Onstage, Cephalic Carnage's Zac spends most of his time swinging his head and his guitar, sweating, screaming, and abusing listeners with the brutal bombast that issues from his instrument. But today, sitting in his publicist's office almost 2,000 miles from his Denver home, there is little evidence of that raving performance persona. Zac is friendly and not at all demonic-sounding, even when he mentions nonchalantly that he's "the only real satanist" in the band.
Zac and the rest of his mates (none of whom appear to have last names) are happy these days -- content, even -- and it isn't just because of all the weed they smoke. Four years ago, the quartet -- widely regarded as the original arbiter of pro-pot "Rocky Mountain Hydro Grind" music -- signed with Relapse Records, one of the country's most reliable sources of underground and extreme metal music. Last August, the band released Lucid Interval, its second album for the label. Sales, so far, have been relatively brisk: The disc outsold 2000's Exploiting Dysfunction by several thousand copies in a matter of months. Reviews from the College Music Journal, which said the band "has a few mind-fucking elements on its side," and Alternative Press, which described the players as "gifted grindcore nutjobs" and "methed-up jazz virtuosos," have been added to a press kit that's already stuffed with stunned accolades from the indie metal press.
Founded by Zac and vocalist Leonard (also known as Lenzig) in 1992, Cephalic Carnage held on to a death metal approach while weathering personnel changes and the waning interest of fans who were moving away from the style.
"When we started, death metal was way in decline, and black metal was selling just a little bit," Zac says. "When Korn came along, whoever was left sold their soul to sound just like them. Everybody sold out. They totally turned it around and turned it into this radio-friendly thing."
By 1996, Zac and Leonard had enlisted guitarist Steve, filling out a lineup that included Jawsh on bass and John on drums. After releasing a debut album, Fortuitous Oddity, on its own in 1997, Cephalic Carnage inked a deal with Italy's Headfucker Records; Conforming to Abnormality followed in 1998. Touring intensified as the outfit sought opportunities beyond the Colorado state line. Appearances at festivals such as the Ohio Deathfest and the Milwaukee Metalfest led to inquiries from Relapse, which signed the band in 1999 and released Exploiting Dysfunction in early 2000.
A glance through the liner notes of the band's follow-up to Exploiting gives some taste of just what kind of world the members of Cephalic Carnage inhabit. Most of the acts in Lucid Interval's "thank you" list sport unwieldy and weird names, such as Anal Blast, Cattle Decapitation, Circle of Dead Children, Corpse Vomit, Insidious Discrepancy, Maggot Twat, Severed Head, and Yeast Feast. A gather-round-for-vespers bunch this ain't. Cephalic has made its home in a loose but mobilized nationwide army of metalheads who gravitate to the genre's furthest possible fringe. The band's fans prefer their metal to be predicated by a few ominous adjectives -- death, black, hate, and speed among them.
Elements of all of those metal subgenres and more show up on Lucid Interval's 14 songs. So do stream-of-consciousness-style lyrics that blurt forth from the fleshy depths of Leonard's well-worn larynx as a series of low-end barks, beastlike intonations, and just plain ol' screams befitting the subject matter -- which ranges from the lechery and disease of medieval Rome to the brain-wasting and corruption of modern America. "Anthro-Emesis" is set inside an ancient vomitorium and coliseum, where "The slaves that clean the theater/Find corpses rotting, fecal decay/Slipping into pools of sperm." Yum!
Harsh, disgusting, vile, and violent as the music may seem, Cephalic's blast beats, rupturing bass lines, and purposely punishing time signatures aren't without their own kind of grace. Angular and mathematical, with a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the usually dominant hold of 4/4 time, the songs contain all the controlled energy of the Oppenheimer era. Yes, the music draws comparisons to death metal and grindcore touchstone artists like Napalm Death and Morbid Angel, but it's also occasionally likened to John Zorn's experimental Naked City project -- which paired him with lead Boredoms screamer Yamatsuke Eye and drummer Joey Baron -- and even John Coltrane's hard-bop years. Lucid Interval does not actually attain anything resembling clarity. But that, according to Zac, is all by design.
"The last album, we had like nine days in the studio to record it," he says. "This time we got to really work on it and do it right. I really think that this album shows who we are. If you don't like it, you just don't like the band. Pouring your heart into a death metal record doesn't sound like something you should do, but that's what we did."
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Cephalic fans are advised to approach the band with some sort of psyche-altering device affixed to their peepers. And should they brave a live show, they'd be wise to be even further prepared with defensive apparatuses.
"There's definitely a theater aspect to what we do onstage," he says. "It's entertainment. We don't want people to be bored and say, 'Well, it's good, but it could have been 50 other bands.' We want to be a three-dimensional band, want to see people trip out on us.
"Some nights, if we're just kind of low on energy and the kids are just not there yet, we'll look at each other and kind of communicate: We're just gonna have to damage 'em."
And damage they sometimes do -- to themselves and the occasional audience member who might make the mistake of standing too close to the stage. Zac mentions offhandedly that Leonard will sometimes accidentally conk someone in the head with his microphone or his own body, and that his wife has come to regard his arrival at home with bloody hands and a sore back as surefire signs of a good show.
And while Zac swears that all of the nearly primordial aggression is authentic, he says it's more a sign of the players' recreational catharsis than some deep-seated dementia.
"I feel like I'm becoming almost a completely reasonable and adjusted adult," says Zac, a new father who, like several of his bandmates, works in the service industry in Denver. "But there is so much frustration involved in even playing this music, because parts of it are so complicated. I feel like, if I didn't have this outlet onstage, I'd just carry that stuff around with me. You don't want to be jumping up and screaming at people and waving things in their faces when you walk down the street."
And why not?
"You can get beat up that way. Forget that -- I'd rather be violent in my music than in my life."