The Gorge is more than metal

May 26, 2011 at 4:00 am

"Metal is not the first word that comes to my mind when describing our band," says the Gorge drummer Jerry Mazzuca. Those who simply skim the surface of the local quintet may disagree; the band's trademarks include menacing screams and complex bass drum/guitar patterns that sound like Morse code transmissions from Hell. Excavation of the band's debut full-length, Prehistoric Relapse, reveals that these elements do not define the Gorge. They are merely byproducts of the band's broad quest for the intangible, universal spirit of heaviness. The Gorge considers the term "heaviness" broadly; in our interview, guitarist Phil Ring refers to Sun Ship by John Coltrane as the "heaviest shit ever." He later uses the same three words to describe Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.

Every band struggles with pigeonholes, but the Gorge is particularly vulnerable. Its core influences — Botch, Refused, Dillinger Escape Plan — explored the common ground between metal and hardcore at the turn of the millennium. The subsequent genre "metalcore" has devolved into overly processed pop metal exemplified by groups like Attack Attack! and the Devil Wears Prada. Even in the Gorge's most approachable moments, like the chorus of "Die Along the Way," in which the harmony veers into a major key and vocalist Greg Davis answers his own throaty chant with a melodic counterpoint, the band is a far cry from such Warped Tour schlock.

Another stigma derives from the group's background. Mazzuca, Ring and bassist Nick Jost are all Southern Illinois University Edwardsville graduates with jazz-performance degrees. Prehistoric Relapse displays mind-melting musicianship but avoids the self-indulgent, wanky prog odysseys that often result when rock and jazz collide. "To learn jazz, you have to listen to such a high volume of music," says Mazzuca, who feels his bilingual musical education has helped focus the band's writing. "I think it helps us draw from a larger pool of knowledge about rhythm and harmony."

"It's a really unique and fun challenge to filter the overall vibe of our influences into the context of our band," Ring says. "Maybe we'll take a chord we've learned through playing jazz and expand it into a riff, but we're not going to put a swing section with a walking bass line into one of our songs just because we listen to Charlie Parker. That would be way too literal."

Ring continues, "At the same time, Meshuggah is a big influence, but we'll try to draw inspiration from a song structure or arrangement instead of going out and buying eight-string guitars."

The Gorge officially formed in 2009, but Prehistoric Relapse is the manifestation of a decade-long musical relationship that began with Ring and guitarist Joe Bowers writing Metallica-informed rock songs before the pair could drive. The slow crawl was detoured by lineup changes, stylistic tweaks and a handful of different monikers — most notably Dead by Tuesday. No incarnation of the group released a recording that qualified as more than a demo, much less anything as concise and legitimate as Relapse.

Phil Ring calls the Gorge's proper debut a "pretty straightforward record" and an attempt to "get an accurate representation of the band live." This goal seems less than lofty, but the result is stunning in its effectiveness; Prehistoric Relapse boasts clarity while still managing to shake the bowels like a Marshall stack wedged into the large intestine.

Four of the tracks on Relapse previously appeared on the Gorge's 2010 EP, a self-titled, self-released and self-produced affair. Despite the originals' better-than-average fidelity, the band outsourced engineering duties on Relapse to Miles Vandiver and Dan Mehrmann of local avant-pop act Dropkick the Robot. "It's too stressful recording yourself," Mazzuca says. "If you're in control, there aren't any hard deadlines, and before you know it you've been mixing for two and a half months."

Prehistoric Relapse was tracked in seven days at Mehrmann's Jettison Studios and mixed in four days with Vandiver and Mark Burris at Music Creek Studios. This is a tight schedule for 48 minutes of highly structured, technically demanding music, but the pressure caused the band to act instinctively in the studio. "There were situations where we had to immediately make a decision one way or another," Ring says, "as opposed to letting things sit and deciding later after listening to it over and over in our cars."

The band's execution in the studio was the result of months of preparation. This process was particularly laborious for Mazzuca, who adopted a demanding practice regimen three months prior to the recording to increase his double-bass drumming capabilities. "Every day, I would start at one tempo marking on the metronome, do fifteen minutes straight and immediately bump it up ten beats per minute and do fifteen more minutes and so on," Mazzuca says. "It was completely transformative. I went from being a complete double-bass hack to just a half hack." Mazzuca is downplaying his performances; none of the drum takes on Relapse were quantized, or digitally edited to achieve rhythmic perfection — a practice that is all too common on modern metal releases.

Like the Gorge itself, Relapse is as remarkable for what it achieves as what pitfalls it avoids. Despite the artificial perfection possible with Pro Tools, it is honest. Despite its destruction and extremity, the record is not fatiguing. Half of the credit is due to the tasteful polish of mastering engineer Alan Douches, whose body of work includes everybody from Sufjan Stevens to Mastodon. The other anti-tinnitus measure comes courtesy of interludes like the free-improv breather "In the Mouth of the Guillotine" and space-fusion teaser "Deepest Ocean." Ring considers them "palate cleansers," but they also give a window to the band's wide scope of interests.

Ring, Mazzuca and guitarist Joe Bowers are the only members of the Gorge who consistently listen to heavy music. Ring states that bassist Nick Jost "is into the most outlandish pop music. He's probably blasting Chromeo in his car right now." This shouldn't be a shock to anyone familiar with the bow-chicka-bow-bow-did-somebody-order-a-pizza? funk of Jost's band Natural Selection. Meanwhile, vocalist Greg Davis prefers hip-hop, citing Atmosphere as a particular favorite, and his swagger as a frontman is a distinct departure from the tough-guy pose of many of his peers.

In the metal community, such eclecticism can be dangerous, but the Gorge has fared well, landing impressive opening gigs for Fear Factory, Darkest Hour and the Bled — not to mention two Pointfest appearances. "We've definitely felt out of place on some shows," Ring says. "But the response has been positive, so I guess there's something about us that appeals to people on various points of the heavy spectrum."

The Gorge has much to celebrate at the Prehistoric Relapse release party. The band not only made a record but, after years of internal and external searching, found a niche. The group has formed a small community with the like-minded bands on the release show bill. Grinding opener A Dark Orbit has supported the Gorge since inception, and the progressive-leaning Quaere Verum unofficially adopted the band into the budding scene of metal bands who rehearse in and around the Lemp Brewery complex. The band has a particularly close relationship with thrash quartet Black Fast; guitarist Trevor Johansen chugged along with Jerry Mazzuca during his whirlwind double bass training sessions. (The duo playfully referred to themselves as Riffgasm.)

Despite the overwhelming radness of these three openers, the night belongs to the Gorge. It is the band's highest profile headlining show to date. It is brimming with the intangible excitement of a band in its moment. It is over a decade in the making. And oh, God, is it heavy.