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Violin Solo!: San Jose's Lords of the Manor dispels wicked spirits.

To the Manor Born

Black-metal Lords of the Manor shouts at the devil

By Sarah Quelland

AS A GENERAL rule, black-metal bands are either too scary or too silly for the average person to digest. It's hard to get past their cartoonish--at times almost comical--obsessions with evil, violence, death and nihilism. San Jose's Lords of the Manor want to change people's perceptions and bring a more accessible dimension to the genre. The prospect that people--even close family members--might consider them agents of the dark side is laughable to them.

"My mom thinks we worship the devil, dude," drummer Matthew Ryan says, rolling his eyes. "We don't worship the devil. We don't sing about Satan and how he's so wonderful. It's kind of a stereotype of the whole metal scene."

The Lords are gathered in rhythm guitarist Julie Matthews' garage in suburban south San Jose--a place the group refers to as "The Manor"--that serves as the band's rehearsal studio. Multicolored lights are strung carelessly from the ceiling, and posters of A Clockwork Orange, Ozzy Osbourne, Jim Morrison and The Lord of the Rings decorate the walls.

Lords of the Manor--which includes lead guitarist Dean Celentano, bassist Derek Elliott, violinist Brandon Trahan and keyboardist and background vocalist Jessica Zumwalt--is one of the most unusual bands in the South Bay metal scene. The group's eerie and sinister attack of demented rage comes with violin and keyboard flourishes and is tempered by melancholy laments.

Lords of the Manor was born of two Santa Teresa and Oak Grove High School groups--D.A.M. (Documented Artistic Murders) and Mary May Rot. The band's first release, The End Is to Begin, featured brutal songs retrieved from the earlier bands as its way of introducing itself to the South Bay.

Despite the Blossom Valley digs and day jobs at Blockbuster, Paramount Imports and Tower Records, the Lords don't appreciate being referred to as "mall core" or "happy metal," two incongruous tags that don't come close to describing their hauntingly beautiful and freakishly grotesque music. Most of the band members love the music of the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Doors and Nirvana. Ryan, whose two favorites are Rush and Tesla, is the odd man out.

They have little in common with any of those bands, however. For its music, the group cites influences from black-metal powers Emperor and At the Gates, and death-metal bands like Cannibal Corpse. Lords of the Manor's classic orchestral approach invites comparisons to the melodic black-metal group Dimmu Borgir, another band favorite.

Despite its black-metal leanings and Dickerson's snarling, throat-scarring death-metal vocals, the group brings a dramatic flair to the stage that draws people who typically shy away from black- and death-metal music. "We try to steer away from the real heavy-metal scenes," Dickerson explains. "We're trying to do something new, and it's hard, but people seem to be responding to it well."

Lords of the Manor has built a reputation as a theatrically spontaneous live outfit with an aggressive physical male/female dynamic. There's a cult appeal that brings to mind the bizarre cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Dickerson used to shoot fireballs from his fingertips. The small explosions, he says, were never meant to be a gimmick. "It was just an extension, something to wake people up if they started falling asleep."

"Unfortunately, we can't get the material for it any more," Dickerson says with a shrug. "Since Sept. 11, they don't sell it. I'm kind of glad. We'll think of something different."

Then there are the spontaneous moments. They enjoy telling the story about a show in Watsonville where they blew out all the power on the block right at the end of their set. "All the lights--boom!--went out, and sparks flew out of the socket," Elliott recalls.

During "Rotten Bride," Zumwalt abandons her synthesizer to interact with Dickerson onstage. She belts out the lyrics in a fierce voice, and the two recklessly crash into each other.

"I remember a particular time I was playing bass right next to these two as they're wrestling to the ground," Elliott says, gesturing toward Dickerson and Zumwalt. "I hear this loud thud!--it was her head hitting the ground."

"People thought we rehearsed it," Zumwalt laughs, still surprised.

All seven members can agree that their biggest achievement to date is winning Ultravibe's Battle of the Bands last August. The win resulted in the recording of an EP titled Euphonious. The disc includes two versions of "Ode to the Weak," a song loosely inspired by the commercial success of Slipknot and other new metal bands.

"It's about people in general and how, whether or not they do it directly or indirectly, they're just a stepping stool for us," Dickerson explains.

Despite an affinity for the dark side, a bright-eyed optimism pervades the group. The band is working on a full-length CD, which it hopes to release by the end of the year. The band members have goals, like wanting to be signed to a successful indie label that would understand them, like Roadrunner. Most of all, they seem hell-bent on changing the world with songs like "The Wheel of Corruption Turns" and "One Stone at a Time."

"A lot of [the lyrics] has to do with us going out in the middle of the night and just being free," Dickerson says. "Every night was the end of the world. Every night, that's all we had, so we gotta live it up. That's what 'Below the Breathless Black' is about--the last moments of everything coming down, and you see the sky opening up and swallowing you.

"Every song is different though," he warns. "It's not like I'm writing about one thing. I might change my mind tomorrow about what I just said."

Zumwalt is more demure. As I watch her sitting crouched near her synthesizer and speaking in hushed tones, I find it hard to reconcile this soft-spoken young woman with her ferocious onstage persona. Quietly, she says simply, "We want to change what people think about music and just open their minds a little bit more."

Lords of the Manor plays Friday (May 31) at the Cactus Club, 417 S. First St., San Jose, at an all-ages show. San Resina, Pro-Villain, Spiritual Eclipse and Technocracy also perform. Tickets are $8, and doors open at 8pm.

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From the May 30-June 5, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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