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Punks in Winter 

Taste of Chaos re-creates the fun of the Warped Tour . . . with snow.

Paul E. Tsongas Arena is located in the heart of Lowell, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb once known for its prolific textile mills and miles of winding canals. It's home to Lowell High School, whose entire student body seemed to congregate at the cavernous arena during a recent weeknight stop of the Taste of Chaos Tour, the debut of the winter version of the Warped Tour.

It felt like the place to be seen, like a crucial Friday-night football game and the homecoming dance all rolled into one. Blondes and brunettes with high ponytails fluffed their hair and hogged the mirrors in the women's bathroom alongside punk fashion plates who carefully touched up raccoon-like eye makeup and adjusted fishnets and short plaid skirts. Awkward boys in Atreyu hoodies and Taking Back Sunday shirts gathered in the ticket lobby with the hyperactive swagger and camaraderie that only testosterone-fueled adolescents can muster.

Elsewhere, clumps of friends wearing the requisite studded belts raced into the sweaty general-admission floor mob or wandered the concourse looking like billboards for their favorite bands: Silverstein, Hawthorne Heights, Matchbook Romance, Fall Out Boy, Finch, and even now-uncool Good Charlotte. A gal wearing black nail polish and a young punk sporting an impressively spiked green Mohawk intertwined their fingers lazily during a set from breakout New Jersey alt-punks My Chemical Romance; other lovebirds clutched each other chastely at the acoustic stage, as Los Angeles' brusque Bleed the Dream pounded through a brief emo-punk set.

Less noticeable within this Hot Topic debutante ball were the not-insignificant number of patient moms and dads playing chaperone high in the reserved seats -- parents acknowledged mostly as human cash registers to their thirsty kids.

The headliner is Utah crust punks the Used, whose self-titled 2002 debut and last year's more expansive In Love and Death embody the screamo aesthetic popular on this bill: Screeching vocals contrasted with melodic singing; scorched-earth punk-, hardcore-, and metal-influenced music; and lyrics searching for meaning within the heart.

"Intensity is what you want," Used guitarist Quinn Allman says. "That was our biggest challenge -- making sure we had a lot of intensity on the [new] record. Whether it was dynamically or lyrically, we just tried to make it intense."

But an even bigger challenge facing the Used and most other bands on the bill is figuring out how to stay relevant after their fickle teenage fans are lured to the next hot property -- the same waning curiosity that sank once-red-hot trends like grunge and nü metal. Reinvention aside, what might save these bands from becoming obsolete is -- paradoxically enough -- mining facets of these dead fads for inspiration.

More specifically, the Taste of Chaos bands have pronounced roots in the one genre that refuses to die, no matter how hard the scene's abundance of cheesy histrionics tries to kill it: loud and proud heavy metal. One hearty member of California melodic hardcore upstarts a Static Lullaby trotted out vintage James Hetfield moves onstage: Legs planted solidly in a V-shape, he came with hesher-approved headbanging while simultaneously hammering out note-perfect thundering chords. New Jersey's hard-edged emo favorites Senses Fail tossed off part of Faith No More's proto-rap-metal hit "Epic" in one of its songs. And My Chemical Romance generated some credible Sabbath-esque squalls of guitar on a gargantuan version of "Thank You for the Venom."

But as the composition of the audience demonstrated, the tour is particularly welcoming to both sexes, not just sweaty punk and metal dudes. Girls in the Taste of Chaos pit were more at risk for heatstroke, not assaults. Why? Unlike the last wave of TRL-friendly heaviness -- the much-maligned rap-rock movement, which reeked of physical violence and sexual antagonism -- these bands were devoid of destructive machismo. Rather than whining about insurmountable angst, groups like Underoath writhed onstage and yelled until they were hoarse -- expelling pain, fear, and uncertainty in primal screams. It was all based on emotional, not physical, aggression, and members responded not by lashing out at others, but by turning sometimes-violent motions -- crowd-surfing, pogoing, slam-dancing -- into acts of communal release.

Nevertheless, to metal purists, most of these bands' interpretations of the genre are akin to Metallica's 1990s output -- lithe like quicksilver, and certainly heavy, but much too accessible to be threatening. Except, that is, for the sore thumb of the Taste of Chaos tour: Killswitch Engage. These Massachusetts metalcore veterans exude a sheer brutality that's nothing short of the Mighty Met circa Master of Puppets. The quintet has practically nothing in common with the four-on-the-floor punk or screamo shenanigans of its tourmates.

And in Lowell, Killswitch fed off the energy of an enthusiastic hometown crowd. The Ozzfest vets emerged with a bruising, constant assault filled with fretboard pyrotechnics, arena thunder, and vocalist Howard Jones' panther-like growling and contrasting, Chino Moreno-esque wails. In comparison to the rest of the bill, the scope of its set was akin to a crushing monster truck -- although both Jones and guitarist Joel Stroetzel say that the restless-for-My Chemical Romance crowd is at least respectful of its tunes.

"It's going real good. Surprisingly good," Jones says of the tour earlier in the afternoon on the Killswitch bus, where the major concern was fixing the DirecTV reception. "For the most part, it's just us kind of proving who we are as a band. And hopefully winning over a few people."

"That's the whole point of us being on this tour, really," Stroetzel adds, sporting a hat in an attempt to contain his unruly headbanger mane. "We've done metal tours for so long, [it's nice] just to get in front of different audiences."

A Columbus native who fondly remembers coming to Cleveland for shows, Jones is soft-spoken and smiles easily, showing no traces of the gruff stage persona that emerges later that night. Along with drummer Justin Foley, he's also one of the newest members of the group, replacing original vocalist Jesse Leach, who left after Killswitch's 2002 album, Alive or Just Breathing.

As Stroetzel puts it, such lineup changes "made it impossible for us to make the same record again" -- which explains last year's punishing but dynamically fluid The End of Heartache. Still, Killswitch Engage's reliance on meticulous volume shifts and Jones' singing interludes fit well with the loud-and-quiet sonic roller-coaster ride of Taste of Chaos -- at least in spirit. Not that Killswitch has ever really fit in anywhere; in fact, its nonconformity has led to some odd labels slapped on its music -- like, say, "emo" and even "nü metal."

"We actually heard that," laughs Jones about the latter tag. "That's definitely the uninformed and unenlightened to call us nü metal. All of us grew up in the hardcore scene, so for us to be nü metal is virtually an impossibility.

"We're just kind of a heavy band with some singing parts and some melodic guitar parts over it."

In other words, they're misfits. Just like most everyone else in the arena.

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