaking labor is as stinging as any punk rock. Just listen to the crazed stop-start rave-up that closes "Howl of Wicca," lurching like a 50-foot windup toy down to its last crank. Or how the delicately wrought main theme of "Under Capricorn" is slowly consumed by the dark, rumbling grind of the rhythm section.
It's the band's combination of architecture and athleticism that draws everyone from doom metallers looking for a twist on low-tuned sludge to post rockers needing extra nutrition to those who think Ozzy is just the dad on The Osbournes. "I see people at our shows, enjoying it, that I wouldn't associate with heavy metal," Berkus says. "We're a metal band, but fortunately and gratefully, it transcends it a little bit."
Which isn't to say that the group isn't unabashedly metallic. They're cramming in a quick practice, even though half the band has tickets to the Wolves game, so they'll be prepared for Youngstown, Ohio's Emissions from the Monolith festival, an alternate underground universe where the stars of the '80s SST label were not the Hüskers and Minutemen but St. Vitus and Gone. They wrap up the set in time for the game, and plan a quick rehearsal before heading out in a few days on the 14-hour drive to Youngstown. Fratzke excitedly does a critique of the last song. He's especially pleased with how Post interpreted a bassline: "You come down and we go up. It makes a beautiful convergence." And that's as tidy a summary of the band's merging of musical mindfulness, muscle--even their divergent audience--as anyone could come up with.
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