We hear Jeff Shirilla's house before we see it. Tucked back from the road, half-hidden by trees out in rural Chippewa Township, the Abdullah frontman's cabin-like home would be easy to miss, if not for the blaring metal that spills out of it on a recent Tuesday night. The din renders the doorbell useless, so we walk in, guided by rancorous rock and roll that becomes ever more deafening. As we make our way up to the attic, the source of it all comes into view: four dudes hunkered down over their instruments like inmates over their dinner trays, a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Shirilla off to the side, wailing like a fire siren.
But instead of sounding sharp and shrill, Shirilla's voice is robust and sonorous. His upper-register delivery recalls the halcyon days of heavy metal, when frontmen weren't so preoccupied with re-creating the sound of a cat yacking up a hairball.
Shirilla's bandmates are also something of a throwback in that they're unabashed about their abilities. Guitarist Alan Seibert lets loose with leads as overblown as Schwarzenegger's biceps, while Ed Stephens counters with solos that recall the fleet fingers of late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton. Backed by the all-business rhythm section of drummer Jim Simonian and guitarist Aaron Dallison (pictured), the resultant sound is big, booming metal without a whiff of self-consciousness.
"What is it? It's metal, with no other pretensions," Dallison says with a wide grin.
Nowadays, though, others are doing most of the smirking. Straight-up heavy metal is widely seen as an antiquated, dunderheaded form -- the musical equivalent of passing gas at the dinner table. Many of the bands that play the stuff either do so with knowing self-effacement (Fucking Champs, C Average), deny ever being metal in the first place (Korn, Deftones), or are so over the top in embracing the stereotypical trappings of the music -- loincloths, bullet belts, low S.A.T. scores -- that they quickly become caricatures of themselves (hello, Manowar!). Abdullah is something of a square peg.
"We're doing a metal thing, and we're not ironic about it, so we don't have that indie cred," Shirilla says. "But it shouldn't be about that. There was a review of Boulder's new one, and they slammed it because it wasn't ironic anymore. There's this attitude that you have to kind of make fun of yourself."
"You gotta show your butt crack now and then," Dallison says with a laugh.
Abdullah does plenty of that. The band plays a fairly irreverent brand of metal, frequently mixing and matching disparate styles. Abdullah's sophomore effort, the mammoth Graveyard Poetry, alternates British heavy metal's classic new wave with raw Euro thrash. Melancholic doom is sandwiched between fist-pumping stoner rock and Melvins-esque sludge.
Abdullah itself is an exercise in diversity. Shirilla is the mild-mannered group founder, who works as a graphic designer for a direct-mail magazine by day. The tall, lanky Simonian is the group's elder statesman, having played with everyone from local popster Mike Farley to Kiss cover bands. Stephens is perhaps the group's finest musician, with impeccable chops honed by playing mostly jazz for the past decade. Dallison, who doubles as bassist-singer for Cleveland metal heavyweights Keelhaul, was a newcomer to the band last summer. His meaty riffing and strong personality provide the perfect contrast to the quiet, accomplished Seibert.
Ironically, the breadth of experience that distinguishes Abdullah from its peers on wax and in person also works against it at times.
"We've never connected with a specific crowd," Shirilla admits. "Every time we play, there's different people there."
In the past six months, Abdullah has opened for reefer-rock favorites Fu Manchu in Youngstown, played with emotive Chicago nü-metal upstarts Chevelle at the Agora, and, perhaps most inexplicably, warmed the stage for '80s hair-metal has-beens Faster Pussycat at the Revolution.
"All three of those crowds dug it," enthuses Dallison. "We got the Chevelle show, and I was like 'Man, these kids are gonna fuckin' hate us.' They were so young. But after we played, there was a line at the merch table wanting autographs."
Okay. But what about Taime Downe and Pussycat? Not since the King of Pop shacked up with Lisa Marie has a more unlikely pairing come about.
"It was almost out of desperation," Shirilla says. "We played with Evil Beaver and Bottom, and they hated us. We did another show, and people walked out. So it was almost like 'Let's see if we can appeal to these people.'"
They did, garnering an unexpectedly strong response. And in a continuing bid to put itself in front of the most unlikely audiences possible, Abdullah is opening for fast-rising Cleveland punks the Sign-offs next week. Abdullah is already preparing itself.
"We learned a Misfits song!" Dallison exclaims.
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