Friday, February 1, 2019

Six Degrees of Spitfire

One of the first hardcore bands I ever really latched onto was Spitfire. They were out there alongside contemporaries like Zao, Training For Utopia, and Living Sacrifice, though they offered something a little more sinister, a little more frenzied, and a little more endearing to the Christian hardcore scene. Right around 1997, I was introduced to this burgeoning experience, and came across Spitfire while at 1998's Cornerstone Music Festival in Bushnell, Illinois. The insanely popular Zao were friends with the guys of Spitfire, and gave up 10 minutes of their own set time to the little known three-piece, consisting of screamer/guitar player Matt Beck, bass player Jimmy Reeves, and drummer Chris Raines. They probably hit as many wrong notes as right ones that night, but dear lord, did those guys go nuts and make the most of their little air time. After Zao's set, I headed over to Spitfire's booth and bought their EP, Straining Towards What's To Come, and bought their sticker to slap on my bumper. 

A year later, Spitfire released their debut album on Solid State Records, making them label mates with Zao. My girlfriend at the time worked at a music store and brought me an advanced copy of the album, titled The Dead Next Door. While she wanted to listen to her emo bands, all I wanted to listen to was Spitfire. Beck brought his signature barks and roars to the new record, along with some of the best guitar work I'd ever heard for a three-piece. How he managed to scream and pull off such nasty riffs at the same time, I'll never know. I had read how Beck had been such a big fan of The Smiths, and the opening track of the album proved to be his homage. "Please Don't Go Out Tonight" was a great tune to open the album with, and was clear evidence of musical growth within the band in the past year.

I remember thinking to myself that they made the most noise I could ever hope to hear coming from three people. I think that's one of the reasons they had been so popular at Cornerstone the year before. Other highlights on the debut album were "Marasmus," which was re-recorded from Straining Towards What's to Come, "Good Cop, Bad Cop," and the highly melodic "All Indentured Lovable." Reeves and Raines clearly destroy on the album as well in an effort where the noise is made completely by the four instruments advertised, no gimmicks needed.

Something strange happened the last time I Youtubed one of my old bands to see if our video was still floating around. I somehow came across a live show of Eighteen Visions - a show I had actually been in attendance for. In 2000, a friend and I traveled to Nashville to see Eighteen Visions, Spitfire, and Hopesfall - and a couple of girls. Seeing Spitfire again was an added bonus. I was a little taken aback to see a new vocalist taking the mic next to a guitar player who wasn't Matt Beck (Randy Vanderbilt). Jimmy Reeves and Chris Raines were still part of the act, so I remained optimistic. I later read that Beck was dealing with the some off-screen issues, but new vocalist, Jon Spencer, stepped in nicely to give the band a new look and feel. He spasmed and girated his way across the stage that night, freed up from the guitar restraints that had once limited Beck's mobility as a vocalist.

Having this fresh perspective of the band, I was ecstatic when they returned to the studio in 2001 to release the EP, The Slideshow Whiplash. The tunes were certainly different from The Dead Next Door, but Matt Beck still proved to be a mathematical genius, cooking up tasty new riffs in two of the EP's four songs. The recording was a little tinny, but the songs were swarthy and meticulous, with Spencer introducing an edgy, throaty, descriptive vocal style. His lyrics were brash and highly metaphorical on tracks like "This Ain't Vegas and You Ain't Elvis," and "Bulletproof and Tall as Jesus." The band gave fans a glimpse of good things to come, but sadly, they broke up in 2002.

One night in 2004, a friend and I were on our way downtown to see A Life Once Lost and Norma Jean. On the way, he played for me a band called Scarlet, telling me that as a Spitfire fan, I would like them. I immediately recognized Spencer's throaty rasps on "Revolver," the opening track to the band's 2003 EP, Something to Lust About. On guitars, Scarlet featured Randy Vanderbilt, who had been part of Spitfire for time after Beck left. Following the night's show, I went out to buy my own copy of the EP. Next to Deadguy's Screamin' With the Deadguy Quintet, it was the best EP I'd ever heard, musically chaotic with mathematical guitars and sick breakdowns, lyrics waxing on the glamorous macabre.

Spencer painted pictures not unlike the Nic Cage film Waking the Dead with lyrics like "A.M. rendezvous with strung out ambulance drivers, caffeine blues." On "Carbon Copy Killer," he seethes "Let me smear your makeup, let me break your face, let me break your porcelain face." Scarlet was the perfect successor to Spitfire, a point proven even further by their 2004 LP, Cult Classic. I liked the EP better overall, as I thought the songs were better composed overall, but Cult Classic stuck to the same glue that made Something to Lust About such a success. Spencer continued to lyrically dabble in the arts of sex and greed and the cult mindset with tracks like "Nymphoteens," "Lie.Fake.Money-Make.," and "Human Pollen." My personal favorite is "The Joy Decoys Are Coming," where Spencer screams, "Sleezy used car salesman telling you how to feel, if you want love, you can buy love, everyone is for sale."

In 2005, the same friend who had introduced me to Scarlet told me that Spitfire was back with a vengeance, and that Jon Spencer had left Scarlet to return to the band. He was not alone, as he brought Scarlet guitarist "Dangerous" Dan Tulloh in to play bass. Spitfire added a second guitar in the form of the ex-Norma Jean brute, Scottie Henry. Years before when Norma Jean was still called Luti-Kriss, mine and Scottie's bands played several shows together. He wore a Spitfire t-shirt one day, and we found further common ground as we gushed over the band. He eventually became part of it, bringing his sick, melee guitar licks with him alongside those of Matt Beck, already solidified as one of the best in the game. Spitfire's new album, Self-Help, picked up where The Slideshow Whiplash had left off, with track "Life and Limb" sharing several similarities with "Bulletproof and Tall as Jesus." Spencer even alluded to as much with the tongue-in-cheek line, "She gives me stilts to walk tall as Jesus."

Spencer's lyrics yet again waxed viscerally metaphorical, spouting lines on opening track "Meat Market," "I met my brother at the trough today, he tasted good." While the theme of the album is certainly self-help, he begins the ride by telling us how in our dog eat dog world, we often devour one another with little to no regard. Chris Raines brought back his punishing drum style to the record, and on "Meat Market," he brilliantly works his way down his set, beats following the meticulous timing of the guitar licks. Beck mastered the art of the gritty, guttural chugga-chuggas on Spitfire's debut album back in 1999, and brought it back for Self-Help tracks like "Leap of Faith" and "U.V I.V." On the latter, Spencer growls, "My skin leathers for us to be together" in an emotive, feral, endearing swoon for a would-be lover. This was ofof course prefaced by the sample of a calm, serine therapy session, dishing out daily affirmations until the grimy chaos on the song begins.

The latter half of the record is highlighted by tracks like "The Great White Noise," where Spencer croons through the chorus. "The Suicide Cult is Dead"  serves as another tongue-in-cheek allusion to his past dabblings in Scarlet's 2004 cult mindset. I can't be sure if he is referring to this in general, or if he's dishing out a subtle jab at his former bandmates, belting out lines like "Our second coming never came." Spitfire closes out the record with "Ohm Driver." Beck and Henry return to the same brutality, and Spencer returns to the same lyrical content that made "U.V. I.V" so good. "Ohm Driver" is it's doppelganger in a sense, with lines like "If this is a horror flick, then you are my leading lady." One of the best things about Self-Help is the band's mission to avoid monotony, with nearly every track falling into its own category, obliterating any chance of repetition.

On July 9th of 2008, Spitfire returned to studio to record their next album sans Scottie Henry. Dan Tulloh switched to guitar and recorded most of the tracks, while Matt Beck was featured on only three. Jon Spencer found a way to incorporate his piano and other keys, and reverted back to his fascination with the cults on an album titled Cult Fiction. The first track the band released from the album was the standout, "Crossed," which streamed nicely with the previous tracks from Self-Help and teased more of the same to come. It in itself was a little misleading, as the rest of the album came forth as dark and gritty and a little insidious. The tracks Beck contributed to, "Crossed," "Chemotherapist," and "Track Marxist" were my personal favorites. He was up to his old bag of guitar tricks again, experimenting with the thuggish chugs and hammer-ons that had made The Dead Next Door such a success. Spencer was certainly back to his old ways. The metaphors flew left and right as Beck and Tulloh belted out their sludgy licks, and Raines showed the most range of his long career with the band on the effort. It was skeleton crew sort of effort, and while the record often sounded like a completely different band from their previous record at times, Spitfire had finally introduced their fans to the darkest sides of their musical capabilities.

Cults were not the only topics Spencer had to talk about on this one. He commented on maternity and birth on tracks like "Arrythmia Drift" and "Mother Earth in Labor." In the latter, he howls "You've been raised up wrong, Lazarus, in this aborting world, mother's metal hanger and its cutting rapist wit." The interludes are composed of slow, drudging dirges, odd vignettes of lonely guitar strings and piano keys, and creepy, funeral pallor-worthy ballads. It was certainly Spitfire's most experimental effort to date. Seeing where the band had come from and all of its many line-up changes, Cult Fiction was a nice break from the norm. "Animal Kingdom of Heavens Gate" and "Pro-Life" were frenzied reassurances of the working themes, while the previously-mentioned "Track Marxist" spread an anti-war message that ended with samples of a crazed snake-handling service. In what I had read on Cult Fiction before its release, the band promised a much darker, heavier album. They did not disappoint. Spencer sends out messages of pro-life and anti-war, which makes his not-so-subtle politics seem pretty nuanced.

The band also tread new territory in their controversial album cover and their minimal use of profanity - a departure from their earlier work. This, along with the bleak, dystopian sounds of Cult Fiction, signaled a departure from the Spitfire we all knew. These were changes I was certainly okay with, as artists sometimes feel compelled to push their own envelopes in order to expand their wings, however ashen black they may be. Even now, I follow Spitfire alum Chris Raines and Jimmy Reeves, and former Scarlet members Randy Vanderbilt and Andreas Magnusson into their newer projects, expanding the six degrees of Spitfire.

When the band called it quits, they left their fans a poignant but cryptic message. "Was born. Started cult. Fulfilled prophecy. Died with dignity." There was not much hope of a reunion following the all but definite proclamation. As I continued to celebrate the band's legacy, a friend of mine cued me in on Sunndrug, the new band of original member Jimmy Reeves, which included none other than Chris Raines. Shortly after the release of their first single, "Denial," the group announced that Matt Beck had joined the fold as well, but soon after,  had left again. The name Sunndrug and the original members of Spitfire immediately brought to mind the Self-Help track, "U.V I.V."
Sunndrug 2018

"Denial" was a shard of post-punk brilliance, pulsing and grinding with crunching guitars and a cynical vocal sway, proving that vet Jimmy Reeves was indeed back on the scene. His new concept of style was reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails and Fugazi, while their newest single, "Bleed Your High," a social commentary on the mindless consumption of social media, gives more of a NIN and Quicksand vibe - which I love, considering that Quicksand's Manic Compression album ranks among my favorites. "Bleed Your High" is more in the vein of "Denial," driving and full of gusto. Chris Raines promises that the new material is even heavier and more in the vein of "Bleed Your High," which I am quite eager to hear.

Other tracks on the debut album, Exit Wounds, include the droning "Blackout." The rest of the tunes seem more about the sound effects and the keys, the beeps and the subtle beats, making "Denial" one of the few pulse-pounders on the record. When the guitars do rear their heads, they come forth as crunchy and nasty and bombastic, making for a wholly new post-punk experience. While the band continue to play shows mostly in the VA area, they recorded the new single with former Scarlet drummer, Andreas Magnusson, who, along with Randy Vanderbilt, recruited Oh, Sleeper vocalist Micah Kinard to form the metalcore outfit, Viles Ones.

This new band sounds like a perfect encapsulation of a Scarlet fronted by former Norma Jean and The Chariot vocalist, Josh Scogin. Vile Ones' 2018 EP Teeth is a brutal, 6-track affair with guitar work that harkens back to the days of Scarlet's Something to Lust About. One reviewer called opener "Bait & Collar" the weakest track, though it's actually my favorite, with the opening guitar tweaks likened to Scarlet's "Revolver." Vile Ones, along with Every Time I Die and Frontierer, give me hope for a bright future in the metal and hardcore genre, especially once they get around to releasing their full length.

To recap, the Six Degrees of Spitfire goes as follows: Matt, Chris, and Jimmy create Spitfire, Matt leaves, Randy and Jon join, Jon and Randy leave to join Scarlet, Jon leaves with Dan to join Spitfire, Jimmy leaves for New York, Matt leaves, Spitfire dies, Chris and Jimmy form Sunndrug, Matt joins, Matt leaves, Sunndrug records with Andreas, Andreas and Randy create Vile Ones. The gist? Spitfire was an electric, nuanced band that left a lasting legacy on a scene that either never knew them, or will never forget them.

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