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Big Rocks

Local riffers Zed have the stones to smash modern rock

by Mike Gibson

Big Rock, it often seems, is a waning resource, a once-profligate species now teetering on the brink of extinction. Meaty, memorable riffs accompanied by shout-able choruses and just the right measure of melody were a staple of heavy rock beginning with the heady post-psychedelia of the late 1960s, continuing through '70s era mustache-rock, then through '80s thrash and mousse-metal and, finally, culminating with early '90s grunge.

Since then, the geography of Rockworld has been radically reshaped, afflicted by perilous shifts in its underlying tectonic plates. Most rock of the sterner, more tempered variety has forsaken the Sanctity of the Riff, abandoned the Temple of the Hook in favor of posturing white-boy hip-hop spikes, industrial noise-making, and monotonous one-chord vamps.

But there are a few remaining bastions of resistance, mainstream modern rock acts like Tool, Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters, perhaps Pearl Jam, or the smack-addled and infrequently-sighted members of Alice in Chains. And in Knoxville, there's Zed.

"I'd describe our sound as Big Fat Rock," says bassist Chuck Getsi, the youngest Zed-ian at age 25. "Hard-driving guitars with lots of low-end and good melodies. We pay lots of attention to melodies, so that we're not just slashing around."

"Myself, I missed the Smashing Pumpkins Gish-era stuff," says singer/guitarist Todd Ethridge, 34. Friendly and unassuming, with neatly-tousled blonde hair, Ethridge (along with Getsi) is freshly arrived at the West Knox home of co-guitarist Mark Inocco.

"And I've been listening to lots of classic rock," Ethridge continues. "Old, old stuff with lots of big rhythms. Edgar Winter-style stuff."

The Zeds are no strangers to powerful, lumbering rock, especially Ethridge and Inocco, who have played together on and off for more than a decade in sundry local rock titans: Sandbox, Flood, Big Idea, et al. But according to Ethridge, their last collaboration in Big Idea had drifted into the same dreary dimensional plane as so much standard, overly processed and pasteurized modern rock. "We had a cleaner sound, more multiple effects," he says. "I wanted to get back to basics, stuff you might have listened to in the '70s in the car with the windows rolled down."

In doing so, he rejoined Inocco, who had exited Big Idea months prior to the band's demise. Their collaboration was an easy one, grounded in mutual instincts, instrumental compatibility, and years of shared experience.

"It's weird; I've never really thought about it," Inocco says of the duo's ongoing partnership. "It's always been real, real comfortable. There's not a lot of competition between us, whereas with some players, I feel like a real dick when we play together."

Adds Ethridge, "We're both more rhythm-oriented in our playing, more about melodies and rhythms than how flashy we can be."

Those instincts are telling. Joined with former Alpha Zulu stringer Getsi and since-departed drummer Jay Martin, the guitarists' output in Zed constitutes as fresh a blast of stainless steel Big Rock bludgeon as anything heard hereabouts in many years.

With mallet-to-the-head riffs dripping with delicious distortion and festooned with Ethridge's clean, tune-sensitive vox, Zed recalls nothing so much as grunge-era Sub Pop, Soundgarden and Big Chief and Tad and any number of tag-along outfits. Their recent EP/CD Southern Quality wrings more sound and fury out of its five tracks than most modern rockers today will manifest in their entire career.

"Things have just changed nowadays," says Inocco. "The kids who would've been forming bands a few years ago are driving around in low riders listening to bumpin' music."

"The hip-hop influence is big now, even in rock, and I don't like much hip-hop today," adds Ethridge, reaffirming his predilection for music with deeply planted rhythmic roots. "No one raps on time anymore. Back a few years ago, with LL and Run-DMC and Public Enemy, those guys rapped and always hit it on the beat."

But even more refreshing than Zed's return to the heartsblood of heavy rock is the band's collective appreciation—perhaps understanding would be a better term—for the realities of club rock in Knoxville, Tenn., circa 2001. "Back when Mark and I were in Sandbox, we were a well-oiled machine; we'd eat crackers in the back of a van in Alabama if that's what we had to do. We were hungrier," says Todd.

"I don't think our goals are quite the same as they used to be," Inocco concurs. "Before, we ran on piss and vinegar. Now, we're more jaded. We see more of the reality of it. I used to think that if I was just cool enough, it would work out. Now, I just want to do what I want to do."

February 15, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 7
© 2001 Metro Pulse