Sweet Revenge

Four years after its last LP, Ringworm returns to hardcore's vanguard.

Ringworm Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Avenue 7 p.m. Monday, November 7, $12.50, 216-241-5555
Ringworm frontman the Human Furnace doubles as the owner of the 252 Tattoo chain. - Sawyerimages
Ringworm frontman the Human Furnace doubles as the owner of the 252 Tattoo chain.
Inside the Human Furnace's house, it's still Halloween; every day is Halloween here. The Ringworm vocalist is in the process of turning his living room into a small-scale movie theater, complete with red velvet walls. Two ivory-colored horned-demon masks stare down from a big-screen television, which is surrounded by violent sci-fi movies. The adjacent room looks like a lobby, lined with framed autographed pictures of movie stars and posters from vintage horror films, gems like The Oblong Box and The Hideous Sun Demon.

"Toys, dude," says the Furnace, born James Bulloch. He sports a six-inch beard that tapers to a point, giving him an impish look that's completed by his tattoos of demons, serpents, and the number 13. "Some people collect cars. I collect toys."

He didn't buy the toys with Ringworm money. Alongside Cleveland's Integrity, Ringworm is one of the bands that helped smelt heavy metal and hardcore into one lethal weapon. But the band is as well known for its long periods of downtime as its albums. In between landmark discs, Bulloch became interested in tattoos and started fixing friends' bad ink. He went pro in 1997, founding 252 Tattoo, the noted local shop that's grown into a three-store chain.

"Hardcore doesn't pay the bills," says Bulloch, feet kicked up on a glass-topped coffee table littered with crumpled Budweiser cans, a bottle of rotgut whiskey, and a ticket stub from a Johnny Cash tribute show. "Maybe today it's a little different. You might tour 250 days a year, but that's how you live. You go home, and you don't have anything -- you probably go back to your parents' house. I'm fortunate that I have something to fall back on. And fortunate that we're relevant 15 years later."

Now 33, Bulloch grew up on a diet of classic rock -- Ringworm has been known to cover Kiss and Joe Walsh. In the '80s, he discovered heavier and darker "gateway music" like King Diamond, which led him to the city's brotherhood of glue-huffing skatepunks. In 1987, he began hanging with Ringworm co-founder Frank "3Gun" Novinec, who was playing guitar in straight-edge band Force of Habit. Bulloch would sit around FOH's rehearsal space and drink beers while the band practiced. When its first singer became more interested in Tecmo Bowl than singing, Bulloch stepped in, replacing FOH's don't-drink/ don't-smoke message with aggressive atheist existentialism. Borrowing a name from a Vincent Price movie, the new lineup became Ringworm.

Broke but ambitious, Ringworm placed an ad in punk magazine Maximumrocknroll, hawking a nonexistent five-song demo. Unsuspecting music fans kept the band flush with beer money for a while. The group eventually recorded its self-titled demo on a boombox in 1990.

Ringworm quickly became the West Side's premier hardcore band and lived up to its promising debut, but not frequently. The group released its first proper album, The Promise, in 1993. Loaded with blast beats and wild solos, the breakneck disc is a chaotic ball of New York-style hardcore, '80s thrash metal, and classic rock that sounds like the Cro-Mags brawling with Slayer. The band's follow-up, Birth Is Pain, arrived eight years later. Combined with the group's dark lyrics and evocative but vague artwork, Ringworm's protracted absences from the scene have culminated in an inadvertent mystique.

"To shorten the story, we were a very lazy band," Bulloch says, smoking a cigarette and scratching his chin as he talks. "A lot of bands tour. And we could have and should have. But how are we going to buy a van? We didn't have money to buy instruments. We were rolling change together to buy beer. Then Frank had the opportunity to join Integrity, a big band that was doing things, so he did that. I work slow."

Four years after Birth Is Pain comes the relentless new Justice Replaced by Revenge, which was worth the wait.

"The new album -- to me, it's one of the best records of 2005," says Jamey Jasta, host of MTV2's Headbanger's Ball and a longtime booster of Cleveland hardcore. "Every riff is memorable. Every lyric is discernible. Everything about it is brutal. It's just an amazing release. It's one of their best records."

Justice wasn't actually four years in the making. Ringworm toured intermittently for two years, and Novinec also hit the road with Terror, a popular, steady-gigging metalcore band. (Keelhaul's Aaron Dallison has taken his place in the touring lineup, which includes Integrity's Steve Rockhorst.) The disc has been complete for a year now. Once it was finished, Ringworm spent some time trying to get out of its contract with Victory Records, the Chicago-based label that helped put hardcore on the commercial map, but more recently has gone on to best-selling success with cuddly emo breakouts and bands that cover Bon Jovi. In the end, Victory assuaged the band's reservations, agreeing to pony up for full-page ads and MTV2 commercials.

"People say that the label has come so far from where it started, but it doesn't bother me," Bulloch says. "They can have bands like Atreyu and Hawthorne Heights. As a businessman, I understand that you do it to make money. They can make a billion dollars -- just spend some of it on us. And they are. There's probably lots of kids out there who would burn their Atreyu CD if they heard something better. And Victory can give us that push."

Justice features intricate artwork by Jake Bannon, lead singer of critically hailed Converge, which is taking Ringworm on tour. To support the disc, the group has lined up dates with other vanguard hardcore groups that grew up listening to it. Bulloch says that Ringworm finally plans to tour steadily. Given the resurgence of both metal and hardcore, he thinks the time is right.

"When you put out a record every four years, you kind of set a tone," he says. "Like, here's what everyone else is doing; here's what we're doing. You need a reminder of what things are supposed to be like. Maybe everybody needs a wake-up call. Maybe we're the band to do it."

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