By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
It's about 11 p.m. at the Awesome Party Fest, a ten-band show held on a recent Friday at a rented hall in south city. A crowd of mostly male, long-haired punks — a few have sketchy Black Flag tattoos on their bare arms — pumps their fists in a way that, when photographed, resembles a brawl in a Warner Brothers cartoon. But there's no real violence to speak of at this show, just rowdy fun that invokes memories of seeing Andrew W.K. before he became a motivational speaker for college kids and a Loveline guest.
Cross Examination — this city's answer to W.K. crossed with Slayer — is ripping through another set of thrash that's too sloppy to be DragonForce and way too fun to be Danzig. The band plays songs from its 2004 self-titled demo and mixes in some new tracks from its upcoming record, Menace II Sobriety, which arrives July 29 on Chicago's Organized Crime Records.
One guy up front is white-knuckling the handle of an empty beer pitcher like a trophy. He's within one errant swing of breaking the thing and sending pesky shards of plastic into everybody's eyes. Cross Examination singer Daniel Hill is wearing an Animaniacs shirt and cargo shorts — far from a typical metal outfit of a skin-tight black shirt and black 501s — while commanding a crowd of headbangers that numbers about 30, tops. Other band members are in various states of metal dress; they look more like a gelled group of friends than an assembled metal-assault team.
It's near the end of a long show, so fest-fatigue has set in, at least for the sober members of the audience. But during "Awesome Party Squad Unite," a memorable party anthem by a band whose best songs are memorable party anthems, the energy and volume pick up considerably.
"Destroy everything! Destroy everything! Destroy everything! Destroy everything!" shouts the audience. Soon the show is over, and a few punks are trying to scrub red dye from the tile floor, caused by a smoke bomb earlier in the night.
When Cross Examination isn't playing out, its home base is North St. Louis County, although most of quintet hails from slightly farther west: the suburbs of St. Charles County. The systematic subdivisions of St. Chuck's painfully normal communities have spawned a crop of punk, metal and hard-core bands earlier this decade. They were kids who called themselves "Mega Rad Youth," and they successfully pissed off most of St. Louis' then-established underground music scene.
One of those MRY assholes was Hill, who goes by "Devil Dan," a nickname the 26-year-old still carries, if only among acquaintances and not his close friends. He and the members of Cross Examination — guitarists Leon St. Cin and Justin Sease, bassist Ray Arriola and drummer Ryan O'Brien — rely as much on a partying attitude as they do distorted guitar tones. Menace II Sobriety is the band's first full-length release, after 2006's Hung Jury EP, and it follows the same form as its predecessor: a thrash-metal song formula, cleverly placed audio samples from movies, twelve-person gang vocals and rhyme schemes inspired by hip-hop lyrics.
Cross Examination's use of sampling is on point with the Beastie Boys, but don't mistake it for a train wreck of a rap-metal band. Its attitude resembles that of the Beasties circa 1986 (and in fact, if you mention the group, Hill will start rhyming in time with any number of Beastie jams on request). An enthusiast of early- '90s hip-hop, he once paid $65 for a Snoop Dogg T-shirt, only to have it disintegrate in the washer a week later.
"I love old hip-hop and rap, and I love metal, but the musical combination of the two is far and above the worst shit of all time — attention Shattermask," Hill says, referencing a local group. "Sampling rules, though; it has always been one of my favorite aspects of hip-hop, and I think it adds a lot of humor and badassed-ness to our stuff. Lyrically I tend to use a lot of slang and the like because it's easy to rhyme and fit in a verse. It's my theory that most slang is invented by rappers with writer's block."
Matter-of-factly, Hill notes: "Also it's because we're so clearly gangster as fuck."
Cross Examination has had to face detractors who say its music is a gimmick, or its live shows are novelties — perhaps because in the band's early days, it was known for costumes and light-up signs that read "Circle Pit." But for the most common gripe levied against the group — that thrash metal is a trend nearing its end yet again — Hill answers critics with "Thrashin' for the Cash-In (Royalty Check)." The song's lyrics are blunt ("Heard thrash metal was back, still kicking, going through its second wave/Had an idea: We'll ride this trend and get ourselves fat fucking paid.")
"These bands are taking themselves too seriously, kicking out their members and changing lineups; and they all signed to Metal Blade and Heavy Artillery [Records]," he laments, name-checking two of the more polished heavy metal purveyors. "It's just deluded for them to think they're going to make money from their bands. Most of them are just aping what bands did twenty years ago."
Something not around twenty years ago, at least in highly accessible form, was video equipment to document the goings-on of DIY-touring bands. Cross Examination has recorded two memorable videos for its fans: One features the band smashing its broken-down tour van to bits on the side of the highway during an ill-fated trip to Chicago, while the other is a short film of two vans traveling side-by-side at 88 mph (see: Back to the Future), with a beer bong connecting the two.
"Honestly, we don't really set out to do silly shit just for the sake of video, but after the first couple of tours, it got pretty clear to us that if there wasn't some form of documentation of the idiotic crap we do on the road, we would be doing the world in general a great disservice," Hill says. "You should see the stuff that doesn't get filmed. It's like the perfect storm: To get video of the stuff we do get, all the elements have to be just right, and the one that usually isn't right is that somebody has to be sober enough to operate a video camera."
Despite all the partying, YouTube infamy and a locally cultish following (Google "Awesome Party Squad"), the crossover thrash band has grown into an arguably more creative and prolific version of the Richmond, Virginia, band Municipal Waste, which is widely credited with shoring up a thrash metal revival in 2003.
"It is a little weird to me when people behave as though Municipal Waste were the first to play [thrash metal]," Hill says. "It is fair to give them some credit, though. When they came out, and the now-defunct Holier Than Thou? [another thrash-revival band], they were the only current crossover bands in the country that I knew of, and we thought, 'Man, crossover revival, good idea!' That was all before Municipal Waste got signed to Earache [Records] and became a household name amongst metalheads. The funny thing is, at the time we didn't think we'd ever even be heard outside of St. Louis."
Despite legal troubles among some band members that limited out-of-state touring, Cross Examination is starting to be heard outside of St. Louis. It has conducted three tours so far, and is hitting the East Coast with California's thrashing Hatchet in the coming weeks.
Appropriately, Cross Examination is kicking off its tour on July 29 with a show at the recently opened Fubar along with New York's Murphy's Law — arguably the original punk-rock party band. As for that fist-banging crowd at Cross Exam performances, Hill says he wants more "antics" at shows. The band doesn't take itself too seriously during performances, so Hill wonders why the people sometimes do.
"Fun reigns supreme over nearly everything that we do," he says. "I wouldn't want anybody to hurt anybody! All we care about is having a good time; no tough-guy posing or macho bullshit. I would like to see some crazier stuff at shows, though. Like, it's cool that people are running around and having fun and circle-pitting, but how about some crazy stuff?
"Like an impromptu human pyramid, or a dramatic re-enactment of the end of the first Ghostbusters movie. That would require many bags of marshmallows. Basically, I want look up from singing and be utterly baffled as to what I see in front of me. Make it happen, St. Louis."