Men In Black

Ricky Haley

To be sure, I am a forest, and a night of
dark trees: But he who is not afraid of my
darkness will find banks full of roses
under my cypresses.

--Friedrich Nietzsche,
Thus Spake Zarathustra


Travis Bos wears black. Everyone in Song of Zarathustra wears black. But you notice his black more. Onstage he's as pale as the ass of St. Patrick Costello: He's wiry, and wound like a hastily recalled children's toy. Raven hair drapes across his eyes like sunglasses. And when he stops thrashing long enough to place a foot on Mark Jorgensen's drum kit, there's no detectable exchange of White Stripes-style warmth. Bos is more like a maniacal fan about to decapitate the drummer with a riding cymbal.

The singer's unsmiling absorption in what he's doing--screaming, mostly--is infectious. On a recent April evening, at the nine-hour TC Fest punk event at the Hamline University ballroom, the musicians around Bos wear the expression you might display while sawing off your own leg to free it from a bear trap. The two guitarists and bassist scratch the living love out of a handful of "notes"--you could call it droning if their rhythms weren't so algebraic. They sound like Fugazi with all climaxes, or a funky variation on the scream-rock of San Diego's Drive Like Jehu, but with a keyboard twist. When he's not facing down Jorgensen, Bos keeps his fingers on a brash-sounding Ensonique synthesizer organ, a fresh-for-1988 relic pumped through God knows how many amplifiers. Think Drive like Dracula--did I mention they all wear black?

"Great Balls of Reznor," I say to myself, though that iconography may be too much for the younger set at TC Fest. Only a half-hour earlier, the pit athletes were dogpiling on members of Season on Fire. Now the hardcore kids fold their arms and stare at Song of Zarathustra, who have the unenviable job of headlining after the band everyone came to see. Some of these students look younger than the self-carved tattoos on founding Zarathustra guitarist Trever McInnis. Others gratefully bask in the waves of aural darkness. At one point McInnis, bassist Mark Shaw, and second guitarist Tad Kubler (of Lifter Puller, now the quintet's token blonde) abruptly turn from the crowd and face their obvious true loves: their amplifiers. The engulfing feedback recalls the go-home-already wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee that used to close Hüsker Dü gigs--an aging punk's idea of pleasure.

On any given Tuesday, you can hear this same tone ringing through the maze of hallways around the space where Song of Zarathustra practice, inside a cinder-block building near the Minneapolis Impound Lot. Shaw, the soft-spoken bassist, even allows that the tenants in the room next door left to escape the throb: "They're like, 'Yeah, we moved out because you guys are the loudest band in here,'" he laughs, relaxing in the closet-sized chamber, which the band shares with Cadillac Blindside.

Despite the grimness of their shows, the three Song members here are friendly and funny. McInnis and Bos laugh when I bring up the group's name, a reference to both the theme song from 2001: A Space Odyssey (those amps are the band's own private monoliths) and the character Nietzsche invented to express his ideas. "We get asked about that all the time, especially in Germany," says Bos. "They need to know your politics, where you stand on this and that, what you think about the World Trade Center, and what you think of Nietzsche. Members have read him, but it's not like we're die-hard nihilists or anything."

In fact, the band's philosophy more closely resembles a roving pleasure principle. Bos, age 25, and McInnis, 29, say they gravitated to their scream-lined style because it's fun to play live. Both were born in industrial Sioux City, Iowa, listened to a wide range of sound as teens (Cardigans, Christian Death, whatever), and made frequent road trips to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Minneapolis to see bands that wouldn't play their Fargo-like burg. They formed Song in 1997, disbanded the following year, and reunited in Minneapolis to release a bracing 2000 debut, The Birth of Tragedy (Troubleman Unlimited). By the time they settled upon the current expanded lineup last December, the band had reshuffled members so many times that even McInnis gets the timeline confused. He says the lush new noise, so striking on a forthcoming sophomore album, owes to Kubler's added guitar textures. ("Kub" reshaped Lifter Puller to similar effect.)

If fanzines mistake this harsh beauty for nihilism, blame the dark exterior. Song of Zarathustra used to fly skull banners and count a Roland drum machine among their members, like Big Black. The brooding lyrics on their recently released collection of early singles, Z: (Blood of the Young), even contain verbs such as "shall" and "show forth." But in the end those blasts of poesy are as incomprehensible as a death-metal gnarl. "What if these words are wasted?" goes an abstract shriek on "Save Our Ship." Believe me, they're wasted like a rat on Romilar.

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