Though mainstream music fans might equate St. Louis and its immediate environs with Nellyville (hey, look -- there's the goddamned Arch on the cover of Vibe!), in certain fierce municipalities St. Louis matters because it was once home to Dazzling Killmen.
Dazzling Killmen actually hailed from the East Side, like their equally legendary alt-country counterparts Uncle Tupelo, but, in the spirit of regionalism, we'll claim what we can for our hometown (as long as it isn't St. Charles' Greenwheel). The Killmen existed as a band from 1990-95, releasing two full-length CDs, a collection of outtakes and live tracks and a handful of seven-inch singles, all of which sold squat, in industry terms. But in noise-rock circles, the band was and remains the absolute shit.
Sad old bastards such as Radar Station who were lucky enough to hear the band perform live in its heyday can attest to the small but obsessive hordes of devotees who swooned and genuflected at the Killmen's sweaty altar. Radar Station's former proprietor, Randall Roberts, wrote the following in a 1993 appreciation: "[T]heir live shows have become so anticipated and precisely compact that spaces have had to be cleared of tables and random objects to hold the crowds. Drunken rowdies, all crammed together, scream cathartically as the band explodes, the most masculine of men and women fainting, wobbling and bumping with passion and fear."
Dazzling Killmen sounded like nothing else in rock, and, though they've left in their wake swarms of followers and an entire subgenre, no one has ever managed to duplicate their roiling, grinding, narcotic hardcore. The Killmen weren't the first to fuse free jazz and rock & roll -- Captain Beefheart, the MC5 and the Stooges beat them to the punch by some twenty years -- but they made the experiment sound new again. Nor did you need a degree in music theory to appreciate them. Though founding member Nick Sakes barely knew how to play guitar when he started the band, he had a natural gift and the good sense to surround himself with accomplished musicians; bassist Darin Gray, drummer Blake Fleming and second guitarist Tim Garrigan, a later addition, were all serious jazz freaks. The combination was perfect: Their churning symphonic squalor betrayed chops aplenty, but they could bang heads as well as they could blow minds. Whereas most of their contemporaries wallowed in the ugly-for-ugly's-sake aesthetic of the so-called pigfucker school, Dazzling Killmen dredged through the muck to find something rare and beautiful, sharp shards of melody and counterpoint that glittered all the more brightly for being submerged in noise.
But that's ancient history: Sakes moved to Minneapolis, where he plays with his great new group, Sicbay; Garrigan and Fleming live in NYC, where they play with untold fancy folk; and loyal homeboy Darin Gray, who's played with such experimental hotshots as Jim O'Rourke and Loren MazzaCane Connors, has a fantastic new trio, Grand Ulena, that practically never plays here at all. Why perseverate about a band that doesn't exist anymore when everyone else has moved the fuck on?
Just ask Jeff McLeod. The Montgomery, Alabama-based fanboy recently released, at his own expense, Digging Out the Switch Again: A Tribute to Dazzling Killmen. "I don't believe there are any aggressive bands these days that can combine the dynamics and fury of the Killmen," McLeod explains by e-mail. "The Killmen were the last of a breed. The mold was literally broken after them."
The mold may have been broken, but that didn't stop McLeod from assembling some pretty fragments. His posse of like-minded souls covers ten Dazzling Killmen songs -- from the Netherlands' Fine China Superbone, who deliver a respectably psychotic "Bone Fragments," to Collinsville, Illinois' Conformists, who mangle "Torture" beautifully (we'll claim them for St. Louis, too, by the way). Perhaps not surprisingly, Gray's bandmates in Grand Ulena, guitarist Chris Trull and drummer Danny McClain, turn in the album's highlight, a strange and cerebral instrumental take on "Killing Fever" that starts out hushed and spacey and ends up ripping your guts out through your ear canals. "It's a very atypical DK song," Trull explains. "It seemed like a good jumping-off point to do something new, as opposed to trying to re-create what they did. Their music has/had a 'lightning in a bottle' quality that didn't seem to lend itself to a straight-up note-for-note cover version."
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