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.
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.
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.
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."
"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.
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.