i’ve been listening to Songs of Faith and Devotion a lot lately,” says drummer Stephen McCarty, responding to the allegation that a song during their set sounded more than a little bit like Violator-era Depeche Mode, with Cory Shane’s wailing slide reaching toward a dronier “Personal Jesus.” The period between Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion marked a change for Depeche Mode as they turned away from synthesizers and chose to play more traditional rock, kowtowing to the pressures of the market shift toward grunge and the loud distortion that was the hallmark of shoegaze. With lyrics that wouldn’t seem out of place on an early period Jethro Tull record, Depeche Mode’s tortured Christian imagery represents the watered down moralism offered by rehabilitation programs the world over. Yet it somehow makes sense that those themes would resonate with Dead Meadow, both lyrically and musically, from the disfiguring feedback that opens “I Feel You” and the brooding, judgmental “Walking in My Shoes.” While Dead Meadow hasn’t ventured those bathetic depths, their work is representative of an estranged rock tradition still looking for a home.

Their most recent release, Feathers, combines that shoegaze sensibility with their ongoing dedication to a devastating blend of thudding metal and gutbucket blues rock, but departs somewhat from the steady diet of boogie offered on their earlier records. Stephen McCarty’s churning drum style gets pared back a bit, but the rhythm whirls inexorably like a turbine, powerful and purposeful, pondering John Fogerty’s perpetual motion. He and Steve Kille form a destructive pair at the base of Dead Meadow’s sound, throbbing with electric pain, while guitarists Jason Simon and Cory Shane sculpt lunging riffs and rein in glorious wah wah solos, the lush spatiality of arpeggiated chords replacing the blunt force trauma mustered elsewhere previously. Feathers harnesses their collective energies and puts them to use differently than previous records like Howls From The Hills (2001) and Shivering King and Others (2003) without abandoning either the ambling, torporific pace or the pagan tapestries they weave. The sprawling, unmitigated guitar squall has been exchanged in places for subtler tones as their sound develops with each new record, which at times sounds more like Echo and the Bunnymen or Slowdive now than Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, or Cactus.

These changes aren’t lost on their audience. As Jason Simon puts it, “You know, I don’t know what the fuck our audience is. I don’t think it’s like a metal audience…I guess it’s reflective of us, you know, probably like weird dudes who hang out in the basement…” McCarty quickly adds, “Because we’re weird dudes who hang out in basements.” Whatever the case may be, their faithful came out on a ghastly Wednesday night in freezing rain and gusting winds to see them play. Dead Meadow are exceptional live, capably reproducing that relentless, heaving guitar sound. After signing to Matador in 2003, they have been exposed to various audiences as an opening act, joining Stephen Malkmus as he toured to support Pig Lib, and toured Europe with Super Furry Animals later that year. Although both audiences overlap, Simon recalls the mixed reception they got from Malkmus’ audiences: unsure of what to expect from three lanky, reserved unknowns, one of whom wore a moustache, he says they felt that the songs were “too long and weird.” Super Furry Animals fans had different expectations, being accustomed to Gruff Rhys’ proggy meanderings and his varied pop sensibilities and shaggy metal chops. The hard edged psychedelia, replete with its exaggerated pastoral imagery takes on a strange significance this week; the Pope’s death representing the ritual and sacraments of antiquity, jibing comfortably with Dead Meadow’s rejection of modernist impulses in their own work. Those primordial connections aren’t lost on them, as they seek inspiration in medieval themes and their contemporary cultural antecedents, ranging from Tolkien to Lovecraft, channeling Shelley’s rancorous romanticism, which celebrated ruined monuments and the monarchs they honored.

When asked about their acoustic songs and why they don’t play them live, Simon puts it in practical terms. “To do it really right it would be like setting up a whole other band…”, he feels, and they would be hard pressed to soundcheck another set of instruments when Simon feels they’ve only recently achieved their expected sound by bringing their own soundman Brian Coatsie on the road with them. And while both Simon and McCarty expressed an interest in playing their brand of acid folk, Simon chafes at the suggestion that they fit into the freakfolk mold. “There’s good and bad. There’s a lot of bad,” Simon’s nasal intonation indicating his uncertain contempt for the genre, something cobbled together more by ethereal hype than actual social interaction and artistic intent. However, he and McCarty are quick to mention Winter Flowers, an L.A. duo featuring mandolin and acoustic guitar, as well as guest accompaniments on other instruments, as a group that falls into the “good” category. “They’re light years beyond most of the big names I’ve heard,” insists Simon.

In a broader sense, there’s little happening within either folk or metal where one can meaningfully place a band like Dead Meadow. As more extreme metal acts like Pig Destroyer, Necrophagist, and Cephalic Carnage advance on mainstream visibility, Dead Meadow find themselves aesthetically homeless, and although they don’t bristle at the notion of being part of a greater trend, there simply aren’t many people comfortable imitating their idols so reverently. And, like fellow unsung psychedelic savants Bardo Pond, they don’t find an audience in their hometown, something Simon attributes to Washington D.C.’s escalating housing costs which have dispersed the scene to the affordable neighborhoods located in the city’s outlying areas, contributing to the relative lack of local audiences: Simon and McCarty agreed that for the cost of living in D.C., New York seems a reasonable alternative, and they’re quick to add they they play New York more often than their adopted hometown. And while some bands might be discouraged by such a demoralizing fact, their commitment reaches beyond mainstream viability as they continually develop their sound.

Like The Hidden Hand, Dead Meadow see the difference between blues metal pastiche and the value of operating within its hallowed tradition, respecting their audience’s ability to discern a counterfeit from the real thing.


By: J T. Ramsay
Published on: 2005-04-04
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