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May 23, 1996 * Vol. 6, No. 21

Comfortably Numb

Metal isn't dead, it's just been in hibernation —but Numskull isn't content to let sleeping dogs lie

by Mike Gibson

For folks in their early 20s, metal's heyday hit right around junior high. Too young to drive or date, they cranked Ratt and Crue from the front seat of big brother's Firebird, or hung at the mall in unlayered shags and Metallica T's.

But pop music is a capricious beast. It's coddled, then turned up its fickle snout at four or five other trends since those late-'80s days of poodle-dos and bad tattoos, and most of the Metal Kids moved on--to grunge, to new punk, to indie-slack, to (gasp!) Birkenstock rockĘ...

The guys in Knoxville's Numskull, however, never got out of that Firebird--they just crawled into the driver's seat. Not that their music sounds dated; theirs is a distinctly '90s brand of thrash, souped-up but stripped-down, free of florid solos, saccharine twin-guitar harmonies and all the other turgid clichŽs that mired metal proper in its own muckish pretense.

"We like some old-style metal, but we don't want to play it," says guitarist Bing Fu. "We want to reach kids, not 40-year-olds."

"When we started playing out, we gigged with every bunch of 30- and 40-year-old rednecks around," says singer Nathan Barrett, a classmate of Fu and bassist Andre Hayter at Oak Ridge High. "They're ancient and they're all wearing black T-shirts and black pants, and their whole crowd looks just like them. We got over that quick."

But Numskull sidesteps new clichŽs as well as old ones, eschewing the cartoonish post-industrial posturing so many modern metal acts (Marilyn Manson, anyone?) seem obliged to hide behind. A Numsong comes at you like a subway out of nowhere--careening sound and fury in the hollow Stygian night, or maybe some malign industrial machine suddenly sparked to life, all molten seething pistons and gnashing metal teeth.

And lest they sacrifice songcraft in the carnage, band members say they keep a keen collective ear for the finer points, like dynamics and vocal hooks. The result: anthemic moshers are given respite by pensive interludes, lumbering sludge-riffs cut with slap bass and funky drums. This is mayhem with a dash of melody, high-volume hijinks with lots of sluggo hooks.

"We're about good riffs and songs you can remember," Fu says. "When I write a riff, it's gotta follow the two C's--it's gotta be catchy, and it's gotta be crunchy."

It may be catchy, but that doesn't mean it's caught on. Life in the pit hasn't been easy for these four 22-year-old rivetheads. They've assimilated plenty of hip heavy alternative influences (Tool, Rage Against the Machine, et al.) since their first thrashy garage jam in 1994. Their audience hasn't necessarily evolved with them, however, and they've slogged through lots of the aforementioned mustache-fests at sullen, beery West Knox clubs.

"I think we've played at least once in every club in town," Barrett laughs.

On the east end of town, Numskull bears the ignoble distinction of being one of the few local acts ever banned from Gryphon's, premiere grubby hovel and home to homeless bands ("They think we're gangsters or something," mumbles the mild-mannered Fu.) Inexplicably, the sanction was prompted by some less-than-complimentary graffiti ("Numskull sux") scrawled on Gryphons' less-than-pristine lavatory walls.

But Numskull perseveres, opening shows for popular indie and even major-label bands (Doo Rag, the Deftones) at the Mercury Theatre, playing gigs with local punkers like Torture Kitty to net that all-important all-ages crowd. And in 1995, they released their Scary Stories from the Bible cassette, a potent five-song dose of steel-toed speedcore thud.

"I think there are still closet heavy music fans out there," Barrett says. "It's something that's bound to reenter the mainstream, and we'd like to ride the coattails when it does."

"Knoxville just doesn't have a big hard music scene right now," Fu adds. "We know we're swimming against the current."

Which raises the question: Why? Why endure the boots-and-ball-caps venues, the low-shekel gigs, the barbs of fans and fellow bands who seem interested in absolutely anything but four guys with a loud sound and a bad attitude? According to Barrett, it all boils down to stress relief.

"Being in the band mellows me out," Barrett explains. "When we practice, I get to let it all out. You don't get that with any other kind of music. How else could I bitch out an entire crowd of people at one time, and know that they'll dig it?"

Drummer Joel Abrenica offers an even more organic reason.

"All those other kids in junior high school with us--they grew up," he laughs. "We didn't."

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