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Baudelaire for Headbangers

[whitespace] Michael Alden
George Sakkestad

Delightful, De-Lovely, De-Vicious: Michael Alden rips into a song at Vincent's Ear's rehearsal space.

Santa Cruz's Vincent's Ear puts the rock to the roll

By Matt Koumaras

IN TERMS OF the average life span of a Santa Cruz band, the members of Vincent's Ear are men of steel applying the rock to the roll since 1992. Boasting more than 70 original songs from two CDs and four demos, the Santa Cruz band emerged from the remnants of two successful local groups: the Human Race and the Red Room (not to be confused with the nightclub).

Despite categorizing the music they play as "bird cage liner," the guys of Vincent's Ear reel in intelligent facets of metal, punk and jazz, fashioning splashes of colorful emotion in the manner of their uni-eared namesake.

All four Ears are Scorpios (guitarist Bruce Begley and vocalist Michael Alden even share their birthday, Nov. 15), and although I'm not familiar with astrology, this unusual natal confluence might be a sign of why Vincent's Ear has been kicking synchronized ass for such a long time.

Drummer Pete Testorff, who had left the promising but self-destructive Red Room, met with Brad DeYoung, Vincent's Ear's first bassist, one night at the Catalyst. Talks centered on starting up a new band. The first practice went well, but a dejected Testorff didn't hear back from the band until a couple months later.

"We had some good things going on when we first hooked up, but they didn't call me!" Testorff exclaims. "Finally, after two months, Brad called and said, 'Let's rock out.' "

The initial notes of Vincent's Ear took shape in a secluded barn off Trout Gulch Road in Aptos, which vocalist Alden also called home. "It was the most magical valley in Aptos," Begley recalls with a tranquil smile. "They built a school where it used to be, but it's pretty good versus what they could have made out of it."

Alden, a true musical Renaissance man who plays percussion, saxophone and keyboards with equal precision, started performing in a concert band in New York as a kid. "I would get wailed on by people in class, but I'd earn their respect by not saying a word," Alden says.

Vincent's Ear

SURPRISINGLY, the band's songwriting process is fairly rudimentary considering the well-textured end result. "Usually, we'll just make something up at practice until we get a sound we like," Begley says.

"Actually, we get out graph paper and a slide rule," Testorff adds with a laugh, explaining, "for the Vincent's Ear formula: it's verse, chorus, versus, chorus twice, trippy part, verse and then out."

Alden writes the lyrics after the music is finished. Songs from the lusciously dark Agua, the band's last CD, float with lyrical ambiguities neck high in atmosphere.

Prime examples are the numerology trip of "Seven" and the sadly beautiful "Drowning." Alden manipulates lyrics through his cryptic delivery as "images" inspired by what he terms "psychopathic love." His decadent "Baudelaire for headbangers" routine exudes a wealth of feeling.

"It's like someone will be singing along to a song on the radio, and they'll sing the wrong lyrics, but that's the way they hear it," Alden reflects. "As long as it means something to them, it doesn't matter what it means to me."

Vincent's Ear has been recording with producer Bart Thurber at his studio in Oakland the past year. The as-yet-untitled release will, they hope, be out by fall. The band has adopted a different approach this time around by writing all the songs in the studio.

It's taking a fair amount of time to learn the songs, a problem compounded by scheduling pressures: Thurber's studio time is extremely limited because other bands have booked slots months in advance. The new songs seem geared toward a more metallic sound, with Supersoaker-like riffs shooting out from Begley and new bassist Marc Prefontaine.

Vincent's Ear
It's All About the Musical Beer: Marc Prefontaine (center) and Bruce Begley take a suds break while Michael 'Wiffle Ball' Alden and Peter Testorff look on.

The song "Salsipuedes" sports a very intricate Sabbath-esque guitar breakdown wedged in between Alden's monolithic hollers of "So long." Begley's guitar is the epitome of fluid, switching from chunky riff to glorious lead. Prefontaine, formerly of Auto, gives the band a sturdy backbone with driving low-end bass.

Inspired to start playing music by AC/DC guitarist Angus Young, Testorff unleashes wave after wave of intriguing drum rhythms that are far wilder than chugging Robitussin and hopping on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

"Coltrane" soars with down-and-dirty guitar riff repetition bleeding from AC/DC veins. The song, which also features an ominous time change, details what Alden describes as his experiences in San Francisco and the "gritty city life" and how the same church bell that rings on a Sunday morning might serve as an alarm clock for a person living on the streets.

"Guido Bombed Cienega" is another meat-and-potatoes rocker about a friend in Los Angeles who went "militia" in the middle of the night and blew up a side of a mountain.

The extended bongo intro to "Peridiod" conjures up images of cannibals carefully inspecting dinner. Prefontaine, a relative of late University of Oregon running champion Steve Prefontaine, churns out a slick bass lead and the mayhem begins. Alden's delirious chants of "Poison love--kill me" get into a serious groove and make reservations for everyone on a soon-to-be-crowded dance floor. Begley wields a majestic guitar solo that goes through the labyrinth and taunts the minotaur with musical prowess.

Other surprises include Alden sharing the vocal menu with Mat Fitzsimmons, Herbert's vocalist, on a metal feast titled "Free the Mother."

"My girlfriend asked me, what's that instrument on 'Free the Mother'?" Alden explains, "and I said, that's Mat."

Vincent's Ear

THE BAND still has an artistic tangent or two up its sleeves, and this time around Vincent's Ear managed to get a mariachi band to play on one number. While Begley was laying down guitar tracks in the studio on Cinco de Mayo, Alden approached a mariachi band inside a tacqueria and convinced them to record with Vincent's Ear. With much trepidation, punk producer Thurber added the mariachi band to "Salsipuedes," and miraculously, this quirky curve works.

Vincent's Ear is doing a five-city Northwest tour July 21-26, before hitting the Catalyst next week. The band tries to make the trek up to Oregon and Washington and down to Southern California a couple times a year.

Response on the road has generally been positive. "Sometimes we're just playing for the other band and the sound guy, so you can't expect too much, but usually people like us," Begley says. "I think we take a lot of people by surprise," Prefontaine adds.

The road experiences are precisely what keeps the band ticking. "One time at 4 o'clock in the morning in Seattle, this guy opened up his deli for us and let us make our own sandwiches, drink beer and sleep on the floor," Alden reminisces. "The best part is meeting new people, sleeping on weird floors and eating dirt," Begley states.

And as for the future? "Hopefully, we'll be in a van with lots of sunflower seeds," Testorff offers. "With a masseuse!" Begley throws in with a chuckle.

Vincent's Ear, Herbert and Woodpecker perform July 30 at 9pm at the Catalyst, 1110 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $4 adv/$6 (423-1338); the band can be contacted at [email protected] or 571 37th Ave, Santa Cruz, 95062.

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From the July 21-28, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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