Somebody's Gonna Die
By Raoul Hernandez
MARCH 9, 1998: The tiny black bull stands defiantly on its uneven legs, four pairs of eyes fixed on it. For a moment, everyone in the room is silent, as if waiting for the small black beast to charge. Its sharp, white horns catch the light, as does the red sash protruding from the creature's back. He doesn't move. One can almost imagine dark crimson blood slowly dripping from the hump in the bull's back where the matador has stuck the animal. Sangre de Toro. Blood of the bull. Great name. "It's been used before," says Brett Bradford in his slow cadence. "It's a Spanish table wine that we used to love to drink. Spanish table wine - very chewy, cheap, almost gritty. But yummy. It's good. I like it."
"And it comes with a plastic bull," quips drummer Max Brody.
Everyone laughs. Stan Johnson, the group's bassist, keeps grinning his sardonic smile while washing down some homebrew. Everyone tips back their glass of beer (conveniently drawn from the tap on the refrigerator door), all eyes still on the little plastic bull on the corner of the big square coffee table in the living room of Brody and Johnson's South Austin home. Bradford, the trio's guitarist and matador (only one man kills the bulls), leans forward.
"I think it's a good band name," he says, eyes twinkling with a certain sweet subversiveness.
"The aggression associated with it," injects Brody.
"Just the whole epitome of a bullfight," finishes Bradford. "Somebody's gonna die here. The seriousness about it."
Quite. Sangre de Toro is serious. Not sitting here, just a curtain away from their rehearsal cell; Bradford, 37, is laid back, somewhat laconic, but always alert, and the very definition of "congenial"; Brody, 28, is wiry, energetic, and attended this writer's alma mater, Pomona College. Johnson, 30, tall, thin, friendly, says little, but is definitely in the groove. He and drummer Brody have been a rhythm tandem since before moving down from Seattle five years ago. They became Bradford's picadores just before the 1996 South by Southwest conference. Couldn't ask for three nicer guys. The music? That's an entirely different matter.
Taking its cue from Bradford's old band, Scratch Acid, Sangre de Toro's musical attack is a ferocious, post-punk fit of aggression - all sound and fury. Caught live at any number of free Saturday night Blondie's gigs ("Great sound system," says Bradford. "I'd rather play there for free than anywhere else in town"), the local trio unleashes a hard-as-nails assault, wherein the three musicians lock horns and wage sonic battle through a haze of dense, pounding hard rock - lurching from time change to time change like a dying bull. Add Bradford in, screaming the occasional verse like a gored horse, and it suddenly harkens back to... well... maybe it's just me, but...
"Rush?" asks Bradford, bewildered.
"I think it's been said at practice before," says Bradford, still quite puzzled.
"I haven't gotten that from anybody..., " says Johnson.
"I think I heard it once," guesses Brody.
"Maybe it's that Rush doesn't just play four chords," says Bradford. "Rush goes all over. Maybe that's what it is - trying to do linear stuff - changing from one thing into another into another."
Yes, it must be all those pesky time changes. Is that "progressive" rock?
"I don't know what that means," says Bradford, sincerely.
"It's that our music is composed thoroughly or throughout as opposed to composing a pattern that you play over and over again," explains Brody.
"I hate to be labeled as ['progressive'], though," says Bradford, worried. "Because then people would think of..."
"I listened to Rush in eighth grade," laughs Max.
"I like 2112 and anything after that I can't listen to," says Bradford. "I think of 'Trees.'"
Okay, maybe not. Certainly, it's not Rush one hears on Sangre de Toro's forthcoming CD. A tense, explosive 5-song EP destined for sale on the group's first tour this spring (and possibly sold or given away at the band's local gigs), Hold Yer Breath is best defined by the lead-off cut, "QueeQueg the Whaler."
Opening with a snippet of dialogue from Moby Dick, the song - about the cannibal harpoonist on Ahab's joyride to hell - plunges into a torrent of guitar runs offset by Brody's windmill drumming and Johnson's lead basslines. It's completely in line with the group's neglected first CD, Booglejasm, which featured a different rhythm, but like its successor, still screamed Touch & Go Records in its melding of musical expertise and punk aesthetics. (The band's discography also includes a hilariously creepy video for "Sweet Milk," a song only available through the occasional late-night viewing of the Austin Music Network.)
In fact, that's perhaps why someone might mention a certain Canadian hard rock trio when talking about Sangre de Toro. Seventies metal and punk rock share the same violent, aggressive drives, yet while the former was well-produced with an ear towards melody (often breeding the cheese factor), the latter forsakes everything - including musical ability - for the sake of total and naked anarchy; Bradford, Brody, and Johnson know how to play their instruments, crafting complex musical mazes to charge through, but they're also looking for the ultimate punk melt-down on stage. Progressive metal and punk as one.
"I don't know if anyone's thought of that," says Bradford, "but definitely, music is lacking in music today. Definitely. I like listening to classical music a lot. I mean if you look to an orchestration, it's 10 times more complicated than what we do. But I like punk rock, too, so maybe that's what we're trying to bring music back into... something with balls."
"It's the nature of his songwriting style," says Brody, pointing at Bradford. "That's definitely the style."
"Post-punk progressive," sneers Johnson.
Whatever one labels it, when Sangre de Toro's red stage lights go on and Bradford lays into his guitar, striking a pose not unlike Pete Townshend, Brody flailing like the ghost of Keith Moon and Johnson standing passively to the side, breaking out with mad lead lines, it's a glorious cacophony of hardcore energy.
"I wish you had compared us to the Who rather than Rush," says the Dallas-born Bradford, who formed Sangre de Toro in '93 and has kept his vision alive despite multiple personnel changes and years of local disinterest. ("That's what it takes for a good band to get anywhere," he says, "a bad band can make it overnight.")
Sorry, Brett, it must be all that aggression.
"You've said 'aggressive' a lot," says Bradford. "It's not all aggressive. It goes from here to there, and sometimes it's subdued. I guess for the most part, yeah, it's aggressive, but it's just a expression of pure pleasure."
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