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On a rare warm night in Santa Cruz, Garrett Wheeler sets out on an old-fashioned mall crawl.

By Garrett Wheeler

The conditions last Friday night couldn't have been better for a little music-hop down Pacific. We all know that in Santa Cruz, truly warm evenings, the kind where shorts and T-shirts rule, are rarer than steak tartare. But Friday was straight up cookin', heat wave and all. My first destination was the Blue Lagoon, where a hard rock show starring three local bands was already under way. I caught the tail end of The Devil Himself's set; immediately I wished I hadn't forgotten earplugs. Don't get me wrong--this band can play, but cranking the volume up in a tiny venue spells premature ear damage, and this wasn't the first time I've been exposed to the deafening sounds of rock & roll. Besides being loud, the Devil's sound was dark, driving and calculated--an intriguing meld of grunge, metal and prog-rock. Though I only heard the group play a couple of songs, it was clear its talent level was high, as was its ability to rock an audience into shameless oblivion. The set ended and before the crowd had quieted I slipped out the door, back into the warm darkness of the night.

As I approached the Catalyst, music was already spilling out of the venue's open windows. Making my way into the Atrium, I was greeted by the funky space rock of SoCal up-and-comers Groove Session. True to its name, the three-piece outfit moved and grooved through a batch of jazz-tinged jams highlighted by long instrumental solos and highly complex bass lines. "You know, these guys ain't too shabby," said the balding sport-coat-and-khaki guy next to me. Clutching his drink, which was obviously not his first, he went on, "Y'know, I'm from Kaantucky, and I'll tail you what, these guys sure can play." Yes, they can play--and maybe they should consider a Southern/Midwestern tour, because apparently California isn't the only state that appreciates a good jam session.

Back at the Blue, the night's headliner, Cylinder, was gearing up for its late-night set. The recently crowned Your Music Olympicks champs have established a reputation as one of Santa Cruz's pre-eminent hard rock outfits, which was more than enough to rouse my curiosity. After all, with past winners of the Olympicks including The Expendables and The Stellar Corpses, the local talent bar has indeed been set high. After just one song, it was obvious that Cylinder was worthy of the title. With its relentless onslaught of heaving guitar riffs and pounding drums, the group possessed enough melodic structure to keep things accessible, even with the borderline-excessive use of sonic force. Credit vocalist Shane Geslin for the balancing act: his rock-solid vocals were the unifying factor between utter chaos and harmonic synchronization. To be honest, it's nice to hear good, strong singing that doesn't have to hide behind obnoxiously loud guitars. After a few iron-clad rock numbers, the group eased into a full-on power ballad that easily rivaled any bleeding-heart tune penned by the Stone Temple Pilots or Alice in Chains (both masters of the genre). But the sentiment was short-lived, as the band transitioned from soft to mosh, unleashing the fury in the powerful nonballad "Rise Up."

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